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United States Fractional & Pioneer Gold Coins

Fractional gold coins were privately-issued coins created to fuel the pioneer Old West, which suffered from a lack of sufficient coinage until the San Francisco Mint opened in 1854. Collectors break these coins down into three periods of issue: period one was from 1852 to 1856, period two includes coins from 1859 to 1882, and period three was from 1883 until sometime in the early 1900s. Period three coins are difficult to accurately date because these coins were backdated by their creators to avoid attention.

Period one fractional coins are typically the most sought after by collectors, as they exist at an interesting crossroads in history. Commerce in the Old West economy was crippled, as the only functional national mints were back east and shipments of coins were often targeted by bandits or other hazards. The only assistance that the government could really offer was to allow the federal assay office in San Francisco to create some coins, but this office never produced anything smaller than a $10 eagle. This did nothing to ease the demand for dollars, half dollars, and quarter dollars.

As a result, jewelers in San Francisco eventually began striking small gold coins in fractional values with designs based off of the official coins of the time. These pioneer gold coins were all made with California's high silver content gold, which lends a unique, bright luster to the coins. While there is little physical documentation confirming the circulation of these coins in the Old West, many of the coins, especially the period one issues, display significant wear.

Quick Facts

  • Period one coins tend to be fairly close approximations of national currency, but period two issues are significantly less clandestine. Many period twos feature highly deviant designs and less than the stated face value of gold present in the coin
  • Many period two and period three coins were created with the specific intention of being used as jewelry, which was a popular fashion statement in the 1860s and 1870s
  • An 1854 period one quarter dollar sold for $48,300 at an auction in 2003. The coin features a design known among collectors as a defiant eagle due to the screaming eagle featured on the obverse

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