The first one-dollar gold coin was issued in 1849, more than half a century after the Coinage Act of 1792 but just one year after gold was discovered in California. James B. Longacre designed the coins, which were issued in three Types between 1849 and 1856. Coins in the first Type were just 12.7 mm in diameter, smaller than a contemporary dime. The coin’s size was increased to 14.3 mm in 1854.
The original Type 1 gold dollar featured a Liberty Head on one side and a wreath on the other. The most common Liberty Heads at that time were those minted in Philadelphia from 1851 to 1853, when almost 10 million coins were struck at that mint alone (some 12 million Type 1 coins were produced overall). But between 1859 and 1861, 8 million Liberty Heads were melted down so that the government could make other gold coins, which means that within a single decade, two-thirds of all Type 1 coins were lost.
Of the Liberty Heads, the rarest of the rare is undoubtedly the 1849C ("C" designates the mint in Charlotte, North Carolina) whose wreath on the coin’s reverse side is open at the top. The most counterfeited Liberty Heads are those purporting to have been minted in Philadelphia in 1853.
In 1854, a larger, so-called Indian Princess Head dollar was introduced (as it turns out, the portrait is probably not of an Indian Princess, but the name stuck). The first of these, minted from 1854 to 1856, are known as Type 2 and are usually referred to as Small Indian Princess Heads to differentiate them from the Type 3 Indian Princess Heads struck between 1856 and 1889. Coins in this latter group featured a larger head on the coin’s obverse, or front. All Type 2 coins are rare since they were only minted for three years in relatively low numbers.
Type 3 coins feature a very similar portrait on the front as the one on Type 2 coins, but it was enlarged and flattened to make the coin easier to strike. Of particular interest to collectors are the 1861 one-dollar gold coins minted in Dahlonega, Georgia. These were actually issued by the Confederacy after the Mint was seized. There is no accurate record of the number of coins struck, but some estimates put the number at as few as 1,250.
In addition to watching out for fakes (1853, 1854, 1855, and 1868 are the most commonly counterfeited years), gold-dollar coin collectors need to watch for evidence that a coin was used in jewelry. For a while, this was an especially popular practice with the original Liberty Heads. Look for solder marks, which dramatically decrease a coin’s value.
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