The Oregon rush to California for gold resulted in bringing back within a year unimaginable wealth. From poverty the Oregonians had leaped to great riches at a single bound. The miners not only returned loaded down with gold dust, but the few people that had remained in Oregon had got rich shipping down to the mines their flour, beans, bacon and lumber. From a legal tender currency of beaver skins and bacon sides, Oregonians were struggling with a currency of gold dust. An ounce of gold dust was pratically worth $16, but the Oregon merchants would not take it for goods, for more than $11, while the Hudson Bay Company, having some coined money, was buying up gold dust at $10 an ounce, and shipping it to the mint in London. This condition of affairs caused the circulation of a petition to the Oregon Provisional Government, setting forth that in consequence of the neglect of the United States government, the people must combine against the greed of the merchants; and the provisional government must at once set up an Oregon mint to coin the gold dust into legal tender money. It was represented as a basis of action that there was then in February, 1849, $2,000,000 worth of gold dust ready to be coined. That was about six times as much money per capita of the population as there is now, or ever has been since 1852. And prices of everything went up accordingly. Beef was ten to twelve cents a pound on the block; pork sixteen to twenty cents; butter sixty-two cents to seventy-five cents - nearly double what it is today; flour was $14 per barrel; potatoes $2.50 a bushel, and apples $10 a bushel.|
The petition for the mint was favorably considered by the provisional legislature, and a bill was passed to authorize it and to coin money. Two members of the legislature - Medorum Crawford and W.J. Martin voted against the measure on the grounds that it was inexpedient and a violation of the constitution of the United States. The acts provided for an assayer, melter and coiner, and an alloy was forbidden in the money. Two pieces only were to be coined - one to weigh five pennyweights, and one ten pennyweights, and both to be pure gold. The coins were to be stamped on one side with the Roman figure V for the smaller coin, and the other with the figure ten on one side. And on the reverse sides the words "Oregon territory" with the date of the year around the face, with the arms of Oregon in the center. The officers of this mint were James Taylor, director, Truman P. Powers, treasurer, W.H. Willson, melter and coiner and George L. Curry, assayer. The mint succeeded in coining $50,000 of these coins before Governor Joseph Lane reached Oregon and closed it up. Nobody was ever prosecuted for issuing this money, although it was a clear violation of the constitution and laws of the United States.
But Governor Lane did not stop the coining of gold dust. Although the territorial mint was closed up, the need of currency of certain value still remained. And to supply that, a partnership was formed, called the "Oregon Exchange Company," which at once proceeded to coin gold on its own responsibility. The members of that company were: W.K. Kilborne, Theophilus Magruder, James Taylor, George Abernethy, W.H. Willson, W.H. Rector, J.G. Campbell, and Noyes Smith. Rector made the stamps and dies. The engraving was done by Campbell. Rector acted as coiner, and no assaying was done. This company coined $55,000 worth of gold into two pieces to circulate as tokens of five and ten dollars, respectively. This coinage raised the price of gold dust from twelve to eighteen dollars an ounce, and saved a vast amount of money to the honest miners. Engravings of the "beaver money", as this last coinage was called, are shown on another page.
The general effect of the wealth of gold brought back from California was beneficial to Oregon; yet in all too many instances it proved the ruin of many men whose sudden rise to riches induced habits of profligacy and dissipation from which they never recovered. Many men brought back as much as thirty or forty thousand dollars washed out of the California streams within a year or two; and then threw it away on idle dissipation, and had to start in again at the bottom of the ladder encumbered with bad habits and remorseful regrets.
The discovery of gold in California powerfully influenced the future of Oregon. Down to that time Oregon was in the lead of all settlement, discovery, trade, commerce and population on the Pacific coast. All the people of all the Eastern States who knew anything of, or cared anything for the Pacific Coast, thought only of Oregon. Lewis and Clark's wonderful Expedition across the Continent, Astor's settlement at Astoria, the wonderful emigration of the Pioneers across two thousand miles of mountains and deserts, the unique founding of an American State in the Oregon wilderness, with its laws, armies, courts, constitution and twenty thousand people, the mighty Columbia river draining half a continent, the vast forests, rich soil, mild climate and heroic Missionaires, all separately and combined, united in giving Oregon such a standing and prestige with Eastern people and the world as to have made this the leading American State of the Union west of the Mississippi river. But the discovery of gold by Marshall flew upon the wings of the wind - north, south, east and west - and in six months the fame of California had completely eclipsed pioneer Oregon, and become the Mecca of the soldiers of fortune from the whole civilized world.
If discovery of gold had not turned the tide of population to California, the Columbia river valley, with Oregon as the controlling factor, would have been developed by agriculture, fisheries, lumbering, ship building and city making as the first unit of State building and Commerce on the Pacific Coast. The riches of the gold mines in both California and Oregon, are but trifles now in comparison with the wealth of Oregon annually taken from the soil in wheat, wool, beef and fruit, or from the forests in lumber or from the rivers in fish, and commerce. But the gold put California in the lead, and her people were wise in time to develop wealth from the soil as well as from the mines.