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Some Oregonians tried buying Central American money for use in trade. The problem with that was, those countries were already famous for debasing their coinage. A Mexican coin nominally worth half a dollar’s worth of pesos might only contain ten or twenty cents’ worth of silver. This didn’t seem like much of an improvement on the Abernethy Rocks system.
With that in mind, a group of Portland and Oregon City business leaders, including Abernethy himself, started minting their own coins.
They formed a private company, bought up gold dust, melted it down, and minted it into $5 and $10 gold pieces using strikers made from old wagon tires.
These coins had all the business leaders’ initials stamped into them in a giant, cryptic row across the top of the “heads” side (the side with a picture of a beaver on it), to function as a sort of personal certification. They made the decision to make the coins out of pure gold, unalloyed, even though that meant they would be super soft and would wear poorly. That was because everyone knew that Oregon was on the verge of being accepted into the United States as a territory, and after that happened the “beaver money” would no longer be legal tender. It would be a lot easier for holders of the coins to sell them as raw gold and get all their money back if they were pure.
The beaver money worked like magic. Within a month or two, some $58,500 worth of them had been struck and sold, and business got a lot easier to do.
Cutting gold dust with sand got a lot less viable as a money-saving option for crooks, too, because now instead of just having to fool the guy at the corner market, they were having to bring their gold dust in to a professional assayer to exchange it for beaver coins. So the gold-dust con died instantly, and the market prices for gold dust shot back up from $11 to $16 an ounce.
Then, about a month later, the Oregon Territory was officially added to the United States, and the beaver money mint became unconstitutional. It was shut down forthwith, and soon afterward a shipment of real U.S. currency arrived from back east.
Today, beaver money is super rare. Because it was made with pure gold rather than the 10% alloy metals that government mints added to their coinage for durability, they were worth more than their face value; so most people who ended up holding them either melted them down, or sold them on the gold markets.
FOR MOST OREGONIANS, the years following the gold strike were lucrative ones. Most of them got back to work growing food to sell at inflated prices to miners; some still had claims in California that they were traveling regularly to work.
But one thing would never be the same: Gold and gold mining were now an intrinsic part of Oregon culture. And it remains that way even to this day.
And something else changed, too: In 1848, there were fewer than 1,000 non-Native American residents in all of California, and Portland was the biggest city on the West Coast. By the following year, that had changed, and the new population leader was San Francisco. Oregon would never again have a bigger population than its sunnier southerly neighbor.