In June of 1795, Henry DeSaussure replaced David Rittenhouse as Mint Director. His first goal was to begin striking gold coins
and improve the current coin designs. Under Rittenhouse’s orders, Chief Engraver Robert Scot had already prepared dies, and on
July 31, 1795, 744 half eagles were struck and delivered. They were first gold coins ever produced by the United States Mint.
The 1795 Small Eagle half eagles were struck first followed by the 1795 Large Eagle (or Heraldic Eagle) later in the year.
However, a return to the Small Eagle reverse for a few pieces in 1798 indicated the demand for serviceable dies. This would
explain why the small Eagle design remained on the $10 Gold Eagle through 1797.
The model for the Capped Bust to Right, Small Eagle design is unknown. Walter Breen, says that Scott's model was, " copied
some unlocated contemporaneous engraving of a Roman copy of a Hellenistic goddess, altering the hair, adding drapery and an
oversize soft cap." Breen also described the reverse small eagle as from: "a sketch or engraving of a first-century A.D. Roman
The Type 1 obverse featured a portrait of Liberty in a soft cap, the reverse was adapted from an Roman cameo and depicted a
naturalistic small eagle perched on a branch. However, the small eagle immediately proved to be unpopular, it was
characterized by many as too scrawny. So, Scot set out to appease the critics and improve the design, and his resulting
Heraldic eagle reverse was based on the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States.
Since only 18,512 Type 1 Small Eagle fives were produced from 1795 through 1798 their scarcity is understandable, however,
most of these coins were victims of the huge melts that later destroyed most of the U.S. gold coinage that was minted before 1834.
Remaining specimens after the melts are particularly rare, especially in high grade.
Half eagles struck in 1797 are of two types: either 15 or 16 stars are on the obverse. Both are rare, with the 15-star variety
somewhat more elusive. The 16th star was added after Tennessee was admitted to the Union. An emergency issue of half
eagles were struck in December 1797 following the yellow fever epidemic of that summer. In the rush to resume production, all
available dies were put into service. It is believe that a similar epidemic and mint closing in 1798 was responsible for the
puzzling 1795 date with a Heraldic Eagle five dollar.
The estimated population of the 1795 issue is about 520 examples and none bore their denominations. But the 1795 issues were
created from 12 different die pairings.
Click to view 1802/1801
Draped Bust "Half Eagle" Specs.
Designer: Robert Scot Diameter: 25 millimeters Weight: 8.748 grams Content: 91.7% gold 8.3% silver and copper Edge: Reeded
The early years of the United States Mint had many problems: The equipment was crude, serviceable die steel was difficult to
obtain and steam power was not available to operate the mint machinery. Even with all of these problems, the largest problem was
a lack of experienced personnel, especially in design and engraving.
The old Robert Scot capped bust facing left was replaced when John Reich was employed as assistant engraver at the mint. The
large, loose-fitting cap (some called it a "turban") was replaced by a smaller cap on liberty. The Heraldic Eagle was also
replaced with an upright eagle whose wings are spread outwards.
The half eagle was the only U.S. gold coin produced in 1813. There are two reasons that may be responsible for this: First,
bankers were the ones who brought gold to the Mint for coinage came generally from banks. Bankers seemed to prefer half eagles
for use as reserves and for international commerce. Second, the United States had a fixed silver-to-gold ratio which put the U.S.
at a disadvantage with the international ratios of the two metals (it took less silver to buy an ounce of gold in the U.S. than
it did in Europe).
Ever since the 16th-century Central and South America have been continuously drained of precious metals. In the early part of the
19th century, huge new discoveries of silver were made in North and South America. This caused a drop in the worldwide
price of silver in relation to gold. The bi-metallic standard adopted in the United States under the Coinage Act of 1792 set the
ratio between the metals at 15:1, in 1813, the ratio in Europe was 16:1 and sometimes more.
Many merchants and sailors who made regular voyages from America to Europe and back found it quite profitable to buy gold in
America with silver, and take the gold to Europe and sell it for silver. In Europe the gold was melted down for bullion. This
may explain why so many ship wrecks of that period have large amounts of gold or silver on them, depending on which direction
they were going at the time.
This trading cycle continued until gold nearly disappeared from circulation in the U.S. As a result, in spite of high mintage
numbers, most half eagles ended up as bullion.
Census/population reports estimate the 1813 business strike at 120 examples. Many dates are estimated at fewer than 20
examples. The 1822 half eagle with three know examples is considered one of the rarest U.S. coins of all (two of the three are
permanently housed in the Smithsonian Institution). Thus, they have been described as the "greatest rarities in American
numismatics", "impressive for its rarity", and "the most difficult of all half-eagle designs to obtain."
Capped Bust Left Half Eagle Specs.
Designer: John Reich Diameter:± 25 millimeters Weight: 8.748 grams Edge: Reeded Content: 91.7% gold 8.3% silver and copper Mint Mark Location: None (All were struck in Philadelphia)
The Classic Head half eagle was produced in response to a problem in the early
1830s: circulating gold coins didn't actually circulate. U.S. gold coins became
a commodity, worth more than their face value in European silver, and thousands
were exported and melted. The 1834 Mint Act resolved the problem by reducing the
gold content, thus making it unprofitable to melt U.S. gold coins.
To make the coins with the new weight easily visible, William Kneass was assigned
the task of redesigning the half Eagle. The redesign was actually a reintroduction
of the 1808 Classic Head cent design. This gave her a younger, classical appearance.
The reverse remained basically the same, but with banner and E PLURIBUS UNUM removed.
Classic Head Half Eagle Specs.
Designer: William Kneass Weight: 8.24 grams Diameter: 23.8 millimeters Edge: Reeded Mint Mark Location: Above the date on the obverse.
In constant use since the early days of the Republic, the gold half eagle was vary familiar in American economic and social life.
It was and was one of the longest continually minted coin denomination in United States history. Half eagles would see virtually
continuous production from 1795 to 1929, and throughout their life, they would be used in trade in preference to almost other
In 1839 Christian Gobrecht redesigned what is now known as the Liberty Head or Coronet Head Half Eagle. In his redesign,
little was changed to the reverse, with the notable exception of 5 D. was changed to Five D.. On the obverse Liberty retains
her classic appearance facing left, hair bundled with a beaded tie, and two locks of hair cascading down the neck, and her
coronet bearing LIBERTY above the forehead.
The weight of the redesign was 8.359 grams, but the diameter was reduced to 21.6 mm, in 1840. Half Eagles struck at the
Philadelphia Mint were .900 gold and .100 copper. However, coins struck at Charlotte and Dahlonega had a high natural silver
content (.050 silver).
In 1854 the San Francisco Mint struck 268 Half Eagles. This issue became the rarest of the issue with only three known
today, two of which are in the Smithsonian.
This design was used for nearly 70 years with a modest change in 1866, "In God We Trust" was once again placed on the
This coin holds the distinction of being the only coin of a single design to be minted at seven U.S. Mints: Philadelphia,
Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City, and Denver.
All pieces are scarce from the (civil war) years 1862 through 1866.
Type 1 Liberty Head No Motto Specs.
Designer: Christian Gobrecht Content: 90% gold 10% other Until mid-1840 Diameter: 22.5 millimeters After mid-1840 Diameter: 21.65 millimeters Weight: 8.24 grams Edge: Reeded Mint Mark Legend 1839: Below the date on the obverse. Mint Mark Legend 1840-1908: Below the eagle on the reverse
Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a physician, close friend of President Roosevelt, art collector from Boston and an admirer of
Egyptian reliefs convinced President Roosevelt that the use of sunken designs on American Coins was a good idea. Since the Liberty
Head quarter eagle had been minted since 1840 and the Liberty Head half eagle since 1839, they seemed good candidates for redesign.
Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, so Bigelow apparently contacted and persuaded Bela Lyon Pratt, a fellow Bostonian and former
student of Saint-Gaudens to create a design for the gold coins. Pratt used Smillie's portrait of a Sioux Chief on the 1899 $5
silver certificate. The reverse displayed a standing eagle which was a virtual copy of the design Saint-Gaudens had used on both
a Roosevelt inaugural medal and the Indian Head eagle.
In 1908 the Indian Head half eagle was first appearance minted it was the same design as the quarter eagle (or $2.50 gold piece).
The Indian Head half eagle had several things in common with the Buffalo nickels, they were approximately the same size and both
had realistic looking American Indians. The new Indian Head gold pieces, however, were unlike any other coins produced before or
since in several respects. Their designs and inscriptions are sunken below the surface of the coins, instead of being raised.
This innovative technique had never been used for coins before. But, new ideas were always welcome in national affairs in the early
20th century, primarily because of President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt took a personal interest in nearly all
aspects of government including the nation's coinage and left his stamp on coins and many other areas.
In spite of the fact that the sunken design (with devices and legends below the fields) promised to reduce wear on the features,
Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman and others vigorously opposed the design. Their argument was that the recessed areas
would collect dirt and thus become a disease source. Still others found fault with both the portrait and the eagle. They also
claimed that the coins were easy to counterfeited. Some even argued the (rimless and flat) coins would not stack properly. They
did not sway the President, and the new design was implemented.
Click to view mint mark example.
Note: All 1915-D are counterfeit
Indian Head Half Eagle Specs.
Designer: Bela Lyon Pratt Content: 90% gold 10% copper Diameter: 21.6 millimeters Edge: Reeded Weight: 8.24 grams Mint Mark Location: Left of the arrowheads on the reverse.