The Workhorse of the Early American Banking System: Half Eagles, Part One

Half Eagles, or five dollars gold pieces as there are often called, were the workhorse of the early American banking system, as there were so very few quarter eagles manufactured. In fact, of the roughly 2.3 million gold coins made by the United States Mint between the years of 1795 and 1834, 2.1 million were half eagles, or 91 percent of the total production of our mint.

The Coinage Act of 1792 authorized the striking of half eagle coins, and sure enough, three years later the mint finally got both the material and the resources together to actually make the coins. The first half eagles were struck on July 31, 1795 from dies created by the Mint’s official first chief engraver, Robert Scot. Since only the major devices were hubbed, and all the other information was added to each die one die at a time, 64 major date variations were created.

There are five major series of half eagles: Draped Bust Small Eagle; Draped Bust Large (or Heraldic) Eagle; Capped Bust Left; Capped Head Left Large Size; and Capped Head Left Small Size. Each had its own set of obverse and reverse dies. Because of the time and expenses that these dies required for preparation, they were always reused so long as they were serviceable. The pressure of production combined with the havoc that must have faced the mint during the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia and other East Coast cities in 1798 added to the re-usage of dies.

I can think of no series where this confusion under myriad of pressures is more evident than the early half eagles. There are coins struck that dated three years or more after the dies were prepared, giving us varieties of dates with no relationship to the date on the die. There are so many rare coins in this series that it would be safe to say that there are really no common coins in the series at all. The total survivors are less than one half of one percent in all grades. While we can debate whether there was any specimen coins produced, the first Proof is in 1820.

Draped Bust Small Eagle 1795-1798

1795-bd-2-half-eagle-small-eagle-reverse-head 1795-bd-2-half-eagle-small-eagle-reverse

All the half eagles made between 1795 and 1806 were 25 millimeters in diameter with a reeded edge and weighted one 135 grains of .9167 fine gold alloyed with copper. All were designed by Robert Scot and struck at the Philadelphia mint. There was a total of just over 17,000 made of the small eagle type, of which 566 have been certified in all grades, (or just about a three percent survival rate), and only 138 uncirculated pieces (or only seven-tenths of one percent). Although there are prooflikes known, there are no actual proofs known or rumored to exist (Akers).

1795: With a total mintage of 8,700, there is a total certified population of 483, with only 65 survivors in Uncirculated. Being the first year of issue, this coin must have been saved en masse because it has a large five-percent survival rate, or more than double the average half eagle. This is the “common” date of the type. Noted as rare, both Akers and Dannruther comment on one die with the last S in States struck over a D. Rare.

1796/5: Overdate with a total mintage of just under 6,200, with only 51 coins certified in all grades. Only eight-tenths of one percent survives. Very Rare.

1797 15 Stars Obverse: Ten stars to the right of Liberty and five to the left. With a mintage of about 100 in two die varieties, only seven examples have been certified in all grades. Both Akers and Danruther report that there are about 20 survivors of this date, although that seems a little high to me. Statistically, either the reported mintage is too low or there are well more survivors reported than actually exist. Extremely Rare.

1797 16 Stars Obverse: Eleven stars to the right of Liberty and five to the left. With a mintage of 850 with two die varieties, only 16 examples that have been certified in all grades, including two in uncirculated condition. Danruther reports a gem in the mint collection, but I have never seen it. Fewer than two percent survive. Very Rare.

1798: With less than 100 minted, there are only four examples certified, making this the rarest of the small eagle dates. Danruther reports at least seven exist, possibly eight, of which two are in the mint collection. All known examples are struck with a rusted reverse die. Extremely Rare, bordering on uncollectible.

Draped Bust Large or Heraldic Eagle 1795-1807

draped-bust-large-eagle1 draped-bust-large-eagle-reverse

The Large eagle type was manufactured from the middle of 1797 until 1807, although the obverses with 1795 were used again three years after they were made. There were a total of 318,000 manufactured at the mint, of which 3,900 are certified in all grades, making a total survival rate of just over one percent. Almost 1,700 Uncirculated examples known, or just about one half of one percent, which makes the “common” dates scarce and every other date Very Scarce to Extremely Rare, with just one percent surviving.

1795: All with 15 Stars obverse, 10 stars to left of Liberty and five to the right, and 16 stars on reverse. The total mintage is estimated at 900 to 1,100in three die varieties, two of which Danruther calls unique. The other one has 57 examples certified in all grades, of which 41 are uncirculated, leaving a strong four-and-a-half percent survival rate. Rare.

1797 Normal Date 15 Stars Obverse: Ten stars to the left of Liberty and five to the right. Danruther estimates a mintage of 25 with the unique survivor in the National Collection. There are no others certified or known, making this date the Rarest of the type (and uncollectible).

1797/5 Overdate with 15 Stars Obverse: Ten stars to the right of Liberty and five to the left. With an estimated mintage of 325, just six examples have been certified, of which three are Uncirculated. This is the rarest collectable date of the type.

1797 16 Stars Obverse: Ten stars to the right of Liberty and six to the left, with an estimated mintage of only 50 coins, there are none certified. The only known example is in the Lilly Collection at the Smithsonian. This is the second 1797 date variety that Dannruther lists as previously unpublished in Yeoman, and the second or third uncollectible date.

1798 Large 8, 13 Stars Reverse: With a mintage of about 4,000, a total of one hundred 75 have been certified in all grades, (a four and a half percent survival rate), 23 of which are Uncirculated. Rare.

1798 Large 8, 14 Stars Reverse: With a mintage of about a thousand, just 22 have been certified in all grades, with a lone example in Uncirculated. Extremely Rare with an average of two and one half percent survivors.

1799 Small Stars Reverse: With a mintage of 6,700, only 50 are certified in all grades and fourteen are Uncirculated. Just seven-tenths of one percent are still with us. Very Rare.

1799 Large Stars Reverse: With a mintage of 750, of which 37 are certified in all grades and fourteen are Uncirculated. Five percent survive. Very Rare.

1800: With a mintage of more than 37,000, the mint finally goes into full production in 1800. There are 473 examples certified in all grades, of which 168 are Uncirculated. This is the third most “common” date of the type, although it has an average survival rate of right less than one percent. Very Scarce.

1802/1: Overdate with a mintage of 53,000, of which 462 are certified in all grades and 167 are Uncirculated. This date has the highest mintage of the type and is the fourth most “common” date of the type, although this date has a survival rate of only eight-tenths of one percent. Very Scarce.

1803/2: Overdate with a large mintage of 33,000, of which 571 are certified in all grades and 144 are Uncirculated. There are 14 gems of this date, the second largest number of all half eagles of all early dates. Perhaps the survival rate of close to two percent (twice the average), explains the large number of nice coins, also making this the most “common” date in both quantity and quality for the type. Very Scarce.

1804: Was called Small 8, renamed Normal 8 by Dannruther. With a large mintage of nearly 22,000, of which 190 are certified in all grades and 76 are Uncirculated. Very Scarce. Less than one percent survives.

1804: 8 over 8. Normal 8 punched over a Large 8, with a mintage of 8,500, of which 93 are certified in all grades and 55 are Uncirculated. A full one-percent survival rate makes this coin Rare.

1805: With a large mintage of more than 33,000, of which 344 are certified in all grades, and 200 are Uncirculated. With the average one-percent survival rate, this date is Scarce and is tied for fifth most “common” date of the type with 1807. Really choice examples are occasionally available, although there are only four gems known.

1806 Round 6, 7X6 Stars: Seven stars left of Liberty and six stars right. With a high mintage of over 43,000 (the second highest of the type), 525 are certified in all grades and 245 are Uncirculated. This is the second most “common” date of the type, with just over one percent surviving. Only two gems are known. Scarce.

1806 Pointed 6, 8X5 Stars: Eight stars left of Liberty and five stars right. With a mintage of 20,000, of which 110 are certified in all grades and 67 are Uncirculated. There are no gems known, although occasional choice pieces are known to appear. Rare; only one half of one percent survives.

1807: With a mintage of 32,000, of which one percent survives, 340 are certified in all grades and 88 are Uncirculated. Tied with 1805 as the fifth most “common” date of the type. Choice examples are tough and there is only one known gem, but I’ve never seen it. Scarce.

Silvano DiGenova is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in coins. Neil Berman contributed to this article.

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  • Thanks for sharing a great article. I was surprised by the low three percent survival rate in all grades. How did you account for resubmissions (as collectors often do to improve the grade) and certification by different slabbers? Do you think that a sizable percentage of these coins could still be out there somewhere in raw form?

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