Type 2 Gold Dollars 1854-1856 Coin Guide
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Type 2 Gold Dollars 1854-1856
In the first ten years after the California Gold rush began, some $600
million in gold was discovered in California as its population exploded
from a minuscule 25,000 to more than half a million. The great rush
wrought an overnight transformation in the future Golden State. Indeed, it
was responsible for making California the nation's 31st state: The flood
of Forty-Niners that descended on the region in 1849 opened the door to
statehood the very next year. While much of America teetered on the brink
of civil war, Californians were preoccupied with finding their personal
fortune and staking a permanent claim to it.
The gold rush changed the face of United States coinage, as well. The
massive amounts of gold emerging from California prompted Congress to
authorize three new denominations-a gold dollar, a three-dollar gold piece
and a double eagle, or twenty-dollar gold piece-between 1849 and 1854. In
large part, these were intended to help convert the mountain of metal into
a form more usable by the public. Double eagles, of course, accounted for
the bulk of the coins made. Between 1850 and 1854, over eight million were
The gold dollar and double eagle-the smallest and largest regular-issue
gold coins in U.S. history-both had their genesis in the coinage act of
March 3, 1849. And both were designed by James Barton Longacre, the U.S.
Mint's chief sculptor-engraver from 1844 to 1869.
Objections arose almost at once to the dollar's tiny size: At thirteen
millimeters in diameter, it was more than one-fourth smaller than today's
Roosevelt dime, and critics complained that this made it easy to lose.
Mint officials took these protests seriously, and over the next few years,
test strikes were made of a number of possible substitutes that were
larger in diameter but compensated for this with center holes.
The process took a different turn in 1853, when James Ross Snowden
became the new director of the Mint. Snowden agreed that the gold dollar
should be larger, but instead of using a hole to keep the weight the same,
he advocated making the coin somewhat thinner. He assigned Chief Engraver
Longacre to make this modification and, at the same time, to come up with
a new design.
Initially, the gold dollar had a head of Liberty much like the one on
the double eagle. By 1854, however, when Snowden ordered the changes,
Longacre had a new model available: He had just designed the three-dollar
gold piece, and he patterned the new gold dollar after that.
Its obverse features a left-facing portrait of a female figure wearing
a fancy headdress. The female figure is frequently described as being an
"Indian princess," and the coin is commonly known as the
"Indian Head" type. Longacre's reverse design shows the date and
denomination within a wreath of corn, cotton, wheat and tobacco.
Renowned numismatic scholar Walter Breen argued persuasively that the
head Longacre used wasn't that of an Indian at all, but rather a copy of
Venus Accroupie, or "Crouching Venus," a Roman marble figure
then on display in a Philadelphia museum. Longacre had used this same head
on the gold dollar and twenty of 1849; he would use it again on the Indian
Head cent and the three-cent nickel, each time with a different headdress.
Being 15% larger in diameter, this Type 2 gold dollar was easier to
keep track of-and less likely to get lost-than its predecessor had been.
Unfortunately, however, it had a major shortcoming of its own: Longacre
had made the relief on the obverse too high, and the overwhelming majority
of the coins were less than fully struck as a result. Very few examples
exhibit sharp details in the hair, the word DOLLAR and the date-and even
the designer's initial L, located on the truncation of the bust, is often
barely visible. Branch-mint issues are particularly weak.
Because of the striking difficulties, Longacre had to go back to the
drawing board yet again, and the Type 2 dollar lasted only until 1856
before giving way to a Type 3. During its brief existence, barely 1.6
million Type 2 examples were produced, with the Philadelphia issues of
1854 and 1855 accounting for the vast majority. The three southern branch
mints all made the coin in 1855, but outputs were extremely small at
Dahlonega (D mintmark) and Charlotte (C), where mintages totaled just
1,811 and 9,803, respectively. New Orleans (O) minted 55,000 that year.
The new branch in San Francisco (S) was the only mint to make this type in
1856. As on the other gold dollars, the mintmark appears below the wreath.
Philadelphia struck five proofs in 1854 and less than fifteen in 1855.
The proofs appear very infrequently, usually only when major collections
are sold. An 1854 was in the 1979 Garrett sale, and 1855s were in the 1978
Bareford and 1982 Eliasberg sales. The collection of John Jay Pittman,
auctioned in 1997, included both of these fabulous rarities.
Given its relief problems and its small total population, the Type 2 is
exceptionally elusive in mint condition. It is rare in Mint State-65, and
extremely rare above that level. Key points to check for signs of wear
include the hair over the eye and the bow knot at the base of the wreath.
A complete date-and-mint set of Type 2 gold dollars would consist of
just six coins. But in view of the great rarity of the 1855-C and
particularly the 1855-D, most people collect this as a type coin,
acquiring only one high-grade specimen.
Walter Breen estimated that less than 1% of the Type 2 dollar mintage
still exists in all grades. The coins wore down so quickly when exposed to
circulation that within a few years, much of the total output had been
rendered almost illegible. By then, gold dollars-like much of the nation's
coinage-had all but stopped circulating anyway, because of widespread
hoarding during the Civil War.
California may have been the last major bastion of Type 2 gold dollars
in commerce, since U.S. coins in general continued to circulate there
throughout the war. If so, that would have been entirely fitting:
California, after all, is where the gold came from in the first place.
Diameter: 15 millimeters Weight: 1.672 grams Composition: .900 gold,
.100 copper Edge: Reeded Net Weight: .04837 ounce pure gold
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Akers, David W., United States Gold Coins,
Volume I, Gold Dollars 1849-1889, Paramount Publications, Englewood, OH,
1975. Breen, Walter, Major Varieties of U. S. Gold Dollars, Hewitt
Numismatic Printers, Chicago. Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Taxay, Don, The U.S. Mint and Coinage, Arco Publishing Co., New
York, 1966. Winter, Douglas, Gold Coins of the Charlotte Mint 1838-1861,
DWN Publishing, Dallas, 1998. Winter, Douglas, Gold Coins of the Dahlonega
Mint 1838-1861, DWN Publishing, Dallas, 1997. Winter, Douglas, New Orleans
Mint Gold Coins 1839-1909, Bowers and Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH,
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.