Rare minted-in-Oregon 'beaver coin' sells for $125,000

Rare minted-in-Oregon 'beaver coin' sells for $125,000
- LA GRANDE, Ore. - A rare $5 Oregon gold coin minted in 1849 has fetched $125,000 from a collector who now has a link to a time when people in the Oregon Territory began to end a life of bartering with gold dust, beaver pelts, wheat, salmon and horses.

The gold coin dates back a decade before Oregon became a state, to a time when it could have passed through the hands of mountain man Joe Meek, who later became the Oregon Territory's first U.S. marshal. Or Dr. John D. McLoughlin, head of the powerful Hudson's Bay Co. and Oregon's most prominent figure for decades.

Or maybe it once belonged to flamboyant, big-spending horse thief and gunfighter Hank Vaughan, who raised wheat near Pendleton.

"If this coin could talk, what would it say?" said Rick Gately, a rare-coin dealer in La Grande who made the sale this month between the coin's owner in Rogue River and a buyer from La Grande.

The new owner has asked to remain anonymous, fearing someone might try to steal his extensive coin collection.

Weighing a quarter of an ounce, the coin was authenticated by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. of America in Sarasota, Fla., a top coin-grading service that compares a coin's current condition to when it was minted, Gately said.

At the time the coin was minted, the Oregon Territory's merchants, hunters, trappers, sailors and Indian tribes numbered about 13,000 and needed a better medium of exchange than barter, said Donald H. Kagin of Tiburon, Calif., author of "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States."

So in February 1849, the territorial legislature ordered the creation of a mint.

But the plan quickly went awry. Gen. Joseph Lane, the new territorial governor appointed by President Polk, arrived in Oregon City less than a month later and immediately halted the preparations.

Only the federal government was empowered to mint coins, the general said.

But Kagin said the declaration did not stop eight "men of affairs" from immediately forming the "Oregon Exchange Company" and building their own private, illegal mint in Oregon City, fashioning their equipment from wagon wheels and scrap metal.

They began stamping out $5 Oregon Beaver coins, 6,000 in all, using yellow metal from the California gold fields.

The $5 gold pieces were engraved on one side with a picture of a beaver and a single initial of each of the men who started the mint. On the opposite side were the words, "Oregon Exchange Company" and "Native Gold."

The dies had two glaring errors. Instead of "O.T." for Oregon Territory, the coins had the letters "T.O." for Territory of Oregon." And a letter signifying one of the men, John Gill Campbell, was presented as a "G" instead of a "C."

Later, the Oregon Exchange Company minted a run of fewer than 3,000 $10 gold pieces, Kagin said. He estimates only about 30 to 50 of the $5 coins still exist, and the $10 coins are rarer still. In their day, the coins quickly became known as "Beaver money." At the time, $3 would buy a Navy Colt revolver and $20 would get a frontiersman a prime piece of property or a suit of clothes, boots, sidearm and a horse, Gately said.

Most of the coins, though, ended up in the pockets of the well-to-do. Gately noted that 1870s cowboys earned only about $1 a day.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)