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"He came to Philadelphia and immediately took out papers to become a naturalized citizen. He planned to stay."
-- Lynn Padgett, Owner of the Christopher Bechtler House
In the summer of 1830, southern miners still had no regional market for gold. Even as Congress rejected another appeal for a southern mint, a German immigrant was making his way toward the North Carolina village of Rutherfordton.
Christopher Bechtler, aged 47, and his sons, Augustus and Charles, along with a nephew, Carl Christ Bechtler, had arrived in New York in October, 1829. They went first to Philadelphia where they opened a jewelry business and Bechtler immediately applied for citizenship. While in Philadelphia, the nephew changed his name from Carl Christ to Christopher. In later years, the two Christopher Bechtlers identified themselves as “Sr.” and “Jr.” Within months of their arrival, Christopher Bechtler, Sr., and his sons and nephew, had relocated to the village of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, where he opened a jewelry and clock-making business in July, 1830.
Soon after opening the jewelry business, Bechtler began to buy land in the gold-mining region of Rutherford County. Deed books from the 1830s show that Bechtler purchased several thousand acres of land over the next few years, always along a stream or river where gold was most likely to be found. Bechtler was evidently seriously infected with gold fever. As late as 1837, a visitor to his farm observed that Bechtler held “mystical” notions about gold and “great enthusiasm” for gold mining.
Although his 1830 business announcement described him as an experienced jeweler, Bechtler also had a previous interest in gold mining and had patented a gold-washing device in the Duchy of Baden as early as 1818.
Only a year after arriving in Rutherford County, Bechtler seems to have been mining for gold on a scale that called for the use of a stamp mill, more often used in vein mining of rock than in placer mining.
Also in 1831, Bechtler announced that he would process raw gold into coins and ingots. In 1832, he announced that a $1 gold coin would also be available. It was not until 1849, 17 years later, that the U.S. Mint began to issue $1 gold coins.
Using equipment that they made themselves, including a roller, screw press and dies, the Bechtlers struck both $2.50 and $5 coins. Their coin designs were simple, having only the Bechtler name, the value, purity, and location.
Because their coins were not copies of coins produced by the U.S. Mint, Bechtler’s coins were not considered counterfeit. The U.S. Mint repeatedly tested Bechtler coins; finding in each case that they contained the amount of gold claimed and were, therefore, of equal (and sometimes superior) value to U.S. coins of the same denominations. As Bechtler coins made their way into the market they became so popular that in many cases they were preferred over U.S. coins. For some years they were more abundant in the south than U.S. coins.
The only first-hand description of the Bechtlers comes from the journal of George W. Featherstonhaugh. He describes in some detail the Bechtlers’ mining and gun-making enterprises and the transactions between Bechtler and the customers who brought gold to him for assaying and coining. Featherstonhaugh had doubts that the mining he saw at Bechtler’s farm was likely to be productive, but he was most impressed by Bechtler’s ingenuity and honesty.
Featherstonhaugh described the Bechtler house on the farm as a “cottage,” but gives us no other information. Archaeological explorations at the site have found only a few foundation stones, but nothing to tell more about the structures. The shop was described by another observer as having a double floor so that any gold dust falling through the cracks could be retrieved.
In little more than a decade, the Bechtlers recorded the minting of $2,241,840 in gold coins, and fluxed an additional $1,384,000. in raw gold. In their most active period, from August 1836 to May 1838, the Bechtlers minted approximately $770,239.50 in gold coins.
That sum was astronomical for the period. By contrast, North Carolina’s recorded revenue for 1835 was a mere $71,740. As might be expected, the Bechtler Mint’s impact on the region’s economy was remarkable.
In addition to being mint masters, the Bechtlers were experienced jewelers. As a young man, Bechtler had attended a technical institute in Pforzheim to learn jewelry and clock making. In his marriage records in the church register, he is described as associate in a jewelry manufacturing factory.
Advertisements printed in Rutherfordton’s newspaper in the early 1830s record Christopher Bechtler’s work as a watch and clock maker and a jeweler.
Jewelry and other personal adornments created by the Bechtlers included collar buttons, cufflinks, watch chains, earrings, lapel pins, necklaces and rings. Oral tradition states that the family also crafted other decorative arts and personal items including candlesticks and hand mirrors.
The Bechtlers were also known throughout North Carolina and neighboring states for manufacturing rifles and pistols. The family manufactured guns prior to coming to America and continued that trade for many years after taking up residence in North Carolina.
The quality and reliability of the Bechtlers’ guns so impressed the visiting geologist Featherstonhaugh that he purchased a rifle from the family and asked Bechtler to inlay his name with native gold. Featherstonhaugh wrote that as gunsmiths, Bechtler and his sons are “preeminent in their ingenuity: they had invented various ingenious modes of firing rifles eight times in a minute. One with a chain for sixty caps, revolving by a catch of the trigger, and was exceedingly curious. Young Bechtler fired it off several times at a target placed at a distance of one hundred and sixty-five yards, and with great success.”
In 1837, the Bechtlers took on the training of a 14-year-old apprentice to learn “the art of a gun smith,” possibly in expectation that the opening of the federal Mint in Charlotte would lead to a decline in the coining business and a renewed concentration on their gun-making business.
Each of the Bechtler coins was produced using a hand-operated coin press and dies that had been made by the Bechtlers.
After separating the raw gold from the rock or gravel, it was smelted and poured into a mold. Some gold remained in the form of ingots, but much more was further processed into coins.
The Bechtlers began their mint in 1831 by producing $5 and $2.50 coins. In 1832, perceiving a need for a smaller denomination, the family began issuing a $1 gold coin that is recognized as the first gold dollar coined in the United States. It would be another 17 years before the U.S. Mint issued $1 gold coins.
Although the Bechtlers minted only three denominations of coins, they issued a wide variety of weights and sizes. Historians Rodney Barfield and Keith Strawn identified a total of 31 different types of coins (The Bechtlers and Their Coinage: North Carolina Mint Masters of Pioneer Gold. North Carolina Museum of History,1980).
The Bechtler coin designs were simple, having no eagles or other decorative elements. The dollar value and the Bechtler name were stamped in raised letters. On at least one of the early series, Christopher Bechtler added “assayer” to his name. Some coins are stamped with the location name “Rutherford County,” “Rutherford,” or even “Rutherf.” Most say “North Carolina” or “North Carolina Gold.” The actual size is quite small. Most of these coins are just over one-half inch in diameter.
Creating a mirror image of the letter “N” is tricky. At least one coin was stamped with a backward N.
The production of coins is known to have taken place at two locations in Rutherford County, including a site two and a half miles north of Rutherfordton and also at the family’s home at the corner of North Washington Street and Sixth Street in town.