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Sacagawea Dollars (2000-Date)

The 21st Century is an exciting time for collectors of United States coins. In addition to the ten year long program of Statehood quarters that is scheduled to run through 2008, collectors can assemble a set of the new gold-colored Sacagawea dollar from its inception in 2000.

This new dollar coin is the product of years of research and planning, and it was conceived amid great expectations for its widespread use. Though it appears that the coin will not realize its potential until the paper dollar is removed from circulation, the Sacagawea dollar is still too new to write it off just yet.

It was known for some years that there were significant savings to be had by replacing the one dollar note with a coin. Though the paper dollar costs less to produce per unit, its useful lifespan is estimated to be just eighteen months. When compared to the 25-30 years that a coin may be expected to circulate, the coin is ultimately more cost effective.

This was the conclusion reached in a research report commissioned by Congress in 1976 that analyzed the nation’s current coinage situation and projected its future needs. This report by the Research Triangle Institute specifically recommended the replacement of the paper dollar with a dollar coin. This plan was adopted in part when the Susan B. Anthony dollar was authorized in 1978 to replace the large and seldom seen Eisenhower dollar. Debuting the following year, the Anthony dollar succumbed to both its unfortunate similarity in size and color to the quarter dollar and to the failure of Congress to terminate production of Federal Reserve Notes valued at one dollar. Given a choice of tenders, the public chose the more familiar paper dollar in nearly every instance. Attempts by the federal government to force circulation of the Anthony dollar were met with resistance and resentment. After just three years of production, the minting of Anthony dollars ceased. The vast majority of these pieces remained idle within vaults for many years, despite isolated instances of regular usage by transit agencies and the postal service.

When enough years had passed for Congress to overcome its embarrassment over the Anthony dollar, the idea of a dollar coin was raised once again. This time, however, the primary weakness of the previous issue, namely its resemblance to the quarter, was addressed from the outset. Authorized by Public Law 105-124, the “United States Dollar Coin Act of 1997,” the new coin was specifically required to have "tactile and visual features . . . that make the coin discernible, and distinctive so as not to be confused with the quarter . . .” Congress and the U. S. Mint were determined not to make the same mistake with this new coin that had sunk the Anthony dollar.

In the meantime, a design had been selected for the new dollar coin. It was to depict on its obverse a portrait of Sacagawea (pronounced Sa-CAG-a-wea), the young Shoshone woman who acted as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-06. As seen on the coin, she is looking back over her shoulder at the viewer. Also portrayed is the infant Jean Baptiste, her son by French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau.

Little is known of the person who forms the subject of this coin, and no portrait of her from life is to be found. Thus, a living model from the same tribe was recruited to provide a human form for this historic figure. Her name is Randy’L Teton, and her features, though slightly modified, are still recognizable on the coin as issued.

The Sacagawea dollar was designed on its obverse by New Mexico sculptor Glenna Goodacre, whose initials GG appear within Sacagawea’s shawl. The reverse of the new dollar depicts a handsome American eagle soaring amidst seventeen stars representing the number of states at the time of the Lewis and Clark exploration. It is the work of U. S. Mint Sculptor/Engraver Thomas D. Rogers, Sr., and his initials TDR appear to the right of the eagle’s tail.

Both the Philadelphia and Denver mints are striking the Sacagawea dollar for general circulation, while proofs of this coin are made at the San Francisco Mint. Though the U. S. Mint had not intended to issue the circulating coins until March of 2000, the great interest shown in them prompted an innovative distribution program that was launched in mid-January. The initial delivery of Sacagawea dollars was made to the nationwide chain of Wal-Mart stores, the retailer agreeing to furnish the coins to anyone seeking them, as well as issuing them in change for purchases. A more general distribution was made shortly thereafter through the conventional channels of the federal reserve banks.

Despite a televised advertising campaign to familiarize Americans with the new coin, the public has given it mixed reviews. When new, the Sacagawea dollar is quite attractive, and the Mint’s usage of the term “golden dollar” to describe this coin has led many to believe that it actually contains gold! In reality, it is comprised of two outside layers of manganese brass bonded to a core of pure copper, and this alloy quickly terms to a dark mustard color after just short circulation.

This fact is scarcely known to anyone other than coin collectors, since the coins are simply not visible in everyday circulation. Though dispensed by postal vending machines and useable for a variety of automated services, the Sacagawea dollar is simply not seen in ordinary circulation. The only remedy to this situation appears to be withdrawal of the one dollar note, but Congress is reluctant to mandate what would surely be an unpopular action, at least in the short term.

A beautiful coin when compared to other contemporary American issues, the Sacagawea dollar has an unusually broad border that gives it a certain medallic quality. Popular with collectors from the outset, it has already provided the hobby with one of its most spectacular error coins—the infamous muled dollars having the obverse of a Washington quarter instead of the Sacagawea portrait. Several of these rare and quite valuable pieces surfaced just months after the coin entered circulation, and it’s not known whether any more will yet come to light.

Since 2009 the Sacagawea dollar has been coined with a different reverse each year honoring various Native Americans. It's unlikely that anyone outside of the numismatic community will be aware of these changes, but it will give collectors something additional to purchase from the U. S. Mint. Since 2002, the Mint has coined only enough Sacagawea dollars to furnish the demand from coin collectors. A provision of this latest legislation, however, mandates that at least 20% of the dollar coins produced annually be in the form of Sacagawea dollars. Given the large mintages of Presidential dollars during the first years of that program, this could amount to a very substantial number of further unneeded coins. It may turn out, however, that mintages of the Presidential dollars decline to levels sufficient solely to supply collectors, as this series is not circulating any better than previous dollar coins.

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