Among the numerous complaints voiced over the proliferation of commemorative coins during the 1930s, one of the most frequent was that these issues celebrated events of purely local significance. These themes were judged inappropriate for a United States coin, yet having the proper connections in Washington was often all that was needed to see one’s pet project through to fruition. Such a coin was the half dollar commemorating the 300th anniversary of York County, the first county in Maine. Though decried at the time of its issue, this type has since been honored among the ranks of its fellow commemorative coins from that prolific decade of the 1930s.
York County was established in 1636 as the southernmost portion of what soon thereafter became known as the Province of Maine. It centered around the town of Saco, which itself was formed around a wooden stockade known as Brown’s Garrison. The town of Saco had been founded in 1631, and with the establishment of York County, it then became the county seat. The land encompassed by York County was just part of the region owned by San Ferdinando Gorges. In 1643, Gorges’ title to the land was challenged by George Cleve. Taking advantage of the chaos in England prompted by the Mother Country’s ongoing Civil War, Cleve claimed that York County was his by a land grant bestowed on him in 1630. Though this claim was largely unsupportable, Cleve won his case through the influence of friends in Parliament, including the Earl of Warwick, who had originally made the grant.
Cleve’s province bore the peculiar name of Lygonia, and thus Maine remained until Gorges’ death in 1647. Seizing this opportunity, Massachusetts then proclaimed that his lands were now under its administration. The holdings of Cleve were similarly absorbed without due process, and by 1658 all of Lygonia was part of Massachusetts. Appeals from the heirs of both Gorges and Cleve brought no justice, since England was now a Commonwealth under Puritan control. As Massachusetts was a bastion of Puritan power in the New World, it was deemed by Parliament the party most worthy to rule this land.
Massachusetts renamed the former York County to the County of Yorkshire, also rechristening Georges’ capital of Gorgeana as York. The fall of the English Puritans in 1660 and the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne prompted widespread reappraisals of all actions taken by Parliament during the Commonwealth years. In 1677, the name of Maine was restored to the region, bringing full circle the 1639 decree of the king’s father, Charles I, that this land was to be known “not by any other name or names whatsoever.”
The issuing of a commemorative coin to mark the 300th anniversary of York County probably had more to do with the fact that one of its key sponsors was a numismatist than it did with the significance of the event itself. Walter P. Nichols was Treasurer of the Committee for Commemoration of the Founding of York County. He was also a summertime resident of the area and an avid collector of commemorative coins. The committee selected Walter H. Rich of Portland, Maine to design its proposed half dollar. For the obverse Rich employed simplicity in depicting the Seal of York County. He based the coin’s reverse on a perspective view of Brown’s Garrison that had appeared in The Proprietors of Saco.
Despite numerous similar bills honoring events of purely local interest, legislation authorizing the York Half Dollar was passed June 26, 1936. It provided for not more than 30,000 coins, these to be produced with a single date and at a single mint. This occurred at the very height of the speculative market in commemorative coins, and the rush was on to get the York issue to collectors. The Federal Commission of Fine Arts, perhaps overwhelmed by so many new coin designs, cooperated by approving the designs on July 17 with only minor corrections to be made.
In an unusual turn, Rich’s drawings were sculpted directly in bronze, bypassing the usual plaster transfers. This may account for the coin’s uncharacteristically flat relief. The work was performed by the G. S. Pacetti Company of Boston, and the dies were reduced from these bronze models by New York City’s Medallic Art Company, an arrangement preferred by the overworked Philadelphia Mint.
As issued, the York Half Dollar features on its obverse the arms of York County. This includes a red cross against a white shield, with a pine tree in the upper left quadrant. The dates 1636 and 1936 flank the shield, while the statutory motto IN•GOD WE•TRUST appears below it, all enclosed within a circle. Arranged around the obverse periphery are the legends YORK•COUNTY and FIRST•COUNTY•IN• MAINE, separated by stars. The reverse of this type features a view of Brown’s Garrison with a rising sun behind it. The statutory mottoes LIBERTY and E•PLURIBUS•UNUM appear in the field above and below the garrison, respectively. Below the Latin motto are the designer’s script initials W.H.R. All of these elements are enclosed within a circle. Arranged around the periphery are the legends UNITED•STATES•OF•AMERICA and HALF•DOLLAR, the two separated by stars.
An issue of 10,000 coins was planned, with that many being reserved for residents of Maine. This figure was reportedly oversubscribed, and a total of 25,015 York Half Dollars were actually coined during August of 1936 (the odd 15 pieces were reserved for assay and later destroyed). Offered at $1.50 apiece to locals and at $1.65 postpaid to those out-of-state, official distribution of the York Halves was handled by the York County Tercentenary Commemorative Coin Commission of Saco, Maine. Initially, sales were brisk. The collapse of the commemorative coin market in late 1936 and 1937, however, caught the commission with about 6,500 pieces remaining. While many such sponsoring groups returned their unsold coins to the mint for destruction, the York people held onto theirs for more than 20 years following the tercentenary. These were offered in lots of 10 for $15.50 during the late 1950s and were quickly sold. This left a net mintage of 25,000 pieces.
York Half Dollars typically display satiny luster, this ranging from dull to blazing. Due to their very low relief, virtually all examples are well struck. The area most susceptible to contact marks is the shield, though marks and abrasions on the garrison can also be distracting. Circulated examples of this type are rare, as most were kept as souvenirs or were purchased directly by coin collectors. Numismatically mishandled specimens can be a problem, and these may show signs of cleaning and/or abrasive wiping. Gems of the York are fairly plentiful.
Coins of this type were originally issued in folding paper holders which depict on their front cover black line drawings of Brown’s Garrison and the York National Bank of Saco, which in 1936 stood on the site on the former stockade. A chatty history of the bank appears on the inside front cover, while the inside back cover provides slots to hold up to five coins. The back of the holder is blank. To further protect the coins from abrasion, a tissue paper insert was included with the inscription: “We thank you for your interest in our commemorative half dollar, and extend to you the hospitality of York County, Maine. York County Commemorative Coin Commission.” The folder was then placed within a mailing envelope bearing the commission’s name and a return address of the York National Bank.
The first 100 pieces minted were inserted into maps depicting “Olde York County Maine.” Each map was then given a number corresponding to the order in which its particular coin was struck and mounted under glass for presentation. These coins bore no special finish or treatment, and there is no evidence of any proofs being struck.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver
When collectors are asked to identify their favorite U.S. commemorative coins, the answers given frequently include titles such as Oregon Trail, Panama-Pacific, Gettysburg and California Jubilee. Rarely heard, if at all, is the name Wisconsin. Having neither an attractive design nor any unique features, to many collectors it seems just one of those coins needed to complete a type set. Yet, all commemoratives tell a story, whether it be about the theme depicted or about the coin itself. In this respect, the Wisconsin Territorial Centennial half dollar is fully equal to its peers.
As the name implies, this issue marks the 100th anniversary of Wisconsin’s achieving territorial status within the United States, an event that occurred in 1836. It didn’t become an actual state until 1848. Long before these developments, however, Wisconsin was a little-known frontier, a temporary home to trappers passing through in search of beavers and other animals bearing desirable pelts. These trappers, and the missionaries who followed, were primarily French, as this land was then a part of New France. Ceded to Great Britain following the French and Indian Wars of the mid-18th century, Wisconsin later passed to the infant United States as part of Britain’s settlement after the War of Independence. Largely ignored, Wisconsin attained greater importance to Americans when threatened by another war with Britain from 1812-15. In the 1820s, large deposits of lead were discovered in the southwestern part of Wisconsin, which by then was included within the Michigan Territory. The new mining industry brought a flood of prospectors to complement the established fur trade. As the number of white people in the region grew, conflict with the native population was inevitable. In a series of engagements known collectively as the Blackhawk Wars, these inhabitants were either subdued or driven away. Now important enough to be a territory in its own right, Wisconsin was so named in 1836. Its first governor, Henry Dodge, assumed his office on Independence Day, July 4.
The centennial of this event in 1936 was marked by a number of celebrations around the state. Almost as an afterthought, the Wisconsin Centennial Commission appointed a Coinage Committee to seek a commemorative half dollar, sales of which would aid in funding various activities associated with the anniversary. The bill approving this issue was not passed until May 15, 1936, and it included two other commemorative coins marking the centennial of Bridgeport, Connecticut and the tercentenary of Swedish settlement in Delaware. All three coins recognized events of purely local or regional significance and were scarcely worthy of commemoration on U.S. coinage, yet this was 1936, the peak year for promoting such issues.
Wisconsin’s Coinage Committee had already chosen a young university art student to prepare models based on their concept. This included the territorial seal on one side and a badger (part of the state seal) on the other. David Parsons’ models, however, were unacceptable to the Mint, since they were in very high relief. Asked by the committee to name a suitable replacement, the Mint referred the matter to the Commission of Fine Arts, which recruited sculptor Benjamin Hawkins of New York. Given just three weeks to complete his models, Hawkins proved up to the task. They were submitted to the Mint on June 3, 1936 and approved by the Commission of Fine Arts two days later.
The obverse of the Wisconsin half dollar depicts a badger in profile, facing left and perched upon a log. Behind it, arranged vertically, are three arrows, symbolizing the three engagements of the Blackhawk Wars, and an olive branch, denoting the peace which followed. The statutory motto IN GOD WE TRUST is crowded into the space between these symbols. E PLURIBUS UNUM and LIBERTY are arranged in arc form above and below, respectively. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR are inscribed around the periphery. Hawkins’ small initial H is below the log. The reverse depicts the old territorial seal, with a disembodied arm holding a pickaxe suspended above a pile of lead ore. The inscription 4th DAY OF JULY ANNO DOMINI 1836 is arranged in three lines (the Latin part seemingly unnecessary). Encircling the periphery are the legend WISCONSIN TERRITORIAL CENTENNIAL and the date 1936, these separated by stars.
The legislation for this coin specified a minimum mintage of 25,000 but no maximum. The Centennial Commission wisely opted to take a conservative course, and just 25,015 pieces were coined at the Philadelphia Mint in July of 1936 (the odd 15 coins were reserved for assay and were later destroyed). As the Wisconsin Centennial celebration at the state capital of Madison ran from June 27 to July 5, it’s doubtful that any coins were available at that time. Advance orders may have been taken there, as Q. David Bowers related that a number of coins were sold during the fair. Most, however, were likely sold through the efforts of the Coin Committee, which offered them by mail at $1.50 apiece. This body was announcing their sale as early as April, before the enabling act had even passed! Due to their late arrival and limited appeal outside Wisconsin, sales were less than stellar, and huge quantities remained unsold at year’s end. Ten years later, these coins could still be purchased from the State Historical Society at the discounted price of $1.25 per coin when ordered in groups of ten. By 1952 the remaining specimens had been raised in price to $3, plus postage. This supply was eventually exhausted sometime during the 1950s. Due to its prolonged distribution, small hoards of Wisconsin halves were accumulated and may still exist.
As so many coins of this issue were apparently sold to collectors and speculators long after 1936, nearly all Wisconsin halves are in mint state; coins grading EF-AU are seldom encountered. Examples in grades MS-60 through MS-65 are easily located, although the latter carries a large premium over lesser grades. Many specimens will show abrasions, contact marks, slide marks (from coin albums), the effects of harsh cleaning and other flaws which detract from their desirability. Points to check for wear include the miner’s hand and the badger’s shoulder.
Unlike many commemoratives coined during John R. Sinnock’s tenure as Chief Engraver, no proofs have surfaced of this design. Sinnock was a connoisseur of such pieces and usually had one or two made to his order; these may yet turn up. If they do, they’ll likely be of the dull, matte finish that he favored.
Wisconsin halves were sold primarily by mail and were shipped in generic, cardboard holders that contained slots for up to five coins. Apparently, no literature accompanied the coins, nor were the holders themselves printed. Orders of just one or two coins were wrapped in tissue paper and shipped in envelopes that were imprinted L.M. HANKS, FIRST NATIONAL BANK BUILDING, MADISON, WISC. or were rubber-stamped AFTER 10 DAYS RETURN TO STATE SUPERINTENDENT, STATE CAPITOL, MADISON, WISC. These envelopes are collectibles in their own right.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver
To tourists, the state of Vermont is known primarily for its rich maple syrup and great wintertime skiing. To urban Northeasterners it is the source for many of their dairy products. To numismatists, however, Vermont is famed for its two great contributions to American coinage, its charming copper cents of 1785-88, so rich in varieties and historical lore, and the Battle of Bennington/Vermont Sesquicentennial half dollar of 1927.
The citizens of Vermont have always been fighters, fighting for their rights, their principles and, most of all, their cherished independence. Don’t forget that Vermont alone, of all the New England colonies, chose to proclaim itself an independent republic when breaking with Great Britain. This situation lasted for some fourteen years, beginning in 1777 and lasting until Vermont ultimately acceded to joining the Union in 1791 as, coincidentally, the fourteenth state.
Vermont was a relatively unknown and unsettled land until the middle of the 18th century. The French had made sporadic inroads for more than a hundred years, but most preferred to pass through this land in search of more promising pastures. English soldiers and settlers gradually came to predominate in the remote country, but it wasn’t until 1741 that the British Crown finally appointed a royal governor for New Hampshire, including most of what would ultimately become Vermont. The new governor’s name was Benning Wentworth, after whom the town of Bennington was named.
In the 1760s, a boundary dispute between New Hampshire and New York posed the threat of armed conflict. Among those most ready to repulse the invaders from New York were a pair of brothers, both fierce supporters of New Hampshire’s claims to the land, much of which they and their friends occupied. The Allen Brothers, impulsive, fire-breathing Ethan (1739-89) and his younger, more reasonable sibling Ira (1751-1814), were key players in Vermont’s ultimate independence. It was the more aggressive Ethan, however, who quickly formed a militia which called themselves the Green Mountain Boys (Vermont is French for green mountain).
Before war could break out between the colonies of New Hampshire and New York, the Battles of Lexington and Concord gave all concerned a common and far greater cause for which to fight – the independence of Britain’s American colonies. Contrarians as always, the Vermonters could not come to terms with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and chose instead to proclaim their land an independent republic. Thus was born the Republic of Vermont on January 15, 1777, in large part the creation of younger brother Ira Allen. Yet, it was Ethan’s Green Mountain Boys who took their case to the battlefield on August 16, 1777. Under the command of Captain John Stark and Colonel Seth Warner, the Vermonters defeated a force of Hessian mercenaries in a battle that has been termed “the turning point of the Revolution.” The victory was complete, and the British would no longer contest Vermont’s independence. A 300-foot tall monument now marks the site of this historic battle.
As the 150th anniversary of this struggle approached, the Vermont Sesquicentennial Commission sought a commemorative coin to mark the event in 1927. Unlike many such groups that had waited until the last minute to apply for their coins or had even gotten them back-dated after a celebration was over, the folks from Vermont appealed to their representatives in Washington as early as 1924. After much wrangling and deal-cutting, the Vermont half dollar was approved February 24, 1925 in a bill that also authorized the Fort Vancouver Centennial half dollar and the California Diamond Jubilee half dollar. The fact that President of the United States Calvin Coolidge was from Vermont certainly must have weighed in its favor.
The original models for the Vermont half dollar by sculptor Sherry Fry portrayed Ira Allen and the Bennington Monument obelisk. These were disapproved by the Commission of Fine Arts’ sculptor member, James Earle Fraser, of Buffalo nickel fame (Fraser was notorious for rejecting most designs that came his way). After a year of frustration during which countless letters were exchanged between the two bodies, the Vermont Sesquicentennial Commission engaged Charles Keck (creator of the 1915 Panama-Pacific gold dollar) to prepare new models. Of several furnished by the artist, his obverse of Ira Allen and his reverse depicting a striding catamount (mountain lion) were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on April 29, 1926. Curiously, the catamount was a figurative substitute for a previously-rejected model by Keck displaying historic Fay’s Tavern, known also as “The Catamount Tavern.” Although an attractive element, the cat really has no connection to the coin’s theme.
Honoring the 150th anniversary of Vermont’s independence from Britain and the Battle of Bennington, the Vermont Sesquicentennial half dollar portrays on its obverse a right-facing bust of Ira Allen, his name and the inscription FOUNDER OF VERMONT placed below. Above his portrait is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The reverse is dominated by a profile view of a catamount poised atop a mountain crag. In front is the date of the battle AUG. 16 and above the dual dates of commemoration 1777-1927. The words BATTLE OF BENNINGTON and the value HALF DOLLAR are arranged around its periphery. Crowded within the little remaining space are the statutory inscriptions IN GOD WE TRUST and E PLURIBUS UNUM. The artist’s initials CK appear between the cat’s left hind leg and the tip of its tail.
The coins were approved early enough that great hopes were held for their sale. Since the Sesquicentennial Commission desired that these coins be sold primarily to Vermonters, a mintage of just 40,000 pieces was authorized. These were coined at the Philadelphia Mint, along with an additional 34 coins reserved for assay. Even with such a low mintage, some 11,892 pieces were ultimately returned as unsold and destroyed, leaving a net mintage for this issue of 28,108. Obviously, the speculative market in commemoratives was still some years away.
As most of this issue was sold to non-numismatists, the coins were rather carelessly handled over the years. Many will show light wear or signs of unskilled cleaning. Aggravating this condition, some Vermont half dollars are not fully struck in the area of Ira Allen’s hair at the upper-central obverse. One matte proof coin was made to order for Chief Sculptor-Engraver John R. Sinnock, a connoisseur of such pieces; its details are sharp and complete. A small minority of the coins seen will show a diagonal die break on Allen’s forehead above his eyebrow. Part of the original mintage was distributed in custom cardstock holders inscribed with the name of one of several distributing banks. These documentary items are of considerable value in their own right, with or without the coins they contained.
In the lower grades of mint state, Vermont halves may be found with little difficulty. Even in MS-64 and MS-65, a fair number are available, most with excellent, frosty luster. Top-grade examples in MS-66 and above are quite scarce, the high relief of this design inviting nicks and abrasions. Points to check for wear include Ira Allen’s cheek and the hair at his temple; on the reverse, examine the uppermost part of the cat’s foreleg and its hip.
The greatest rarity of this commemorative issue is the fact that not one word of scandal, corruption or greed was uttered against it. The coins were distributed equitably at one dollar apiece, sold primarily to residents of Vermont. The funds raised were set aside for the honorable purpose of studying Vermont’s history. Collectors thus had no angry words for this program. Now that’s something to commemorate!
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver
“Remember the Alamo!” was the cry that spurred Texans on to ultimately defeat Mexico’s army and claim their independence as a republic. The tragic showdown at this humble mission yard in San Antonio became emblematic of the struggle for freedom and self-determination. Nearly a century later, the first in a series of coins celebrating this achievement was issued by the United States Mint. Spanning some five years, these coins eventually became a burden on collectors, who were obliged to purchase each additional issue to maintain the completeness of their sets. By the time the minting of these coins ceased, many hobbyists were quite prepared to forget the Alamo.
Since it was first touched by European exploration in 1528, with the brief visitation of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Texas was largely unknown to anyone but the natives until early in the 19th Century. By that time, Spain had established a few settlements in towns such as San Antonio, Nacodoches, Goliad and Laredo. These villages were originally intended to deter French encroachment from neighboring Louisiana, yet Spain’s colony of Mexico faced a new threat with the purchase of this vast territory by the infant United States of America in 1803. At first, the Spanish cautiously permitted a limited number of Yankees to immigrate to Texas. In 1821, Moses Austin negotiated an agreement with the Spanish governor to resettle 300 families in the region, most of these coming from the southern states. By the time they finally arrived in 1822, Moses Austin had died, and the settlers were now led by his son Stephen. Texas too had changed, as it was now under the rule of Mexico, that nation having just achieved its own independence from Spain after 300 years of Spanish dominion. Young Austin confirmed his father’s agreement with the new government of Mexico, and the Americans began to acquaint themselves with their new homeland. Soon, many more would arrive, and the Mexican authorities watched nervously at the growing majority of Yankees in Texas.
At first quite prepared to live as subjects of Mexico and abide by its laws, increasing restrictions on their liberty rankled at the Americans, and resentment grew. Open rebellion ensued in 1835, and the Texas/Americans declared their independence on March 2, 1836. Although the Texans achieved their freedom only after the far more significant Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, near Houston, it’s the heroic sacrifice at the Alamo that is celebrated in legend. There, just a few hundred rebels, including within their ranks a handful of Mexicans, occupied the mission and its surrounding yard, which had been hastily fortified. The Mexican Army, led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, laid siege to their garrison from February 24 to March 6, 1836. On that final day, the superior Mexican forces overran the fort and, despite taking heavy losses, defeated the rebels and secured the Alamo. Although a few escaped to report what had happened, some 187 Texans were killed, including the now-legendary figures of Jim Bowie, Davy Crockett and William Travis.
Though Texas ultimately surrendered its hard-won independence to become one of the United States in 1845, then briefly seceded from the union in 1861 to join the Confederacy, it’s the date of 1836 which is closest to the hearts of Texans. As its centennial anniversary approached, a tremendous celebration was planned, which would culminate in the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition at Dallas. A bill enacted June 15, 1933 provided for the coining of souvenir half dollars to be sold as part of the centennial observation, the first commemorative coin legislation signed into law since 1928. Proceeds from the sale of these coins would assist in the erection of a memorial building.
Selected as sculptor for this coin was Pompeo Coppini. His models were approved by the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee in May of 1934, whereupon they were delivered to the federal Commission of Fine Arts by Coppini himself, accompanied by Texas Congressman W. O. McFarlane. All of the many elements seen on the coins as issued were already in place, though rendered in an extremely crude fashion. The response by Commission Chairman Charles Moore to Under-Secretary of the Treasury L. W. Robert was unfavorable, to say the very least:
“The design shows the whole history of Texas and all its leading personages in a perfect hodgepodge. The heads are so small that they will disappear on a 50-cent piece and yet it is just this conglomeration on which the Texas people are relying to see 25 cents worth of silver done into a 50-cent piece at the price of a dollar . . .”
The Commission’s sculptor member, Lee Lawrie, suggested numerous changes to be made, including a comment that the slumping, vulture-like eagle “be designed to have dignity and spirt.” Coppini was understanding, but Congressman McFarlane grew impatient with any delays, as the coins were wanted well in advance of the actual centennial in 1936. Lawrie wrote to him with reassuring words to the effect that Coppini could make the desired changes and still retain the spirit of the original work. This seemed to satisfy all parties, as the revised models were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on June 25, 1934.
Pompeo Coppini’s models were then approved by the Treasury Department before being sent to Medallic Art Company of New York City for reduction to hubs. The first installment of an authorized coinage of up to 1,500,000 pieces was produced during October and November of 1934 at the Philadelphia Mint. These were sold at $1 apiece by the American Legion Texas Centennial Committee. Although 205,113 pieces were coined with the 1934 date (the odd 113 were reserved for assay and later destroyed), sales lagged, and the Committee opted to return most of the unsold remainder in exchange for new halves dated 1935 and coined at all three mints. This obvious sales gimmick was the first in a series of abuses that resulted in three-coin sets being produced for each subsequent year through 1938. In August of that year, an advertisement appeared in The Numismatist announcing that existing supplies of Texas halves would be returned to the U. S. Mint for melting after November 1, 1938 and that no more would be coined. The ad went on to say that collectors were urged to complete their sets before it was too late.
A couple of years earlier, the Texas Centennial Committee had turned over the sales of these coins to another group called the Texas Memorial Museum Centennial Coin Committee, which was under the guidance of General Chairman Beauford H. Jester. Though its exploitation of the commemorative coin privilege was deplored by collectors, to its credit this committee did ultimately erect the promised memorial museum at the University of Texas in Austin.
Texas halves frequently show a lack of fullness in their central details. Specifically, Victory’s breasts, her hand, and parts of the branch and drapery at her thigh and knee may be slightly flattened. Satiny luster is the rule for this issue, although it may range from dull all the way to blazingly brilliant. Many of the 1934 coins were sold to the general public were mishandled. Later coins were more likely to enter numismatic channels and are generally better preserved. Look for the first signs of wear on the eagle’s knee and breast and on Victory’s eyebrow and knee.
Some 50 1935-D halves were coined as presentation pieces and show highly polished, prooflike obverse fields (the eagle side); their reverses will be only partially prooflike. These are quite rare and were issued in gold foil-covered boxes with a green velour lining. The underside of the box lid is imprinted TEXAS INDEPENDENCE CENTENNIAL, COMPLIMENTS OF E.H.R. GREEN. “Colonel” Green was a multi-millionaire and hoarder of rare coins until his death in 1936. Another 50 sets of the three 1935-dated halves were presented by Green in silver-foil boxes with a black velour lining; while the boxes are rare, the coins contained therein are ordinary strikes. Most Texas halves, however, were delivered in generic cardboard holders which have little value to collectors. Some of the 1934 halves were sold in plain, small envelopes or without any container at all.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver
Beginning in the late 1820s, an extended period of growth and prosperity began in the United States. Although based largely on land speculation, this expansion was intensified by a series of gold strikes that brought new wealth to parts of northern Georgia and the Carolinas, California, Oregon, and finally Colorado. Despite their vast geographical differences, all of these areas had similar economic interests and shared common problems. From each it was hazardous and costly to transport gold dust to Philadelphia for assay and coining. This in turn led to local economies based largely on barter or the use of “pinches” of gold dust, a notoriously inaccurate method for simple commercial transactions. As in the nation at large, there was a shortage of circulating coinage before the gold strikes, which became acute with the sudden influx of thousands of miners. And most importantly, all of these minerally wealthy regions were ignored by the federal government, whose prerogative it was to strike coinage and establish mints. While the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibited the states from issuing their own money, there was no law against individuals doing so. Private individuals and companies quickly stepped in to fill the void left by the federal government, producing coins and ingots referred to by numismatists as pioneer or territorial issues. The first major U.S. gold rush began in 1828 with the discovery of large deposits in Georgia and North Carolina. In 1830, Georgia gunsmith turned assayer Templeton Reid became the first to privately mint gold coins. Reid made ten, five and two-and-one-half dollar pieces, all of which are very rare today. Later in the same year a German immigrant family of jewelers named Bechtler began to turn Georgia and Carolina gold into gold dollars. Bechtler gold was produced for eighteen years in three denominations: one, two-and-one-half, and five dollars. After 1834 there are three “location stamps” found on the Bechtler coins: NORTH CAROLINA GOLD, CAROLINA GOLD, and GEORGIA GOLD. Rather than denoting the origin of the ore used, these stampings are indicators of the typical fineness of the gold, respectively 20, 21 and 22 carats. Although Bechtler gold was highly regarded throughout the South for years, after the passing of founder Alt Christoph Bechtler and his son August, in 1846 the firm was handed over to Christoph Jr., and his drinking problem obviously got in the way of business. This is reflected in the debasement and discrediting of Bechtler coins during the last two years of production. After James Marshall’s discovery of gold in California in 1848, a number of private minters jumped in to supply the ever-escalating need for a circulating coinage in that region. By the end of 1849 there were approximately eighteen of these private operations at work, almost all located in the San Francisco area. Coinage by these minters fell off sharply after the opening of the Assay Office and later, the San Francisco Mint. While no gold was discovered in Utah, Mormon prospectors brought large quantities of California gold back to the Salt Lake City area. Brigham Young conceived the idea of a distinctive Mormon coinage, and four denominations of two-and-one-half, five, ten, and twenty-dollar coins were struck in 1849-50. While the ten dollar pieces featured the legend PURE GOLD, the other denominations (which were struck later) displayed the initials G.S.L.C.P.G. These stood for “Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold,” an obvious misnomer as all the gold came from California. A second issue was produced in 1860 from bullion brought from strikes in Colorado. All the Mormon gold coins use religious symbols for the central design motifs, and the 1860 pieces use the Deseret alphabet (now extinct) to spell out the legend HOLINESS TO THE LORD. Mormon coins were the first of the Western territorials to be publicly vilified as lightweight and of low fineness. An assay performed on a group of more than $500 face value in Mormon coins in 1851 found the average ten-dollar piece contained only $8.52 in gold. When these figures became public knowledge, the coins were discounted 20-25% by bankers and merchants. Widespread melting followed, and today Mormon gold pieces are very rare, although circulated fives occasionally appear. Like the Mormons of Utah, the territory of Oregon also found it had to deal with the problem of gold dust from California. In the spring of 1849, eight partners established the Oregon Exchange Company in Oregon City. The firm struck 6,000 five-dollar coins and an estimated 2,850 ten-dollar gold pieces, all featuring a beaver as the central design motif with the remainder of each side taken up with statutory legends. The five-dollar pieces have obvious errors in two of the legends that reflect the hurried conditions under which the coins were struck. The obverse displays the initials of the company’s eight partners, but partner Gill Campbell’s initial was cut into the die as G. rather than C. The second error was a mispunching of T.O. for Territory of Oregon rather than the more conventional O.T. for Oregon Territory. Both errors were corrected on the ten-dollar coins. As with the Mormon gold coins, the Oregon “Beavers” were struck from unalloyed gold. To compensate for any possible deficiency in fineness, the coins were made heavier than federal gold pieces. However, unlike the coins struck in Utah, Oregon “Beavers” actually contained more gold than their stated face value. But like most other early private gold issues, the Oregon coins suffered from guilt by association and were deeply discounted. Virtually all were melted and survivors are seldom seen. Ten years after gold was first discovered in California in 1848, the precious yellow metal was found in the territory of Colorado (or Jefferson Territory as it was then known). Just as in California and the other mining regions, shipment eastward to the Philadelphia Mint was long and hazardous. Once again, a solution was found in the private coining of gold near to the source. John J. Conway & Company, jewelers and bankers, advertised to receive gold dust and coin it into $2-1/2, $5 and $10 gold pieces. An unknown quantity of such coins was produced at its mint in Parkville, Summit County, during the late summer of 1861. These pieces bore distinctive designs which made them look more like tokens than coins. Conway & Co.’s gold issues were independently assayed at varying weights and finenesses, but they were not well received overall. The final straw was when the gold fields of Georgia Gulch began to run out, and Conway & Co.’s experiment with coinage lasted no more than about two months. Surviving examples are rare.
Another short-lived entrant in the game of coining Colorado gold was Dr. John D. Parsons, who in partnership with a Mr. Black formed Parsons & Company. Setting up his assaying and minting equipment in the community of Hamilton, Parsons produced a very small output of his gold coins and ingots around June of 1861. His quarter eagles and half eagles bore on their obverse the image of an ore-stamping mill, with the legend J. PARSON (sic) & Co. (the $5 piece spelled his first name JNo), as well as the single word ORO, Spanish for gold. The reverse of each coin displays an eagle with outstretched wings, copied from the federal coinage. The legend PIKES PEAK GOLD and the coin’s value surrounds it. As with Conway & Co., Dr. Parson’s operation was of short duration. It produced very few coins, and less than a dozen pieces are known today for both denominations combined. The most productive coiner of Colorado gold was the firm of Clark, Gruber & Co. The company struck their first year’s coins from unalloyed native gold, but soon found that they abraded too easily. For the second year’s production in 1861, alloy was added to harden the coins for circulation, but in both years this remarkably scrupulous company made its coins 1% heavier than federal issues. Clark, Gruber & Co. struck two-and-one-half, five, ten, and twenty-dollar gold pieces in both 1860 and 1861. The coins were modeled after the U.S. gold coins of the period except for the ten and twenty-dollar issues of 1860, which featured a fictitious view of Pike’s Peak on the obverse. Apparently these dies were engraved in the East by someone who had never seen the famous mountain. Its depiction on the coins resembles a volcanic cone rather than the reality of one high mountain in a long chain. In 1862, Clark, Gruber closed its offices, selling its machinery to the Denver Assay Office in anticipation of the opening of a federal mint in that city (which did not occur until forty-four years later). The final curtain came down on private coinage with Congress’ passage of the Act of June 8, 1864. Intended to stop the minting of Civil War tokens, this legislation prohibited the private manufacture of any coins designed to pass as money. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Breen, Walter, Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Eckfeldt, Jacob R. & Du Bois, William E., New Varieties of Gold and Silver Coins, Counterfeit Coins, and Bullion, George P. Putnam, New York, 1851. Kagin, Donald, Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, Arco, New York, 1981. Taxay, Don, The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins, Scott Publishing Co., New York, 1975.
Throughout the ages, the lure of gold has motivated man to brave almost any hazard in its quest. So it was again in California in 1848 when the greatest gold rush in U.S. history began with John Marshall’s discovery on the American River. Thousands of modern Argonauts suffered the rigors of arduous journeys “around the Horn,” through deadly Panamanian jungles or treks across the North American continent. Nothing of this magnitude had been experienced before. But so much gold came out of California that the precious yellow metal’s price fell sharply against that of silver, resulting in what little silver coinage there was disappearing from circulation. In the mining communities, however, with the unprecedented influx of wealth seekers from around the globe, the problem was even worse. Although there was plenty of money around-in the form of gold dust and nuggets-an acute lack of coinage hampered commerce at every turn. A similar situation existed in all the other early American gold mining regions, both before and after the California strike. Despite their vast geographical differences, in all these areas it was hazardous and costly to transport gold dust to the east coast for assay and coining. Local economies were based largely on barter or the use of “pinches” of gold dust, a notoriously inaccurate method. Branch mints were sorely needed, but the federal government, due to a combination of indifference, politics and sectional rivalries, refused to authorize a mint for any of the gold mining areas. While the U.S. Constitution expressly prohibited the states from issuing their own money, there was no law against individuals doing so. Into this void stepped numerous private firms, each producing coins and ingots known to numismatists as pioneer or territorial issues. By the end of 1849 there were approximately eighteen such companies in California, almost all located in the San Francisco area. Norris, Gregg and Norris was the first of these concerns to issue coins. Norris produced five-dollar coins, and virtually all of these were minted in Benicia, although inscribed San Francisco. Only two pieces survive today that were struck in Stockton. Norris fives are scarce, but occasionally an XF or AU specimen will appear. No doubt the most important name among the early private California issues was that of Moffat & Co. John Moffat and his three partners began striking five and ten-dollar gold coins in 1849 and continued until the end of 1853. Moffat’s reputation remained unimpeachable throughout the era, and its coins passed at par with federal coinage, the only privately minted coins to do so. When the company finally closed its doors in December, 1853, its equipment was purchased by the San Francisco Mint. Rare in mint state, Moffat coins are generally found in circulated grades. The only other firms among the early issuers of California gold whose coins are occasionally seen today are the Miners Bank and Baldwin & Co. Miners Bank ten-dollar coins were crudely manufactured, struck using the ancient hammer method, as coining presses were unavailable at the time. Baldwin & Co. issued fives and tens in 1850, adding twenties the following year. Other gold coin issuers in 1849-50 include such names as J.H. Bowie, Cincinnati Mining & Trading Co., Dubosq & Co., Massachusetts and California Co., J.S. Ormsby, Pacific Company and Shultz & Co. Surviving examples from all these firms are great rarities today, not because so few were struck, but rather because of widespread melting in the early 1850s. Interestingly, their high attrition rate is almost solely attributable to one man, James King of William. King was a banker, originally from the Washington, D.C. area, who gave himself the title “of William” to distinguish himself from several other James Kings in the region. In March, 1851, King sent a group of private territorial gold coins to Augustus Humbert, United States Assayer at the time. The assay showed that the coins contained 97-99% of their stated value. King sent the results to the local newspapers, and the negative publicity created a panic. Local bullion dealers and bankers, including King, refused to accept most private coins for more than 80 cents on the dollar. Many people sold at this ridiculous price. King and others fortunate enough to purchase pieces at this deep discount made huge profits by reselling the coins to Humbert who turned them into $50 Assay Office “slugs.” The coins specifically targeted by King’s assaying scheme were from the three firms of Baldwin, Schultz, and Dubosq, but all the other private concerns (except Moffat) suffered from guilt by association, and their coins were widely melted. As a result, most early California territorial issues are extremely rare.
Although Congress failed to authorize a branch mint for San Francisco, in 1850, as a stop-gap measure, it approved an Assay Office in its stead. The government contract to produce fifty-dollar ingots was awarded to Moffat & Co. with Augustus Humbert as U.S. Assayer. In 1851, the management team of Moffat and Humbert struck the impressive octagonal fifty-dollar gold pieces with their “engine turned” reverses. After James King’s intrigues effectively stopped further private production of small denomination coins, in March, 1851, Moffat petitioned the federal government for permission to issue pieces smaller than the fifty-dollar “slugs.” For political reasons, permission was at first denied, as this would have turned the Assay Office into a de facto mint. The following year, however, the Treasury Department relented, and the Assay Office minted ten and twenty-dollar coins in 1852 and 1853. After Moffat retired in February, 1852, the Assay Office contract was taken over by his former partners, Curtis, Perry & Ward. In December, 1853, the U. S. Assay Office was closed to make way for the new San Francisco Mint. Unlike the other private issues, the semi-official Assay Office coins never suffered from widespread melting, and many examples survive to this day. At one time, two collectors, George Walton and John A. Beck, each accumulated more than one hundred of the fifty-dollar “slugs.” The lack of refining acids on the west coast was a consistent theme for all California gold producers. Because of the naturally occurring high gold content found in California ore, most Gold Rush coinage was struck without alloy. This produced coins that varied in fineness between 850 and 925 thousandths. The U.S. Mint, however, could not tolerate a variable standard: by law, U.S. gold coins had to be .900 fine. But the lack of parting acids necessary to operate a branch mint delayed that institution’s opening until 1854, and even after production officially began, coining operations were periodically suspended when refining acids became scarce again. The daily needs for coinage continued, however, but by 1854, most small denomination gold coins had been melted. Into this void stepped two highly reputable firms, Wass, Molitor & Co. and Kellogg & Co. Wass and Molitor were two Hungarian immigrants who established an assay office in San Francisco in 1851. With a reputation for scrupulous honesty second only to John Moffat’s, the two men issued five and ten-dollar pieces in 1852. When the Assay Office and later the federal mint began striking their own gold coins, Wass and Molitor ceased their coining operations. But when the newly opened mint failed to produce enough coinage to satisfy demand and then closed in 1855 because of a lack of parting acids, local bankers and merchants petitioned the firm to resume production. Obliging, they issued ten, twenty, and fifty-dollar gold pieces in 1855. Although the San Francisco Mint rated the coins from Wass, Molitor at full face value, most were nevertheless melted and converted into federal gold. Today Wass, Molitor pieces are among the most highly coveted of all territorial issues. Another individual asked by local bankers to produce coinage was John Kellogg, a former cashier for Moffat & Co. While only in operation for two years, 1854 and ‘55, Kellogg & Co. produced more than six million dollars in gold coinage. Today, the Kellogg twenties are among the more available California territorial issues. This is due in part to the large number produced, but also because of a hoard of 58 pieces found in Thayer County, Nebraska in 1907. Allegedly, two ranchers hid the coins while being pursued by hostile Indians in 1867. They were presumably killed, as the coins were found by two boys playing in the woods near Alexandria, Nebraska forty years later. Most high grade Kellogg twenties known today come from this hoard. The few territorial gold issues that survive today are token reminders of a pivotal time in U.S. history, a time when initiative in the private sector was absolutely necessary for economic survival, and even the simplest monetary requirements had to be met locally rather than by a federal government thousands of miles away. While the private firms lasted only a few years, the crucial function they served in people’s everyday lives made development possible and aided in the economic growth of the nation at large. The final curtain came down on private coinage with Congress’ passage of the Act of June 8, 1864. Intended to stop the minting of Civil War tokens, this legislation prohibited the private manufacture of any coins designed to pass as money. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Breen, Walter, Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988. Eckfeldt, Jacob R. & Du Bois, William E., New Varieties of Gold and Silver Coins, Counterfeit Coins, and Bullion, George P. Putnam, New York, 1851. Kagin, Donald, Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, Arco, New York, 1981. Taxay, Don, The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins, Scott Publishing Co., New York, 1975.
One of the more common U. S. commemorative coins, the Stone Mountain half dollar was a by-product of a much larger undertaking-the carving of monumental figures of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis into the side of a sheer cliff. These heroes of the Southern Confederacy (only Lee and Jackson appear on the coin) were portrayed on horseback on a scale that would render them visible for miles. This great sculpture was not completed until more than fifty years after it commenced, and it left behind a legacy of strife and scandal which at one point brought all work to a halt. The coins that resulted from this visionary project possess a remarkable history of their own.
For many years after its sad end in 1865, the failed Confederate States of America remained a lost cause from which the South was continually attempting to recover. This all changed in 1915 with the release of The Birth of A Nation, an epic film by motion picture pioneer David Wark Griffith. Himself the son of a Confederate veteran, D. W. Griffith was raised on tales of Southern chivalry and the glorious cause of “states rights.” In his melodramatic depiction of the Civil War and its aftermath in the South, Griffith glorified this period and launched a revival of its traditions. These were manifested in a variety of ways, not all of them progressive, but one result of this renewed interest in the CSA was a grand scheme to memorialize its most beloved figures.
In 1916, sculptor Gutzon Borglum was commissioned by the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association to carve a large bust of General Robert E. Lee into the mountain’s broad northeast face. The Association envisioned something on the order of 20 feet square that could be viewed with a telescope. Borglum countered with a much grander pictorial scene of CSA officers on horseback accompanied by a parade of infantry. Also envisioned were a memorial hall and museum at the base of the mountain, as well as a gigantic amphitheater. Borglum’s power of persuasion was superb, and the Association followed his lead; the plan was approved.
Georgia’s Stone Mountain is located a few miles northeast of Atlanta. It stands 867 feet high and is more than seven miles in circumference at the base. The exposed northeast face is itself nearly a mile wide. At the time the sculpture was conceived, this mountain was still privately owned by the family of Samuel H. Venable. An agreement was reached in which the owners would permit the carving to go on for 12 years. If not completed in that time, all title to the mountain and its carvings would revert to the Venable Family.
A formal dedication of the project’s commencement was held in May of 1916. From this auspicious beginning, everything slid downhill. World War I interrupted the work in 1917, and it wasn’t until June 18, 1923 that the carving resumed. The real trouble began when the Association and sculptor Borglum became engaged in a feud. It was charged that the artist was negligent, appearing only rarely at the site while simple stone cutters did all the work. In addition, he was accused of being too involved in the promotional and fundraising aspects of the campaign to perform his primary responsibility as designer and sculptor. To this Borglum responded with charges of artistic interference from the Association’s officers and, more ominously, with a claim that President Hollins N. Randolph was diverting the donated funds to his own uses and running up exorbitant expense accounts. Both sides were ultimately proved correct. In the short term, however, Borglum was discharged on February 25, 1925. In a fit of fury, he destroyed all of his models and plans. This action caused him to be denounced by the Association, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The charges were later dropped, but the animosity remained for several years.
The carving work was reassigned to Augustus Lukeman, who would later create the Daniel Boone Bicentennial half dollar in 1934. Although he entered the project by first blasting away whatever carving had been accomplished to that point, Lukeman proved to be more compliant than his predessor and continued on the project until 1930. By then, all of the scandal and bickering, combined with the effects of the Great Depression, ruined the Association and brought all further work to a standstill for more than 30 years. In the meantime, Borglum went on to successfully create the monumental portraits of four U. S. presidents on the face of Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. The Confederate Memorial project was finally revived in 1963 by the State of Georgia, which purchased the mountain and surrounding area from its private owners and completed the carving seven years later. The amphitheater was never built, but there is a visitor center at the site.
Amid all of these developments, the idea of a commemorative coin was almost an afterthought. The success of other organizations in raising funds through the sale of these coins prompted the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association to seek its own issue which would be designed and sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who was then still in its good graces. With strong support from President of the United States Calvin Coolidge, a bill was passed March 17, 1924 which authorized the minting of up to five million half dollars honoring the soldiers of the South and the memory of the recently-deceased President Warren G. Harding. In fact, Harding’s portrait appeared in Gutzon Borglum’s first models for this coin but was removed on the instructions of President Coolidge. This is ironic in view of the fact that Coolidge himself would appear in life on the obverse of the American Independence Sesquicentennial half dollar in 1926.
The models furnished by Borglum to the federal Commission of Fine Arts were repeatedly rejected by sculptor member James Earle Fraser, creator of the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel. These models were in very low relief, were inaccurately modeled and were overly crowded with lettering too small to be discernible on the finished coin. It was not until October 10, 1924 that Fraser finally gave his reluctant approval, declaring the revised models “barely passable.”
The Association proved naively optimistic in its projected sales of five million coins. Only 2,310,000 were actually struck to their order at the Philadelphia Mint, an additional 4,709 being coined for assaying purposes and later destroyed. The first minting occurred on January 21, 1925, the 101st anniversary of “Stonewall” Jackson’s birth. The first 1000 pieces were coined with a medal press; a number of these were presented to assorted dignitaries, while the remainder were reserved for later presentations to persons assisting in the Stone Mountain project. The remaining coins minted were delivered by the end of March. They were placed on sale at $1 apiece beginning July 3, 1925.
An amazing number of creative marketing techniques were devised to move these coins and realize a maximum return, no easy feat given that their enormous mintage discouraged sales to both coin collectors and speculators. A New York marketing specialist named Harvey Hill was engaged to oversee such promotions. Large corporations were drafted to purchase quantities of these coins to present or sell to their employees. Perhaps the most interesting scheme, however, and the one with the greatest value to present day collectors was Hill’s idea to counterstamp a number of coins with the initials of various southern states and a range of serial numbers. These special souvenirs were then auctioneered amid much publicity; one example counterstamped for Florida realized an amazing $1,300! These have become quite popular with coin collectors, but purchasers are warned to buy only coins which have accompanying documentation, as the counterstamps can be replicated.
All of these efforts were in vain, however, as sales lagged amid all of the bad publicity over the Association’s misadventures. After several years of attempting to sell the Stone Mountain halves, one million coins were returned to the Mint for melting. This left a net mintage of 1,310,000 pieces. Still too many for the market to absorb, countless coins remained in banks as late as the 1930s and were ultimately dumped into circulation at face value. This fact accounts in part for the great many survivors which evidence wear or other signs of mishandling. To detect such wear, examine General Lee’s elbow and the eagle’s breast.
Still, enough mint state coins exist in grades MS-60 through MS-65 that examples are relatively inexpensive. Even a sizable number of MS-66 coins have been certified by the grading services, although the totals drop off dramatically in higher grades. Stone Mountain halves are typically quite frosty, with luster that ranges all the way from dull to flashy. A few will appear flatly struck on the highest design points, but well struck coins remain abundant. Also fairly common and quite popular is the variety with a distinctly doubled obverse die. This is most visible in the date and legend STONE MOUNTAIN.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver
By the mid-1930s, U.S. commemorative coins were nothing new: in fact, the proliferation of issues was beginning to be viewed with disdain by many collectors. In light of the blatant and unbridled commercialism and controversy associated with many of the earlier issues, even Congress started to look negatively upon the commemorative coinage program. Unfortunately, the situation would get even worse as the decade wore on.
One man who was often in the center of this maelstrom but still managed to emerge unscathed by any allegations of impropriety was L.W. Hoffecker, a Texas coin dealer who would later serve as president of the American Numismatic Association (1939-41). Hoffecker was well aware of the growing resentment among collectors who, in the pursuit of complete collections of Mint issues, were being taken advantage of by the various commemorative committees. A large number of coins had been issued celebrating insignificant events and often in multiple varieties, solely to generate more money from the numismatic community. More a part of the problem than the solution, Hoffecker himself secured Congressional approval in 1929 for a half dollar celebrating the Gadsden Purchase, but he saw his plans aborted when President Hoover vetoed the bill. Determined to succeed in his quest for a coin, Hoffecker went searching for another event to commemorate and began a program of Congressional lobbying to assure passage of his proposal.
In his capacity as Chairman of the El Paso (Texas) Museum Committee, Hoffecker found his event. Re-writing history to suit his own ends, Hoffecker claimed that El Paso was the end of the Old Spanish Trail traveled by early explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and the remnants of an 1527 Spanish expedition. It apparently made little difference that the actual Old Spanish Trail followed an entirely different route than that taken by Cabeza de Vaca, and furthermore, the year (1935) picked to celebrate its 400th anniversary had little historical relevance to the dates (1528-1536) of the early explorer’s travels. Obviously, Hoffecker’s public relations campaign with Congress swept right past these “minor” details, as legislation was passed on June 5, 1935 authorizing a maximum of 10,000 half dollars commemorating just such an occasion.
In the early decades of exploration in the New World, Spain sent out fleet after fleet of galleons across the Atlantic in search of treasure. In the winter of 1527-28, an expedition of 700 men and five ships led by Panfilo de Narvaez searched unsuccessfully for gold in what is present-day Florida. Within a year, almost 300 men had succumbed to the ravages of disease, hostile Indians and violent storms. After the bulk of the crew was blown out to sea in a storm, about 80 survivors, including the expedition’s treasurer, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, regrouped on Galveston Island in November of 1528.
Over the next eight years, Cabeza de Vaca and his ever-dwindling band of surviving crewmembers wandered throughout the Southwest. They lived among friendly Indians at times, and at other times were held as slaves. Finally, in April 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and his Moorish companion, Estabanico, wandered into a Spanish military patrol in northern Mexico. An account of the group’s adventures was recorded in a book that saw wide circulation at the time, Los Naufragios, and this in turn popularized the Old Spanish Trail.
Hoffecker had a specific design in mind for the Old Spanish Trail half dollar, and after some searching recruited local El Paso sculptor, Edmund J. Senn, to execute his plans. Because Senn only carried out Hoffecker’s design concept, his initials were not placed on the coin. Instead, Hoffecker’s initials (LWH) are seen on the lower reverse at the border, to the right of the date 1935.
No other commemorative design has been so widely criticized. Some critics, including Cornelius Vermeule, have all but called the coin’s design banal. Much of this stems from the use of a head of a cow as the central device, serving as a metaphor for Cabeza de Vaca (Spanish for “head of a cow”). Allegedly, this unusual name was inherited from an ancestor who used a cow’s skull to mark a mountain trail, enabling the Spanish army to defeat the occupying Islamic forces. As a reward, the Spanish king re-Christened the shepherd and all his descendants Cabeza de Vaca.
Directly above the cow’s head on the coin’s obverse is the legend LIBERTY and above that, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Below is the explorer’s name ALVAR NUNEZ CABEZA DE VACA. Encircling the rim are the inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR. The reverse displays a map of the southern United States from Florida through Texas with the Spanish Trail marked off across five states, ending at EL PASO. Continuing his disregard for historical accuracy, Hoffecker designated stops along the trail at cities that did not exist in the early 16th century. Superimposed on the map is a blooming yucca tree, a common plant in the desert regions of the southwestern United States. At the bottom of the reverse are the two dates 1535 and 1935. The legend OLD•SPANISH•TRAIL appears at the top border and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST is to the right of the yucca tree.
The full authorization of 10,000 coins (plus 8 pieces reserved for assay) were struck in Philadelphia in September of 1935. They were distributed through the El Paso Museum Committee for $2 apiece. Until recently, it was commonly assumed that Hoffecker was even-handed in the sale and distribution of the Spanish Trail halves. When the coin dealer’s correspondence was sold and later published, it became known that favoritism played a role in the sale of these coins just as it had with other, previous commemorative issues. In 1954, Hoffecker stated that he only had twelve coins remaining from the original mintage, and he intended to save these for his grandchildren. This was clearly false, as 49 coins were sold out of his estate in a Pullen and Hanks sale in 1982, and another 63 pieces were auctioned by Superior Galleries in 1987. Other than these coins, however, no other hoards have surfaced.
Regardless of any distribution shenanigans that may have occurred, the coins were widely distributed, with the vast majority sold to collectors. As a result, most Spanish Trail halves encountered today are MS-60 or better, but this issue can be quite challenging in the higher Mint State grades. Because of the large, open fields, they are especially susceptible to nicks and abrasions that might otherwise go unnoticed on a coin with a busier design. Abrasions and friction are first noticed on the top of the cow’s head and in the center of its face.
The popularity of this coin with collectors has also resulted in at least two types of counterfeits: One is cast and shows porosity over the surfaces; the other displays field irregularities and bright, semi-prooflike surfaces. Genuine Spanish Trail halves do not have reflective surfaces, and any coin that displays such characteristics should be immediately suspect. Two fine-grain matte proofs are known, but these have not been seen since 1956: They have extraordinarily strong details on the yucca tree and cow’s head, and the surfaces have an almost chalky appearance.
Like many of its contemporaries, the Spanish Trail half dollar was essentially a private venture struck in the U.S. Mint. But with its relatively low mintage of only 10,000 coins, it has proven to be one of the more popular commemorative issues. As it was only struck in one mint and during one year, it is a necessary coin for anyone attempting to complete either a type set or complete series of the commemorative issues. And with its distinctive Southwestern design, the Spanish Trail is one of the few halves sought by collectors other than commemorative specialists.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100 copper
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure silver