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Gold Dollars (1849-1889)




Type 1 (1849-1854)


The smallest coin in U.S. history owes its existence to two of the biggest gold rushes. That coin is the gold dollar, a mere pipsqueak physically, but a giant in terms of history, rarity and value.

The groundwork was laid for this fascinating coin in the Carolinas and Georgia, where the nation’s first big gold rush took place in the early 1800s. That rush had a major impact on United States coinage, leading to the establishment of two branch mints in the region—in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in Dahlonega, Georgia—and a sharp boost in the number of gold coins being made by the federal government.

The first gold dollars made in the United States were privately minted issues produced about 1830 by a German immigrant named Alt Christoph Bechtler who operated a jewelry shop in Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Finding that gold dust and nuggets were the primary medium of exchange in the area, Bechtler ran a series of ads in the North Carolina Spectator and Western Advertiser offering to refine raw gold into coins for a nominal fee.

By 1840, Bechtler and his family had turned out more than $2.2 million worth of gold coins, of which about half were gold dollars. This was perfectly legal under the existing federal statutes—but, even so, Uncle Sam began to watch the Bechtlers closely. The success of their venture led to calls for government-issue gold dollar coins. In 1836, Congress even authorized such coins, but Mint Director Robert M. Patterson opposed the idea vehemently and limited his compliance to striking a handful of patterns.

The gold dollar didn’t take its place in the U.S. coinage lineup until 1849, and yet another gold rush—this one in California—provided the spark. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 energized Congress to expand existing uses of the metal in U.S. coinage and find some new ones.

Mint Director Patterson was still on the scene and still opposed such coinage, but this time his resistance was swept aside. On March 3, 1849, Congress passed legislation authorizing not only gold dollars but also double eagles—$20 gold pieces. Thus did the nation’s smallest and largest regular-issue gold coins emerge from Washing-ton’s womb as fraternal twins.

The job of designing both new coins fell to James Barton Longacre, the U.S. Mint’s chief engraver. For both, he came up with a similar obverse design: a left-facing portrait of Miss Liberty with a coronet, or small crown, in her hair. On the dollar, she is encircled by 13 stars, symbolic of the 13 original colonies. The dollar’s reverse is necessarily simple because of the coin’s small size: It bears the denomination 1 DOLLAR and the date within a simple wreath, which is encircled by the inscription, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

This design would remain in use until 1854 before giving way to an “Indian Head” portrait and other modifications. The Indian head, in turn, would be enlarged two years later. Thus, there are three distinct types of gold dollars, with the “Liberty Head” version of 1849-54 being known as “Type 1.” Within the Type 1 coinage, there are also two important varieties in the gold dollars of 1849: Some have an “open” wreath with ample space between the top of the wreath and the number “1,” while others have a “closed” wreath nearly touching the number.

During their six years of production, Type 1 gold dollars were struck at five different mints—Philadelphia (no mint mark), Charlotte (C), Dahlonega (D), New Orleans (O) and San Francisco (S)—but only the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints issued them every year. San Francisco made them only in 1854, while Charlotte and New Orleans made them every year except 1854. The mintmark can be found below the wreath.

Mintages for the most part were relatively high at Philadelphia and New Orleans but much smaller at the other three mints. In 1850 and again in 1852, the Charlotte and Dahlonega branches made fewer than 10,000 gold dollars apiece. The lowest mintage of all took place at Dahlonega in 1854, when a mere 2,935 examples were produced. Other major rarities include the 1853-D (with a mintage of 6,583) and the 1851-D (mintage 9,882).

Type 1 gold dollars are scarce but available in grades up through Mint State-64, but they’re scarce in MS-65 and very rare above that level. The highest relief points on the Type 1 gold dollar are the hair near the coronet and the tips of the leaves on the wreath. These are where traces of wear first appear and thus are major keys in determining grade. Although collected by date and mintmark in circulated grades, the rarity of high grade pieces generally limits collectors to just one example for their type sets.

Proofs were not struck officially, but the late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic researcher and scholar, reported that at least seven proofs were made in 1849 of the type with open wreath and no letter L on the bust. He also knew of at least three proofs of the closed wreath type dated 1849. Proofs are also rumored for 1850 and 1851, and at least one is known for 1854.

Throughout U.S. history, people have grumbled that silver dollars were too large and heavy to carry around. Gold dollars posed a dramatically different problem: at less than three-quarters the size of today’s dime, they were so small they could easily be mislaid. Make no mistake, though: These tiny coins had tremendous purchasing power—equivalent to a full day’s wages or more for many Americans in the mid-1800s. They also enjoy enormous respect from collectors today, for while they may be diminutive in size, their rarity and value can be huge.

Type 2 (1854-1856)


In the first ten years after the California Gold rush began, some $600 million in gold was discovered in California as its population exploded from a minuscule 25,000 to more than half a million. The great rush wrought an overnight transformation in the future Golden State. Indeed, it was responsible for making California the nation’s 31st state: The flood of Forty-Niners that descended on the region in 1849 opened the door to statehood the very next year. While much of America teetered on the brink of civil war, Californians were preoccupied with finding their personal fortune and staking a permanent claim to it.

The gold rush changed the face of United States coinage, as well. The massive amounts of gold emerging from California prompted Congress to authorize three new denominations—a gold dollar, a three-dollar gold piece and a double eagle, or twenty-dollar gold piece—between 1849 and 1854. In large part, these were intended to help convert the mountain of metal into a form more usable by the public. Double eagles, of course, accounted for the bulk of the coins made. Between 1850 and 1854, over eight million were struck.

The gold dollar and double eagle—the smallest and largest regular-issue gold coins in U.S. history—both had their genesis in the coinage act of March 3, 1849. And both were designed by James Barton Longacre, the U.S. Mint’s chief sculptor-engraver from 1844 to 1869. Objections arose almost at once to the dollar’s tiny size: at 13 millimeters in diameter, it was more than one-fourth smaller than today’s Roosevelt dime, and critics complained that this made it easy to lose. Mint officials took these protests seriously, and over the next few years, test strikes were made of a number of possible substitutes that were larger in diameter but compensated for this with center holes.

The process took a different turn in 1853, when James Ross Snowden became the new director of the Mint. Snowden agreed that the gold dollar should be larger, but instead of using a hole to keep the weight the same, he advocated making the coin somewhat thinner. He assigned Chief Engraver Longacre to make this modification and, at the same time, to come up with a new design.

Initially, the gold dollar had a head of Liberty much like the one on the double eagle. By 1854, however, when Snowden ordered the changes, Longacre had a new model available: He had just designed the three-dollar gold piece, and he patterned the new gold dollar after that.

Its obverse features a left-facing portrait of a female figure wearing a fancy headdress. The female figure is frequently described as being an “Indian princess,” and the coin is commonly known as the “Indian Head” type. Longacre’s reverse design shows the date and denomination within a wreath of corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco.

Renowned numismatic scholar Walter Breen argued persuasively that the head Longacre used wasn’t that of an Indian at all, but rather a copy of Venus Accroupie, or “Crouching Venus,” a Roman marble figure then on display in a Philadelphia museum. Longacre had used this same head on the gold dollar and twenty of 1849; he would use it again on the Indian Head cent and the three-cent nickel, each time with a different headdress.

Being 15% larger in diameter, this Type 2 gold dollar was easier to keep track of—and less likely to get lost—than its predecessor had been. Unfortunately, however, it had a major shortcoming of its own: Longacre had made the relief on the obverse too high, and the overwhelming majority of the coins were less than fully struck as a result. Very few examples exhibit sharp details in the hair, the word DOLLAR and the date—and even the designer’s initial L, located on the truncation of the bust, is often barely visible. Branch-mint issues are particularly weak.

Because of the striking difficulties, Longacre had to go back to the drawing board yet again, and the Type 2 dollar lasted only until 1856 before giving way to a Type 3. During its brief existence, barely 1.6 million Type 2 examples were produced, with the Philadelphia issues of 1854 and 1855 accounting for the vast majority. The three southern branch mints all made the coin in 1855, but outputs were extremely small at Dahlonega (D mintmark) and Charlotte (C), where mintages totaled just 1,811 and 9,803, respectively. New Orleans (O) minted 55,000 that year. The new branch in San Francisco (S) was the only mint to make this type in 1856. As on the other gold dollars, the mintmark appears below the wreath.

Philadelphia struck five proofs in 1854 and less than fifteen in 1855. The proofs appear very infrequently, usually only when major collections are sold. An 1854 was in the 1979 Garrett sale, and 1855s were in the 1978 Bareford and 1982 Eliasberg sales. The collection of John Jay Pittman, auctioned in 1997, included both of these fabulous rarities.

Given its relief problems and its small total population, the Type 2 is exceptionally elusive in mint condition. It is rare in Mint State-65, and extremely rare above that level. Key points to check for signs of wear include the hair over the eye and the bow knot at the base of the wreath.

A complete date-and-mint set of Type 2 gold dollars would consist of just six coins. But in view of the great rarity of the 1855-C and particularly the 1855-D, most people collect this as a type coin, acquiring only one high-grade specimen.

Walter Breen estimated that less than 1% of the Type 2 dollar mintage still exists in all grades. The coins wore down so quickly when exposed to circulation that within a few years, much of the total output had been rendered almost illegible. By then, gold dollars—like much of the nation’s coinage—had all but stopped circulating anyway, because of widespread hoarding during the Civil War.

California may have been the last major bastion of Type 2 gold dollars in commerce, since U.S. coins in general continued to circulate there throughout the war. If so, that would have been entirely fitting: California, after all, is where the gold came from in the first place.

Type 3(1856-1889)


If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. If you still don’t succeed the second time, try once more. That was the philosophy that guided the United States Mint in producing this nation’s smallest coin, the gold dollar.

When it made its first appearance in 1849, the $1 gold coin was a mere thirteen millimeters in diameter—more than one-fourth smaller than our present-day Roosevelt dime. That made it the smallest coin in U.S. history in girth, though not in weight (the silver three-cent piece weighed less). Many Americans grumbled that because it was so tiny, they had trouble keeping track of it. And losing a dollar was no small matter back in the mid-19th century; for many it represented a day’s pay.

In 1854, the Mint took steps to remedy the problem; without changing the gold dollar’s weight, it increased the coin’s diameter to 15 millimeters. This yielded a coin that was noticeably larger, considerably thinner and, presumably, less likely to get lost. But the new Type 2 dollar had a serious deficiency of its own: Its designer, Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre, had made the relief too high on the obverse. As a consequence, very few examples were fully struck and virtually all the coins wore down quickly in circulation, deteriorating rapidly into all-but-dateless disks with fading features.

So it was that in 1856, Longacre had to try again. Returning to the drawing board, he applied the same principle to the obverse design as the Mint had applied two years earlier to the physical dimensions of the coin: He made the portrait larger, but also flatter.

Although the size and configuration of the portrait and other elements differ on the Type 2 and Type 3 gold dollars, both have essentially the same design. On both, the obverse features a female figure commonly described as an “Indian princess,” and both are therefore known as “Indian Head” types. Research suggests, however, that this interpretation may be erroneous: The late Walter Breen, a renowned numismatic scholar, maintained that the head is actually a copy of a Roman marble figure, with the headdress—which Longacre added—being the only aspect that conceivably might be Indian in nature.

Besides enlarging the portrait’s size and reducing its three-dimensional depth, Longacre also moved the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA closer to the border on the obverse, where it encircles the “Indian Head”. On Type 2 coins, it had been directly opposite the wreath on the reverse, which made it harder to strike both sides with sharp details.

Wreaths appear on all three gold dollar types. On Type 1 examples, however, the wreath is smaller and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles it. By moving the motto to the obverse, Longacre was able to make the subsequent wreaths larger and more intricate; they represent bundles of corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco. He also moved the number “1” entirely inside the wreaths on Type 2 and Type 3 varieties; on Type 1 specimens, it appears at the top of the wreath. All three types carry the inscription 1 DOLLAR and the date on the reverse.

Mintages were highest in the early years, partly because worn-out or uncurrent gold coins were being recoined during that time. In 1861 and 1862, for example, large numbers of Type 1 gold dollars hit the melting pot for recoinage. Side-by-side circulation of these smaller dollar coins with the later, larger ones had been causing confusion, so Mint Director James Ross Snowden had ordered that the smaller coins be set aside and held at the New York Sub-treasury. The accumulation totaled some eight million pieces before recoinage.

Only twice, in 1856 and 1862, did production exceed a million pieces in a single year—both times at the main mint in Philadelphia. In the early years, the Charlotte and Dahlonega mints turned out gold dollars on a regular basis, but those southern branches were closed in 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War—and after that the coins were struck almost exclusively in Philadelphia, the only exception being the San Francisco issue of 1870.

After 1862, mintages seldom topped 10,000. The low point came in 1875, when just 400 business strikes and 20 proofs were made. Other rarities are the 1856-D, with a mintage of 1,460, and the 1860-D, with 1,566. The Confederacy struck an unknown amount of 1861-D gold dollars; reportedly, only a handful survive. Proofs were made every year, and with the exception of the years 1882 through 1889, all had low mintages and are quite rare.

Type 3 gold dollars are far more plentiful in choice mint condition than the two earlier types, and the key points of reference for detecting signs of wear—the cheek and the bow-knot on the wreath—are more likely to be pristine. Gem examples of 1862, 1874 and many dates in the ‘80s are generally available.

One of the few complete collections of gold dollars formed was that of the late Louis Eliasberg, Sr. Acquiring the collection of the Clapp Family intact, he added whatever pieces were missing or needed upgrading. This fabulous collection was sold at auction in 1982, and the famed Eliasberg pedigree is still highly sought by collectors.

Although a complete date and mintmark collection of Type Threes in mint state is not impossible, the pre-Civil War mintmarked coins will stop most collectors without lots of time and even more money. Alternatively, a large number of the low mintage coins made from 1879 through 1889 were saved in superb condition, and many collectors assemble them into beautiful, eleven-piece short sets.

It took three tries, but the third attempt was the charm: From then on, the gold dollar’s size and durability both proved satisfactory, and production continued without interruption for more than three decades until the denomination was discontinued in 1889. Its 33-year lifespan coincided with one of the most turbulent periods in American history: a third of a century during which the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era and the Indian Wars in the West all left indelible marks on the nation’s consciousness. It served American commerce from the eve of the Civil War through the start of the Gay Nineties.


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