Shortly after his election, President Theodore Roosevelt concluded that American coins were “artistically of atrocious hideousness,” not possessing the design clout of other global and historical pieces. This less-than-positive view led to the overhaul of five prominent U.S. coins, an effort that aimed to elevate artistic esteem of the nation’s hard metal currency overall. The coins selected were the four gold eagle denominations – $20 double eagle, $10 eagle, $5 half eagle and $2.50 quarter eagle – plus the U.S. cent. Each of the coins had been circulating with their current designs for more than 25 years, meaning that congressional authorization was not required for them to undergo reworks.
To lead the overhaul project, President Roosevelt had his personal friend, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, commissioned, much to the irritation of the U.S. Mint. While Roosevelt intended for Saint-Gaudens to handle all five redesigns, the sculptor fell ill partway through the project, passing away before its completion. Saint-Gaudens would directly design only the $20 double eagle and $10 eagle.
Beginning with the U.S. cent, Saint-Gaudens created a “flying eagle” reverse motif that featured the iconic American bird soaring gloriously through the air. The cent, as it turned out, couldn't lawfully feature an eagle image. As such, the "flying eagle" design was assigned to the gold double eagle and Saint-Gaudens went back to the drawing board for the cent. He developed a second concept that depicted an obverse profile portrait of Lady Liberty, which he presented to President Roosevelt. The president, it turned out, felt quite strongly that a Native American headdress should be included on one of the coins as a symbol of the land’s history. He suggested adding one to the top of Liberty's head, to which Saint-Gaudens obliged. This move would later perpetuate criticism since, as historians have stated, such a headdress would never have been worn by a female, much less a Caucasian female.
All the while, Saint-Gaudens was undecided on a motif to use for the gold eagle pieces. In subsequent correspondence with the president, he ended up proposing the “Indian Head” imagery previously presented for the cent to be used for the double eagle instead. Before then, all parties presumed that the four gold pieces would be struck in the same design – the previously conceived flying eagle. Upon hearing the new proposal, however, Roosevelt decided that there would now be two design series spanning the gold coins – the flying eagle for the $20 piece, and the “Indian Head” for the $10, $5 and $2.50 pieces. As such, Saint-Gaudens set out to finish his work, focusing on dies for the double eagle and eagle pieces first.
Saint-Gaudens’ initial die submissions were cast with reliefs far too high for sustainable production. They put undue stress on the Mint’s presses and called for multiple strikes to produce just one coin. Saint-Gaudens went back to develop lower relief dies, but these second-round versions were also unsuitable. This relief reworking carried on for quite some time, adding frustration and delay to the coins’ releases. The unexpectedly long road to fruition vexed not only the Mint staff but President Roosevelt, as well, who was growing increasingly upset with the whole process.
When the $20 and $10 coins still weren’t ready for mass production several months later, the president lost patience altogether and demanded that Saint-Gaudens’ second-round versions be struck and released into circulation right away. These coins would come to be known as the “High Relief” versions. The Mint met this demand but Saint-Gaudens and his assistant worked further on relief alterations all the while. Due to waning health, however, the sculptor would sadly not live to see the final “Low Relief” iterations achieved. He passed away in August 1907 before their completion, which was carried out by Mint Chief Engraver, Charles E. Barber. The Mint released the coins for circulation en masse by early November 1907.
The new double eagle and eagle coins were swiftly met with public outcries criticizing the contemporary designs for not including the phrase, “In God We Trust.” The heated rhetoric moved Congress to pass a bill by spring of 1908 requiring coins to carry the wording going forward. The U.S. Mint, yet again, set out to rework the coins, releasing them in their final “with motto” forms later in 1908.
The smaller half and quarter eagles’ redesigns fell by the wayside until after the larger denominations were finished and released. At the time of Saint-Gaudens’ death in August 1907, U.S. Mint staff assumed they would be responsible for eventually carrying out the designs of the smaller denominations. The outgoing Mint Director noted that since “no instructions have been received from the President as to the half and quarter eagle,” he presumed the eagle’s Indian Head design would be used. Later that fall, however, the U.S. Treasury Secretary declared that the double eagle’s design was to be employed for the half and quarter eagles, rerouting design efforts yet again. The task of fitting the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle design to the smaller coins fell to Chief Engraver Barber, who quickly expressed concern with scaling the motif down enough. His rationale fell on deaf ears since Mint superiors insisted that the transfer must be attempted.
Meanwhile and unbeknownst to Mint staff, President Roosevelt was liaising with another of his personal friends, Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, about the progress of the half and quarter eagles. Bigelow had been working with a Boston sculptor by the name of Bela Lyon Pratt to develop a production process allowing coins to feature a high relief effect but eliminating grievances expressed with traditional bas-relief coins. Bankers and businessmen, who used the coins most, complained that the currently embossed coins, with their raised motifs, were prone to visible wear and tear and were virtually un-stackable. Bigelow and Pratt’s new incuse method involved depressed designs versus raised, resulting in flatter coins that were more resistant to scuffs and could be more easily stacked and stored.
President Roosevelt favored the new idea and eventually convinced Mint Director Leach to employ the process for the $5 and $2.50 coins’ productions. It was also finally decided, after the double eagle design indeed proved unfeasible, that the $10 eagle’s Indian Head design would serve as the base design for the smaller denominations.
With the process and design finally decided, the Mint and Pratt set out to complete the final two pieces of the gold eagle series. After some difficulty with the incuse process, the team was finally able to make the method work, and the $5 half and $2.50 quarter eagles began circulating in November 1908.
The $2.50 Indian Head piece was struck and circulated from 1908 to 1915 and again from 1925 until 1929. The $5 Indian Head ran from 1908 to 1916 and again in 1929. The $10 Indian Head enjoyed the most circulation, enduring continuously from 1907 until 1916 and again intermittently until 1933.
After enduring World War I and the onset of the Great Depression, the United States, along with the rest of the world, was in a state of despair. In March 1933, then President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, “forbidding the Hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States.” The U.S. Mint, in turn, stopped its production of gold coins, bringing an end to the gold eagle series that was authorized in 1792.
Following the proclamation, U.S. residents were obligated to turn in their gold pieces in exchange for paper money. Millions of gold coins would be melted down in the following years, eliminating many of the physical reminders of the U.S.’s gold standard. The coins that still exist today were perhaps exported to Europe during WWI and transferred back to the U.S. after gold possession restrictions were lifted, as was the fate of many Pre-1933 gold coins.
On its obverse, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Head $10 gold eagle features Lady Liberty donning a Native American headdress. Liberty is featured in a left-facing profile portrait with thirteen six-pointed stars above her headdress. The mintage year sits along the coin’s bottom edge, and the word “LIBERTY” is stitched on the left side of the headdress’ band. This obverse design would be met with many criticisms, the most significant of which was the fact that a Caucasian female would never wear such a feathered Native American headdress. Furthermore, some blasted the symmetry of the image, noting that the word “LIBERTY” was off-center of the headdress if it were to be viewed head-on, which to critics, wasn’t realistic.
The $2.50 quarter and $5 half eagles, which came to be known as the Pratt-Bigelow coins, are identical in design. While the two also mimic the same concept as Saint-Gaudens’ $10 eagle, the smaller denominations feature a Native American man donning a headdress on their obverses rather than the female Lady Liberty. Thirteen stars are also featured on the smaller coins, but contrastingly, they flank the bust image versus all sitting along the top edge. The quarter and half eagles’ stars are also five-pointed versus six, as on the $10 piece. The designer’s initials, “BLP,” sit just below the man’s bust, with the year of mintage directly below that. The word “LIBERTY” appears not on the band of the headdress as with the $10 eagle, but lines the top edge of the coin above the man’s head instead.
The reverse designs of the three coins are mostly the same, featuring a proud American eagle standing atop a single arrow wrapped in an olive branch. “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and the coins’ face values are also shown. Each of the three denominations produced in 1908 and later includes the phrase, “IN GOD WE TRUST” and the U.S. motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” on their reverses. On the larger $10 coin, “IN GOD WE TRUST” sits to the left of the eagle’s chest, with “E PLURIBUS UNUM” to the right, with reversed positioning on the smaller coins. For $10 eagles that were struck in 1907, before “In God We Trust” was required, the reverse features just the motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM,” which is inscribed to the left of the eagle.
“No Motto” $10 gold eagles – those not including “IN GOD WE TRUST” – were struck at the Denver Mint, and as such, feature a "D" mintmark near the eagle's feet on the reverse. Pieces with the phrase were struck at the Denver and San Francisco mints, with respective "D" and "S" mintmarks appearing left of the arrow. The $5 and $2.50 pieces were also struck at the Denver and San Francisco mints and also feature corresponding mintmarks to the left of the arrow.
A particularly unique feature of Indian Head $10 eagle is the fact that it features stars along the surface of its edge, versus reeded edges as with the two smaller denominations. From 1907 to 1911, 46 stars were struck, representing the 46 states in the Union in those years. Beginning in 1912, after New Mexico and Arizona joined the United States, 48 stars were struck.
$10 Indian Head eagles weigh 16.72 grams and measure just under 27 millimeters in diameter, making them small and comfortable to hold. They contain .48375 Troy ounces of .900 fine gold.
$5 Indian Head half eagles weigh 8.359 grams and measure 21.6 millimeters in diameter or .85 inches. They contain .24187 Troy ounces of .900 fine gold.
$2.50 Indian Head quarter eagles weigh 4.18 grams and measure 18 millimeters in diameter. They contain .12094 Troy ounces of .900 fine gold.
- Indian Head coins of all denominations are particularly attractive thanks to their storied history, an abundance of unique features, and significant collector interest.
- $10 Indian Head gold eagles feature 46 or 48 stars along the surface of their edges, a unique feature in U.S. coinage. The number of stars depends on mintage year.
- The 1933 issue of the Indian Head eagle is particularly rare, as not many were distributed.
- $5 and $2.50 Indian Head half and quarter eagles are the only circulating U.S. coins to feature recessed designs. Other coins were struck in the traditional bas-relief, or raised design, style.
- The U.S. Gold Bureau offers clients a selection of high-grade Indian Head gold eagles, half eagles, and quarter eagles.
- Pre-1933 Indian Head gold eagles of all denominations are an excellent way to not only add depth and dimension to asset portfolios but to also invest in the legacy of the United States.