Still reeling from the excitement of last week’s 2019 Gold American Buffalo launch, we wanted to dive deeper into the legacy of Native American culture and the profound impact it has had not only on U.S. coinage but on the cultural heritage of our great nation as a whole.
The Gold American Buffalo is undoubtedly one of the superstars of modern-day precious metals investing, and even its early-20th-century predecessor boasts an impressive reputation of historical significance all its own. As beloved as these two coins are, though, there is a whole host of precious metals pieces that pay homage to the legacy and lasting influence of Native American culture in U.S. history. Today, we’re digging into this topic and exploring some of the most notable Native American-inspired pieces issued over the years.
$1 Gold Coin Type 2 and Type 3
The United States $1 Gold Coin was initially proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1791. Shortly after the fledgling United States declared its independence from Great Britain, Treasury Secretary Hamilton suggested that the nation's one-dollar coin should be struck in both gold and silver iterations. Hamilton intended to make these two precious metals legal tender in the United States as part of his broader vision for the new nation’s mint and coinage systems. Congress authorized only part of Hamilton’s proposal for the U.S. $1 coin, however, and allowed for a silver version of the dollar to be struck at the time.
The debate for a gold $1 coin would ebb and flow over the ensuing years, and while other denominations of were produced in the interim, it would take Congress until 1849 – a whopping 58 years after Hamilton’s proposal – to formally adopt a gold version of the country’s $1 coin.
The U.S. $1 gold coin would endure three obverse design variations over its 40-year lifespan, all of which were created by then-Mint Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. While the first design in the three-version lineup – Type 1 – did not relate in aesthetics to the country’s Native American roots, Type 2 and Type 3 did indeed attempt to call on the influences of American Indians in U.S. history.
In 1854, Longacre adapted his new $3-coin Indian Princess design for the $1 gold coin that was also under his purview. The design depicted Lady Liberty as a Native American princess wearing a feathered crown, supposedly mimicking headdresses worn by females in various American Indian tribes. The feathered crown, however, did not resemble anything close to headpieces worn by Native Americans and would pave the way for Longacre’s Indian Princess design to endure fierce criticism over the years. While personifying the idea of America as Native American royalty was nothing new, Longacre noted his attraction to the idea of using an Indian Princess on his coins in a letter to the then-Mint director, James Snowden. The message was about Longacre's forthcoming task of conceptualizing a design for the three-dollar piece and indicated his desire to pay homage to “to the aboriginal period of our own land” instead of to the Greek, and Roman legacies that so many coins issued to date had referenced. Longacre would later adopt this Indian Princess concept for the $1 gold Type 2 and Type 3 coins.
Pre-1933 Indian Head Coins
Shortly after his first inauguration in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt set out on a quest to "beautify" American coinage. Holding the view that American coins were "artistically of atrocious hideousness," the newly sworn-in President Roosevelt commissioned American sculptor and personal friend, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to carry out his redesign mission, which would include five denominations of coins: $20 double eagle, $10 eagle, $5 half eagle, $2.50 quarter eagle, plus the U.S. cent.
The higher-denomination coins – the $20 double eagle and $10 eagle – were the first order of redesign business for the Pre-1933 Indian Head coins. After years of back-and-forth and what would result in multiple rounds of painstaking adjustments, Saint-Gaudens’s Indian Head $10 Gold Eagle was finally struck en masse in 1907. The final iteration was then-Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber’s adjusted “Low Relief” version.
Initially, Saint-Gaudens’s Eagle redesign featured a somewhat traditional portrait of Lady Liberty, but after President Roosevelt expressed strong feelings that a Native American headdress should be included on one the coins being redesigned, a feathered headpiece was added to the Eagle as an homage to America’s native heritage.
Eventually, Saint-Gaudens’s Indian Head imagery was adapted for the $2.50 Quarter Eagle and $5 Half Eagle coins, also known as the Pratt-Bigelow gold coins. These versions used an incuse striking method developed by Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow and Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt and began circulating in 1908. The smaller-denomination eagles featured a male Native American figure on their obverses, rather than Saint-Gaudens’s female iteration.
The Quarter Eagle was circulated from 1908 to 1915 and again from 1925 until 1929. The Half Eagle ran from 1908 to 1916 and was re-issued for its final run in 1929. Read more about the Indian Head Eagles.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton signed the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act into law, which, in addition to celebrating each of the 50 states via unique designs struck on the U.S. quarter, allowed for the replacement of the Susan B. Anthony dollar by a new iteration.
While the act required the new dollar coin to be "golden in color, have a distinctive edge, [and] have tactile and visual features that make the denomination of the coin readily discernible..." it did not dictate the new design of the coin. As a result, then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin put together a “Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee” to select the artwork, although the Secretary himself noted that the coin should feature a no-longer-living woman.
The committee chose a design featuring Sacagawea, the Shoshone tribe Native American woman who served as a guide to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Committee then solicited 23 artists to submit design renderings for the newly conceived Sacagawea dollar, specifying that the artwork needed to be culturally and aesthetically authentic and avoid using a classically European figure in Native American garb.
An image designed by sculptor Glenna Goodacre of Sacagawea carrying her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on her back was ultimately chosen as the coin’s obverse image. Goodacre used Randy’L He-dow Teton as her muse for her Sacagawea depiction and modeled the infant boy partially after one-year-old Adam Scholz.
The reverse design chosen by the committee was that of a soaring eagle created by Thomas D. Rogers, sculptor-engraver for the Mint.
In 2007, the Native American $1 Coin Act was signed into law by President Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush. The act required the newly designed $1 coin going forward to celebrate the vast and meaningful contributions Native Americans have made throughout history to U.S. society. These images would appear on the reverse of the Sacagawea dollar and would change each year.
While this list is certainly not exhaustive of either the Native American-inspired coins available or the incredible legacy of Native American culture, we hope it serves as a reminder and celebration of the important, albeit complex, relationship between the United States and the cultural heritage upon which it was built.