How Silver Dollars Won Over the West

There was a time in the Western U.S. when silver dollars were everywhere. And it still seems like anyone with a modest coin collection has a couple of Morgan silver dollars. But why are silver dollars so abundant? It comes down to the perfect combination of fear, skullduggery and mountains of silver.

In 1859, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley struck gold outside Carson City, Nevada, in Six Mile Canyon. Despite the fact that Henry Comstock did not actually own the land where the miners found the gold — he just happened to be riding through a few hours after the discovery—Comstock asserted he did. He offered to take the men on as partners and was able to successfully stake a claim. And so began the mining of the Comstock Lode, the largest silver discovery in U.S. history.

J.F. Stone, a successful entrepreneur from the California Gold Rush, discovered that the land was saturated with even more silver than gold. He sent soil samples to be tested in California, and found that each ton of soil contained nearly $5,000 of silver. Over the 20 years that the mine operated, it produced an amazing $300,000,000 worth of silver. According to the Consumer Price Index, that would be well over $5,000,000,000 today.

With such an enormous amount of silver and gold nearby, the Carson City Mint was created to transform the raw metal into bullion. From the mint’s first issues in 1870 to its last in 1893, the Carson City facility issued 50 sets of silver coins. Cowboys nicknamed these notoriously tough coins “cartwheels” due to their considerable size and weight. These silver dollars were being produced at a time when coins were losing favor on the East Coast with the popularity of paper money. But folks out West did not trust paper money, preferring cold, hard cash. Or more precisely they feared that at some date in the future the federal government might not back the new paper currency and folks would be caught holding worthless paper. That fear is one of the reasons why so many silver dollars are still found out West.

To meet demand, both the San Francisco and Denver mints also produced silver dollars using silver from the Comstock Lode. Between the three mints, a massive number of silver dollars flooded the West. It’s another reason why so many of them can still be found here.

If you like this article, then you might enjoy other articles in our archives, such as “Oregon Gold Country.”

Liberty Coin & Currency specializes in rare coins and currency. We are a family-owned business located in Portland and Vancouver. We are also gold, silver, diamond, currency and jewelry buyers. Visit us first for a free evaluation.
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