Know your U.S. coins: Early Gold Dollars

When the gold dollar made its debut in 1849, its designs featured a major departure from every U.S. coin struck before that year.

The date was placed on the reverse, not the obverse.

The practice of placing the date on the reverse lasted for all three design types used on the gold dollar, struck between 1849 and 1889. The same practice was used in 1854, when the Indian Head $3 gold coin was introduced (bearing designs similar to those used on the gold dollar).

The change in practice was made necessary by the small diameter of the coin (13 millimeters from 1849 to 1854 and 14.86mm from 1854 to 1889). The Liberty portrait on the obverse leaves little space for the date, especially with the placement of 13 six-pointed stars around the rim of the obverse.

COIN VALUES: See how much your early gold dollar is worth today

Was placement of the date on the reverse legal?

Probably not. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, specified that the date and a representation of Liberty appear on one side of each coin, and on the reverses of silver and gold coins, an eagle. The Mint Act of Jan. 18, 1837, a major recodification of coinage laws, continued those requirements.

The Mint Act of March 3, 1849, authorizing the gold dollar (and the $20 double eagle) did approve omission of the eagle from the reverse of the dollar, but did not authorize moving the date from the obverse to the reverse.

Placing the date on the reverse rather than the obverse appears to have been an early decision. An 1836 pattern features a radiant Liberty cap bearing liberty on the obverse, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the denomination (as 1 D.) and date 1836 on the reverse.

Engraver James Barton Longacre produced a small number of hand-engraved gold patterns in 1849, each with the date hand cut into the holed planchet on the reverse. Holed planchets were tested as a way of increasing the diameter of the gold dollar to a more acceptable size, but were rejected as too difficult to produce.

Longacre's designs for the 1849 to 1854 gold dollar depict a portrait of Liberty wearing a coronet inscribed with LIBERTY on the obverse, and a wreath encircling 1 DOLLAR, with the date below DOLLAR. The same Coronet Liberty portrait was used on the double eagle (patterns of which were struck in 1849).

The 13-millimeter diameter of the gold dollar was considered too small, and it was increased to 14.86-millimeter in 1854. Completely new designs were introduced as well in 1854.

The obverse depicts Longacre's standard Liberty portrait, but wearing a stylized Indian headdress rather than coronet. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA was moved to the obverse. A completely new, more substantial wreath was placed on the reverse, with the denomination and date still placed within the wreath.

Longacre's Liberty-as-Indian portrait was used for just three years, on seven different dollars. It was replaced in 1856 with a slightly larger, new Indian Head portrait that is virtually identical to that used on the $3 gold coin, introduced in 1854.

The first Indian Head gold dollar portrait is generally referred to as the Small Head, while the second Indian portrait is generally called the Large Head. However, the differences between the two portraits are more than just size: the shape of the bottom of the neck differs; the shapes of the feathers differ; and the hair is differently shaped (curlier on the Small Head portrait).

The gold dollar has many rarities, including many of the Branch Mint coins struck at Dahlonega, Ga.;Charlotte, N.C.; and San Francisco. The extreme rarity of many of the coins makes the gold dollar series one for the well-heeled buyer.

The rarest coin is the 1849-C Coronet, Open Wreath gold dollar.

The 1861-D coin is another rarity, its mintage kept small by the Civil War. The 1855-D, 1856-D, 1860-D and 1875 coins are also scarce, each bringing four-figure prices even in Fine 12 condition.

Five Mints struck gold dollars: Philadelphia, Dahlonega, Charlotte, New Orleans and San Francisco. Overall, the Philadelphia coins are the most common. Some Dahlonega coins have mintages of fewer than 2,000 coins, making them among the rarest of regular issues.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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