US Coins

The missing 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar, explained

In February of 1873, the San Francisco Branch Mint reportedly struck 700 Seated Liberty dollars, 5,000 Seated Liberty, No Arrows half dollars and 324,000 Seated Liberty half dimes. After all of these years, one of the last great mysteries of numismatics still remains. What happened to those 700 1873-S dollars and 5,000 1873-S No Arrows half dollars?

On Feb. 12, 1873, the Mint Act was passed that, among other effects, would in part mark the end of the silver half dime and standard silver dollar; added weight to the half dollar; and paved the way for the Trade dollar. The legislation took effect on April 1.

For a generation of numismatic researchers it was assumed that all of the 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars and half dollars were melted before they left the San Francisco Mint. However, documents stored at the Federal Archives in San Bruno, Calif., point to a different scenario with regard to the fate of the 700 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars.

Made for trade

In September of 1872, 9,000 Seated Liberty dollars were coined. They were made for both trade with China and to circulate at home. The record books reveal that outside of the San Francisco Assaying and Refining Works, which had a contract to refine both gold and silver for the San Francisco Branch Mint, silver depositor after silver depositor wanted Seated Liberty dollars. This demand for silver dollars continued into January, February and early March of 1873. I believe this was why 700 Seated Liberty dollars were reportedly struck in February. They were needed to try to meet the demand for more dollars.

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Were the 700 Seated dollars reportedly struck in February of 1873 released? I think the answer is yes, and here’s why:

Each San Francisco Branch Mint depositor/deposit was assigned a receipt number. This allows one to track each deposit from its submittal to payout. However, there is generally no way to determine exactly what denomination an individual depositor is requesting in exchange for his bullion. In the case of the 1872-S and 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars, the assayer provided the key.

Last deposit for dollars 

In the Assayer’s Register of Silver Bullion Deposits, the assayer used a $ symbol to note the deposits made specifically for Seated Liberty dollars. By examining this record book along with the Register of Certificates and Receipts for the Payment of Silver Deposits, the 9,000 Seated dollars struck in September of 1872 appear to have all been paid out by mid-January or February of 1873.

In addition, the Journal of Bullion Deposits stated that all of the silver depositors were paid in full for the first quarter of 1873. Thus, I believe the 700 Seated Liberty dollars struck in February 1873 were all paid out.

On March 6, A. Holmes & Co., legal tenders and securities dealers, made the last deposit for Seated dollars. Of note, reportedly on March 7, a large shipment of silver foreign coins arrived at the Carson City Branch Mint from San Francisco to be coined. For 1873, the Carson City Branch Mint struck 2,300 Seated Liberty dollars and 122,500 Seated Liberty, No Arrows half dollars, both of which are valued collectors’ items today.

One wonders if the San Francisco Branch Mint had suspended the acceptance of silver bullion from the public for coinage until later in the year. For the remainder of March, the San Francisco Assaying and Refining Works, under the tutelage of L.A. Garnett, returned to its dominant role as silver bullion depositor at the San Francisco Branch Mint.

What about half dimes? 

According to the Letters and Telegrams Received, (correspondence between Director of the Mint Henry Richard Linderman and Superintendent Oscar Hugh LaGrange, dated May 20 and June 3), all 324,000 1873-S Seated Liberty half dimes, or $16,200, were still on hand at the San Francisco Mint. At some point, a sizeable portion of these coins must have subsequently been paid out to San Francisco Mint depositors, as they are available to collectors today.

So where are the 700 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars? 

Numismatic scholar Tom DeLorey believes that if any of the 700 silver dollars were paid out to depositors in 1873, they may have been dated 1872, and this would explain why no 1873-S pieces have surfaced. In an email correspondence with the author he wrote the following: “With regards to my theory of leftover 1872-S Seated dollars, the 1859-S (May 15,000; August 5,000) and 1872-S (September 9,000) Seated dollar deliveries were in even multiples of 1,000 coins or one bagful.

“The way a Mint operates is that the coiner makes a random number of planchets from the silver available, runs them through a coining press, and ends up with a random number of good coins and spoiled coins. 

“Of the random number of good coins, he makes up bags of a fixed number of coins, in this case 1,000 silver dollars per bag, and delivers them to the Cashier. He now has anywhere from 1 to 999 good coins left over.

“At the end of a calendar year, these leftover good coins can get carried over to the next year as bullion on hand, and then get converted on the books as coins and aggregated with the earliest production of the next year’s coinage of the same denomination, and bagged.

“So what happened to the hypothetical leftover 1872-S dollars? They may have been carried over into 1873 as bullion in anticipation of aggregating them in with possible 1873-S dollars. Then, when the Coinage Act of 1873 discontinued the Standard Dollar denomination, they could have converted them on the books into coins, and delivered a nice round 700 of them to the Cashier for local use,” DeLorey concluded.

Is it possible a San Francisco Mint em­ployee received or took home an 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar?

Over the years there have been rumors of an 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar or two linked to the relative of a Branch Mint employee, passed down through the generations as a keepsake. This, of course, sounds promising, given the fact that Abraham Curry, former superintendent of the Carson City Branch Mint, along with two other folks including his friend Mr. Rosser, placed what are now extremely rare 1873-CC Seated Liberty dollars in the cornerstone of the Rosser building. The ceremonial event was documented in the Carson Daily Appeal on April 18, 1873. These must be the three Uncirculated pieces that were reportedly found in a Carson City cornerstone around 1973.

One could hope that a San Francisco Branch Mint employee, i.e., the superintendent, would have saved a couple of 1873-S Seated Liberty dollars for himself, a family member and/or a close friend to mark the end of an era.

We do known that in 1874, a single 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar survived the Assay Commission’s melting pot. For the first quarter of 1873, the San Francisco Mint sent a total of one Seated Liberty dollar, one half dollar and 33 half dimes to the Philadelphia Mint for weighing and assaying. Per guidelines, the Assay Commission examined the coins a year later in February of 1874. 

The Assay Committee melt­ed the lone half dollar and documented its fineness. When the time came to melt the group of coins en mass they passed up the opportunity and wrote “not enough to melt.” Thus, that single Seated Liberty dollar survived the examination.

For those of us with a little history and romance in our hearts, there is a 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar out there still, perhaps the assay coin, hidden somewhere awaiting discovery. 

Editor’s note: At Coin World’s request, the U.S. Mint searched its Heritage Assets to determine whether the missing coin is among the Mint’s holdings. According to the Mint, it is not.

The author would like to thank Tom DeLorey for his assistance and guidance with this article.

Roger Burdette was consulted regarding the Assay Commission and Mint matters in general. American Numismatic Society librarian David Hill supplied me with material that other researchers have published on the 1873-S Seated Liberty dollar and John Delmont assisted with the digital images. 

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