The early years of American gold coinage were some of the most interesting and historically significant times for rare coins. These are some of the rarest, most desirable, and aesthetically appealing pieces ever produced by the United States Mint.
The Coinage Act or the Mint Act, passed by the United States Congress on April 2, 1792, established the United States Mint and regulated the coinage of the United States.
However, the first gold coins from the U.S. Mint weren’t issued until 1795, due to the lack of the proper performance bonds that would allow them to handle precious metals such as silver and gold.
The first 39 years of U.S. Mint gold production is known as “Early Gold,” referring to issues struck between 1795 and 1834.
The First U.S. Gold Coin
In June of 1795, the first Mint Director, David Rittenhouse, stepped down from his position because he was exhausted from all of the challenges in establishing the first mint, from equipment issues to personnel problems.
His successor was Henry William DeSaussure, who was immediately urged by President Washington to proceed with the production of gold coins, which were authorized in the Mint Act three years earlier.
Chief Engraver, Robert Scot had been working on the dies for the Half-Eagles which were ready by July 31, 1795 when the first U.S. gold coins were issued. These coins were struck on a screw press, powered by human muscle. Each Early Gold coin was handmade, creating an alluring surface strike that the future steam press production after 1834 could never replicate.
Three Early Gold Denominations
The three denominations of Early Gold are the $10 Eagle, $5 Half-Eagle, and $2.50 Quarter-Eagle.
The first gold coins did not have a denomination on them. Our forefathers traded gold by its weight and purity, as money was gold, and gold was money. The U.S. Mint was under extreme scrutiny by foreign mints and others to be exact in its value.
The Gold Eagle was equal to 10 Silver Dollars, although Eagles bore no denomination until resumption of their production in 1838. The Gold Eagle was America’s largest denomination at the time, and was first coined on September 22, 1795, with its design matching the Half-Eagle.
It took an additional year to produce the first Quarter-Eagle, in September of 1796, which featured the same design as the Eagle and Half-Eagle gold coins, except the Quarter-Eagle had the Great Seal on the reverse from the first production run. Two major varieties were produced in 1796: The first had no stars on its obverse, possibly because of the issue of adding more stars representing new states; and the second variety later that year did include the stars, which remained throughout subsequent years.
In all, there are a total of eleven major types of early United States gold in three denominations.
How to Collect Early Gold
Collecting Early Gold is one of the most exciting areas in American Numismatics. There are several popular ways to collect Early Gold;
- By Type
- By Denomination
- By Date
- By Preference
Many collectors choose to acquire one nice example of each of the major eleven types of Early Gold. Since there are only eleven coins by Type, it is a realistic project for many collectors. Each coin in this set collection has a different design, and most types are available in higher grades.
Many collectors decide to collect a specific denomination, since there are just three denominations of Early Gold… Quarter-Eagles, Half-Eagles and Eagles. Early Gold denominations have a number of different types, so there is a lot of variety in collecting by denomination.
Assembling a set of Early Gold denominations in each date that was produced by denomination or type can be quite exciting. A carefully assembled, well-matched date set can grow in value as a complete or virtually complete date collection when it’s time to sell.
Other ways to collect Early Gold is by personal preference. Some ideas could include a first year/last year set, an 18th century set, a pedigreed set, or a best-available-coin set. Building these sets can be fun because they are unique to a specific collector, and not as rigorous as some of the more clearly defined collecting sets.
Mint History’s Mystery
Many of the Gold Half-Eagle varieties among the early dates came from simple design changes such as stamping one date over another, using different-sized numbers within the dates, or adding a star.
Half-Eagles struck in 1797 can have either 15 or 16 stars on the obverse. The 16th star was added after Tennessee became the 16th state on June 1, 1796.
The original Small Eagle design on the reverse (1795-1797) was mocked and called the “little chicken.” This and other reasons caused a redesign of the eagle, making it a larger and more majestic “Heraldic” eagle. The reverse changed to the Great Seal beginning in 1798, to make it consistent with the other denominations minted at that time.
An interesting fact is that some of the coins dated 1795 have the new reverse with the Great Seal. Why? Well, the mint was very thrifty in the early years, and old dies were used until they were unusable, and only then were they replaced. So the new Great Seal coins were coined after 1798, using the 1795 obverse dies.
Gold Shines Through The Mint’s Darkest Days
The darkest days of the U.S. Mint were the late 1790s to the early 1800s, at the time these first gold coins were produced.
Many citizens of the new nation were deeply suspicious of federal power. They were accustomed to using coins issued by their own state banks, along with various forms of foreign currency. The suggestion of a single federal mint producing a uniform coinage was somewhat disturbing.
The U.S. Mint went through three Mint directors due to the stress in the first fledgling years of the Mint’s humble beginnings.
First Mint Director
David Rittenhouse, April 1792–June 1795
Second Mint Director
Henry William De Saussure, July 1795–October 1795
Third Mint Director
Elias Boudinot, October 1795–July 1805
U.S. Mint's Fight For Life
The U.S. Mint of the late 18th and early 19th centuries struggled to remain operational, and the mint’s end seemed near due to multiple factors;
- Repeated attempts to acquire new minting equipment failed.
- Equipment shortages and personnel problems compounded problems.
- Production difficulties and inadequate funding made minting very tough.
- Bullion deposits dropped off dramatically in 1801 affecting coining.
- All Federal agencies moved to the new Capitol in Washington D.C.
- Congress declared the Mint a failure, and wanted to abolish it.
- A bill for abolishing the Mint passed in 1802, but was over-ruled.
- A catastrophic fire consumed Mint buildings, stopping production.
- In 1797-98, and again in 1802, yellow fever epidemics closed Mint operations.
It is estimated that over 2,000 died from yellow fever in Philadelphia between July and November 1793, including many Mint employees, as well as the Mint’s first engraver, Joseph Wright, who succumbed to yellow fever in mid-September, 1793
Bullion supplies also remained erratic, fluctuating with the changing economy of the times. And, with the value of silver declining as measured against gold, U.S. gold coins were driven down until coining of the Gold Eagle was suspended in 1804.
Tangible Pieces of History
It had long been recognized by America’s leaders at that time, that the U.S. Mint had many problems and challenges that prevented it from reaching its initial objectives. But the U.S. Mint prevailed and produced some of the finest gold coins in the world – coins that live on today as a testament to the strong will and determination of the American spirit.
When you hold Early U.S. Gold, you are literally holding history in your hands. What those gold coins had to go through to survive over 200 years of circulation and Mint melting is truly inspiring.
Obviously Early Gold is in very limited supply today, with ever-increasing collector and investor demand. Reserve these pieces of history for your collection, and experience being the custodian of these monetary artifacts of U.S. History.
Own a Piece of U.S. History
These beautiful coins are of great historical significance and have proven to appreciate in value over the years. They are cornerstone coins for a rare coin collection, and should be included in substantial rare coin portfolios.
If you are looking for long term price appreciation, you have to take a look at the past performance of Early Gold.
As the collector base of rare coin investors has grown, the number of collectors looking to take a position in these epic gold coins has grown as well. It’s simply a case of supply and demand, and the supply of these coins in higher grades is very limited, when you start comparing them to other areas of the rare coin market.
Monaco has built a foundation of knowledge, and has significant inventories of these major rarities in certified grades. Each example of an Early Gold coin is a story in itself.