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First New Orleans dime: 1838-O an obtainable piece of history
By R.W. Julian
August 10, 2017

In the early days of the United States there was only one mint, at Philadelphia. The discovery of gold in the South, especially in North Carolina and Georgia, brought about demands for additional mints.

In March 1835 Congress decreed three new mints, at Dahlonega, Ga; Charlotte, N.C.; and New Orleans. In terms of actual need only the New Orleans Mint was of real use to the economy but politics decreed otherwise, creating the little-used mints at Dahlonega and Charlotte.

Much of the pressure for the new mints came from President Andrew Jackson, who believed that additional coinage in the far reaches of the Republic would aid business and the public at large. In particular the president was interested in banning the use of any paper money denomination under $20. He realized, however, that notes of $20 and above were necessary for commercial affairs.

Construction work began on the New Orleans Mint in 1835, using land donated by the city. From 1835 to 1837 Mint Director Robert M. Patterson oversaw the monumental task of organizing the three branches, choosing officers, and providing the proper buildings and machinery. In some cases he was able to choose men of high integrity and ability, but for others political reality interfered and those with lesser ability were chosen.

By late in 1837 all the officers had arrived at New Orleans and specialized training of workmen began. As early as February 1838 coiner Rufus Tyler and melter and refiner James Maxwell had serious problems with some of the workmen and had to fire several of them. With the incompetent political appointees (Superintendent David Bradford and Treasurer Edmund Forstall) temporarily backing them, Tyler and Maxwell were able to restore discipline and prepare for regular coinage. The first deposit of silver was made in early March 1838 and only the dies were now needed to begin coinage.

The first dies sent by Patterson were two pairs of dime dies shipped on April 9. Although dated 1838, they were, oddly enough, from the type issued at Philadelphia in 1837, without the stars on the obverse. Since the parent mint had been issuing the new type, with stars, for some months, it was very strange for the old design to be sent; perhaps Patterson did this because some of the old 1837 dies were yet on hand and it was easier to fob them off on New Orleans than to prepare new ones of the current design.

Coiner Rufus Tyler was merely awaiting the dies to begin coinage and on May 8, 1839, a special ceremony was held at the mint to celebrate the first coinage, with local dignitaries invited to share in the occasion. The festivities were marred, however, by an accident to the press after only 30 dimes had been struck. It was an unpleasant omen.

These first 30 coins were distributed to local dignitaries although some of the pieces went into a cornerstone of a building then being erected in New Orleans.

The press proved more difficult than anticipated to repair and it was not until two weeks later (May 22) that dime coinage resumed. For a time all went smoothly. By the end of May nearly 20,000 dimes had been coined. There was then another serious interruption but on July 27 the coiner was able to deliver 367,434 dimes, a reasonable amount considering the difficulties that had been overcome. This coinage had barely been delivered when the entire mint was forced to shut down for the annual yellow fever epidemic.

This July 27 delivery included the 30 dimes struck in May. It was often the practice at United States mints to pay out coins before they were officially delivered and this was the case here as well.

The mint was closed from August through October when most officers and some workmen fled the region. Several were from the North and it was considered highly dangerous for them to stay in the port city while the yellow fever epidemic raged. Both Tyler and Maxwell went to Philadelphia during the shutdown, almost certainly making very negative reports to Patterson about the political appointees with whom they were forced to work.

Coinage did not resume immediately upon reopening in early November, but on Dec. 29 a token coinage of 35,000 dimes was delivered. The dies for 1839 had not yet arrived, but this did not deter the coiner, who proceeded to strike a further 3,600 dimes dated 1838 on Jan. 7; in all, the number of dimes dated 1838 had now reached 406,034. While the last of the 1838 dimes were being struck, the coiner was busy with half dimes, delivering 70,000 on Jan. 16, all dated 1838. Thus, all of the New Orleans half dimes of 1838 were actually struck in January 1839.

The January 1839 coinage of dimes was the last for the 1838 date. Dime coinage resumed in February but with dies of 1839. The year 1838 had been a trying one for officers and workmen alike at New Orleans but modern collectors can obtain one of the 1838-O dimes for a reasonable sum if they do not demand high-grade pieces. The latter are relatively rare and expensive for the 1838-O dime.

Those owning one of these interesting dimes can well say that they have a piece of history in their hands.

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