Assistant U.S. Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht was faced with the enviable task in 1839 to produce new designs for the $5 gold half eagle.
It was apparent that Chief Engraver William Kneass, who had suffered a debilitating stroke, would not be able to resume his duties at the Philadelphia Mint. Gobrecht was called upon to fill his shoes, albeit without benefit of title or additional remuneration.
Mint Director Robert M. Patterson preferred the new coin designs to be uniform with that of the $10 gold eagle of December 1838; thus, a Coronet Head rendition of Liberty appeared on the 1839 half eagles as a replacement for the Classic Head portrait.
No fewer than five different U.S. Mint production facilities would strike the denomination: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Charlotte (N.C.), New Orleans (La.), and Dahlonega (Ga.).
COIN VALUES: See how much your Coronet $5 half eagle is worth today
Mintages vary widely over the 70 years the design was produced – the 1877 with the lowest at 1,132 pieces, to a high of 3,648,000 for the 1901-S, with tens to even hundreds of thousands produced for more dates.
The head of Liberty was slightly changed on the Coronet half eagle in 1840 and the diameter was enlarged. Dates and letters were enlarged for coins dated 1842 and 1843. All dies were completely hubbed except for the dates and Mint marks, which had to be punched in by hand. The hesitance of Engraver James B. Longacre to perform this hand-punching (for most of 1844 to 1848 his sole duty as engraver after Gobrecht's death) resulted in numerous repunched or blundered dies, giving today's specialists much to study.
The first year, 1839, the Mint marks appeared on the obverse, just above the date. Subsequent years saw the Mint mark moved to the reverse.
The reverse design was identical to Kneass' Classic Head half eagle, except that the denomination inscription was changed from 5 D. to FIVE D.
The Branch Mint at San Francisco opened for business in 1854, the first year that the five operating Mints would all produce $5 gold coins. The period 1854 to 1857 is the only time all five Mints struck coins. After 1857, it was never done again.
The seizure of the Dahlonega, Charlotte and New Orleans Mints by state and Confederate forces in 1861 put a crimp in coining operations, although rebel authorities produced a number of coins at Dahlonega (unknown mintage) and Charlotte (887) that year while the facilities were not under federal control.
None of the three facilities would coin $5 gold pieces after 1861. Nine years later, the Carson City Mint opened and joined the ranks of Mint facilities producing gold coins.
The Mint Act of March 3, 1865 – authorizing coinage of Shield 5-cent coins and the issue of certain categories of interest-bearing Treasury notes – also included a provision that all coins large enough to include the motto IN GOD WE TRUST should do so. Mint officials took this provision to include the three highest gold denominations.
The motto began appearing on the gold half eagles in 1866 after Mint Director Henry R. Linderman approved the placement on a ribbon above the eagle's head on the reverse. The 1866-S coins struck at San Francisco with dies sans the motto had been produced before the new dies had arrived.
According to Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, rarities in the Coronet half eagle series are mostly either low-mintage Branch Mint issues before the Civil War, or low-mintage Philadelphia issues during it, while specie payments were suspended and little bullion reached the Mint.
"Except for 1873, even Philadelphia coins are rare prior to 1878," Breen writes. "Until that year, specie payments were still suspended, gold was hoarded, and paper currency circulated instead, with the same goods or services on a two-tier pricing system: Prices were always quoted higher in greenbacks than in gold.
"Mintages in 1873 were large because the Treasury deposited quantities of worn-out and obsolete gold pieces for recoinage. Some dates are more often seen in Proof state (generally impaired) than as business strikes, totally 1869, 1875, 1876 and possibly 1877."
Gobrecht's designs slipped into history when Bela Lyon Pratt's work appeared in 1908 as part of President Theodore Roosevelt's plan to improve the nation's coinage.
Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:
Cents and half cents:
2- and 3-cent coins:
Dimes and half dimes: