The renowned Silver Dollar is the standard one-dollar coin for both new and seasoned coin collectors. Many people are unaware that the United States also produced a dollar coin in gold. The idea for a Gold Dollar originated in the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the California Gold Rush that the coin was produced.
During this time, the coin was extremely popular; more Gold Dollars were struck than silver dollars. The coin, however, lost popularity after the American Civil War. From the late 1880s until its complete discontinuation in the early 1900s, the Gold Dollar was mainly kept in circulation for novelty reasons.
During its existence, which lasted from 1849 to 1889, the Gold Dollar experienced two main design changes, resulting in three different Gold Dollars.
Type 1 (1849-1854): The Little Giant
The smallest coin in U.S. history results from two of the most significant gold rushes. That coin is the gold dollar, a tiny coin in size but a giant in value, rarity, and history. The Carolinas and Georgia, the locations of the nation’s first significant gold rush in the early 1800s, laid the foundation for this fascinating coin.
This gold rush had a significant impact on American coinage, resulting in the opening of two branch mints in the area—in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia—and a significant increase in the production of gold coins by the federal government.
Jeweller spearheaded push for gold coins.
The first gold dollars produced in the country were privately minted coins made around 1830 by Alt Christoph Bechtler, who ran a jewelry store in Rutherfordton, North Carolina.
By 1840, Bechtler and his family had produced more than $2.2 million in gold coins, roughly half of which were gold dollars. Demand for gold dollar coins issued by the government increased due to their business’s success. Congress even approved the coins in 1836, but Mint Director Robert M. Patterson vehemently disagreed with the concept and only agreed to strike a few patterns.
California Gold Rush leads to the official U.S. gold coinage.
It wasn’t until 1849 that the gold dollar was introduced to the lineup of U.S. coins, and this time it was California’s gold rush that ignited the process. The 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill inspired Congress to broaden the metal’s current applications in U.S. coinage and develop new ones.
Although Mint Director Patterson was still present and continued to object to such coinage, his objections were disregarded this time. Congress approved legislation on March 3, 1849, allowing the legalization of $20 gold double eagles in addition to gold dollars.
Longacre picked to design both gold dollars and double eagles.
The U.S. Mint’s chief engraver, James Barton Longacre, was tasked with creating both new coins. He created an identical obverse design for both: a left-facing image of Miss Liberty wearing a coronet in her hair.
She is surrounded by 13 stars on the dollar, representing the 13 original colonies. Due to the small coin size, the reverse must be straightforward. It features the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around a simple wreath that bears the inscription 1 DOLLAR and the date.
Open and Closed Wreath Type 1s
This design would be used until 1854, when it would be replaced by an “Indian Head” portrait and other changes. Then, two years later, the Indian head would be enlarged. As a result, there are three different kinds of gold dollars, with the “Liberty Head” design from 1849 to 1854 being referred to as “Type 1.”
The 1849 gold dollars come in two significant varieties within the Type 1 coinage: While some have “closed” wreaths that are almost touching the number “1,” others have “open” wreaths with plenty of space between the number and the top of the wreath.
Only the Philadelphia and Dahlonega mints produced Type 1 gold dollars on an annual basis during their six-year production run: Philadelphia (no mint mark), Dahlonega (D), Charlotte (C), New Orleans (O), and San Francisco (S). They were produced in Charlotte and New Orleans every year, except for 1854, and San Francisco only in that year. Under the wreath is where you’ll find the mintmark.
Type 1 gold coins are rare but accessible in grades up to Mint State-64; they become scarce in MS-65 and extremely rare above that. The tips of the leaves on the wreath and the hair near the coronet are the highest relief points on the Type 1 gold dollar. These are crucial factors in determining grade because they are where the first signs of wear can be seen. The rarity of high-grade pieces typically restricts collectors to just one example for their type sets, even though they are collected by date and mintmark in circulated grades.
A tiny coin with big purchasing power
For many Americans in the mid-1800s, the value of these tiny coins was equivalent to a full day’s wages or more. They are also held in high regard by collectors today because, despite their small size, they can have an extremely high rarity and value.
Like all other coins, the value of Liberty Head $1 cold coins varies depending on many variables. The coin will be worth the cost of the gold it contains, even if it has been altered, damaged, or worn excessively. The weight in troy ounces is then multiplied by the current gold price. However, if the coin is in good condition, its value will probably be in the $200 to $300 range for more common gold coins in this series.
Type 2 (1854-1856)
About $600 million worth of gold was found in the first ten years after the Gold Rush in California.
The gold rush altered the design of American currency. Between 1849 and 1854, Congress authorized three new denominations—a gold dollar, a three-dollar gold piece, and a double eagle, or a twenty-dollar gold piece—due to the enormous quantities of gold coming out of California. These were primarily created to assist in transforming the mountain of metal into a form that the general public could use. Of course, the majority of the coins made were double eagles. There were over eight million strikes between 1850 and 1854.
Solutions sought for the coin’s tiny size.
The March 3, 1849 coinage act gave rise to the gold dollar and double eagle, the smallest and largest regularly-issued gold coins in American history. And from 1844 to 1869, James Barton Longacre served as the chief sculptor-engraver for the United States Mint.
Critics claimed that the dollar’s diminutive size, more than one-fourth smaller than the current Roosevelt dime at 13 millimeters in diameter, made it simple to lose, and their complaints surfaced almost immediately. Officials at the mint took these objections seriously, and over the ensuing years, test strikes of various potential replacements were made. These substitutes had larger diameters but made up for this with center holes.
Striking difficulties abound for Type 2
This Type 2 gold dollar had a 15% larger diameter than its predecessor, making it easier to track down and less likely to get lost. Sadly, it had a serious flaw: Longacre had raised the relief on the obverse too much, resulting in the vast bulk of the coins being less than fully struck. Only a small percentage of examples have clearly defined hair details, the word DOLLAR, and the date; even the designer’s initial L, which is situated on the bust’s truncation, is frequently barely discernible.
Few Type 2s Minted
The striking challenges forced Longacre to start over again, and the Type 2 dollar only existed until 1856 before giving way to a Type 3. Only 1.6 million Type 2 coins were produced during its brief existence, most coming from the Philadelphia issues of 1854 and 1855.
The coin was produced in 1855 at all three southern branch mints, but production was incredibly low at Dahlonega (D) and Charlotte (C), with total mintages of just 1,811 and 9,803, respectively. That year, New Orleans (O) issued 55,000 coins. The only mint that produced this type in 1856 was the new branch in San Francisco (S). The mintmark is visible beneath the wreath, just like other gold dollars.
Type 2 is incredibly difficult to find in mint conditions due to its relief issues and low overall population. Mint State-65 is rare, and anything higher than that is incredibly rare. Six coins would make up a Type 2 gold dollar date-and-mint set. However, due to the extreme rarity of the 1855-C and 1855-D in particular, most coin collectors only own one high-grade example of this coin.
The 1855-D is the rarest of these coins (Dahlonega). This coin’s value can range from a few thousand dollars to five figures, depending on its condition, if it is certified uncirculated.
Longacre was forced to try again in 1856. Going back to the drawing board, he used the same approach to the obverse design that the mint had used to determine the coin’s physical specifications two years earlier: he made the portrait larger while also flattering it.
The portrait and other elements on Type 2 and Type 3 gold dollars are different in size and arrangement, but both have mainly the same design. The obverse of both features a female figure described as an “Indian princess,” and both are thus classified as “Indian Head” types.
In addition to enlarging the portrait and decreasing its three-dimensional depth, Longacre also shifted the wording UNITED STATES OF AMERICA so that it surrounds the “Indian Head” on the obverse. It had been placed directly across from the wreath on the reverse of Type 2 coins, making it more difficult to strike both sides with fine details.
Different wreaths for different types
All three varieties of gold dollars feature wreaths. However, the wreath and the words UNITED STATES OF AMERICA are smaller in Type 1 examples. Longacre made the subsequent wreaths, which stand in for bundles of corn, cotton, wheat, and tobacco, larger and more intricate by shifting the motto to the reverse. Additionally, on Type 2 and Type 3 specimens, he moved the number “1” to the top of the wreath; on Type 1 specimens, it is completely inside the wreath. The reverse of all three types bears the text 1 DOLLAR and the date.
The early years saw the highest mintages, in part because gold coins that were old or out of date were being recycled at that time. For instance, many Type 1 gold dollars were melted down for coinage in 1861 and 1862.
Rarely did mintages exceed 10,000 after 1862. 1875 saw the lowest production, with only 400 business strikes and 20 proofs. The 1856-D and 1860-D mintages of 1,566 and 1,460 are additional rarities. A small number of the 1861-D gold dollars that the Confederacy reportedly struck still exist. Every year, proofs were produced; all had low mintages and are now quite rare.
Compared to the two earlier types, Type 3 gold dollars are much more common in choice mint condition, and the cheek and the bow-knot on the wreath, which serve as good indicators of wear, are more likely to be impeccable. Gem examples of 1862 and 1874 and multiple dates in the 1980s are frequently on hand.
Although assembling a full date and mintmark set of Type Threes in mint condition is not impossible, most collectors will be discouraged by the pre-Civil War mint-marked coins unless they have a lot of time and even more money. In contrast, many of the low-mintage coins produced between 1879 and 1889 were preserved in exceptional condition, and many collectors put them together into stunning, eleven-piece short sets.
The third try was the charm.
After three failed attempts, the charm was the third time: The gold dollar’s size and toughness proved satisfactory. Production continued without a hiccup for more than 30 years until the denomination was discontinued in 1889.
During its 33-year existence, the nation experienced some of the most turbulent times in its history, including the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, and the Indian Wars in the West, which all left enduring imprints on the nation’s psyche. It served the American economy from the eve of the Civil War until the beginning of the Gay Nineties.