When the Founding Fathers established the federal system of coinage in 1792, the largest gold coin was given a $10 face value and it was called an eagle.
The coin contained over one-half troy ounce of the precious metal and was more that double the weight of Great Britain’s one pound coin called the sovereign.
But there was a problem. The United States was short of gold.
These first gold eagles of the United States are a fascinating group. As the largest American gold coin of its day not many could afford to save one. There are, however, at least some small supplies today and for a collector who really wants one it is hard to find a better choice than an early gold eagle.
The $10 face value of the gold eagle certainly worked against the possibility of many being saved as $10 was far too much for money to be saving back in the 1790s. Just a couple decades earlier George Washington had convinced many of the troops to extend their time in the military by offering a major pay raise to $10 a month. Certainly the pay was likely to be a bit higher by the 1790s, but probably not that much higher and few people back in the 1790s or today for that matter will spend an entire month’s pay on a single new coin.
The gold eagle had been authorized along with the other denominations in the Mint Act of April 2,1792. It might have been a logical denomination but realistically it was an exceptionally large gold coin at the time. The gold coins in general use around the world at the time were close to the $5 half eagle in size and there would be a good deal of evidence over the years that for some decades the gold eagle was not a coin that would see much use in regular commerce.
Even some years later there is evidence that the gold eagle was still larger than was normally required in commerce. The Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C., mints were located in the gold producing region. The only coins they made were gold coins yet they never made any denomination higher than a $5. The most likely reason is that they simply had no call for a larger denomination. They also never made double eagles. This was during the 1840s and 1850s. If the gold eagle was still a higher face value than was needed at that time in the South it is clear that half a century earlier there were not many requiring gold eagles for their regular businesses.
The mintage of the first gold eagle would have to wait a few years after they were authorized. There were a host of problems between being authorized and actually being produced. The first of those problems was simply the creation of a mint in Philadelphia, which was then the capital city of the United States.
At the time the gold eagle and other denominations were authorized, the closest thing to a mint the government had was the basement of a saw maker named John Harper who did limited projects such as 1,500 1792 half dimes. Harper’s operation, however, was not a full scale mint and there were no substantial mintages from that facility.
In fact, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, who as Secretary of State was responsible for a mint, a facility was up and ready to begin coin production in roughly one year. At that point, however, there was a new problem as officials involved had to post a $10,000 bond before they could produce gold or silver coins. This was insurance against theft.
At the time, if $10 was the monthly wage for average people, 1,000 times that amount that was more than just a lot of money. The Mint officials balked. While Thomas Jefferson tried to solve that problem, the 1793 production was limited to just copper large cents and half cents, which required a far lower bond amount.
The matter of the bond was solved, when it was reduced, opening the door for silver and gold coin production in 1794. In fact, officials decided to start with the silver dollar. The choice might have been logical, but it was not practical as the equipment at the time was only capable of producing coins up to the size of a half dollar.
The needed equipment for a dollar coin would arrive the following year, but Mint officials were not willing to wait and what they got was a rather small 1,758-piece dollar mintage. No one really believes they were only trying to make 1,758 silver dollars. It is likely they were the only coins from a larger number that were able to meet what would have been minimal quality standards. In fact, based on the 135 or so known today, those quality standards would have definitely been minimal as the known 1794 dollars tend to be lightly struck and have other problems.
The 1794 silver dollar was followed by a production of 1794 half dollars and by then the year was basically over. There were 1794 half dimes, although we are not honestly sure if they were struck in 1794 or 1795 or both, as the first half dimes were not delivered until well into 1795. The 1795 production would include additional numbers of denominations already produced as well as the first attempt at gold coins, which would have a Robert Scot design with a Liberty Cap obverse and a small eagle reverse.
The first 1795 gold eagle production appears to have involved four pairs of dies with three being used at the time and the fourth being saved and then used in 1796 or 1797. That was typical as with small mintages in many cases if a die was not worn out it would simply be saved and used at a later time. Certainly an unused die would not be discarded as dies cost money and the Mint had a very tight budget. Saving dies for later use was the logical approach to the situation.
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There was an interesting aspect to the design of the gold eagle as well as other gold coins at the time as they did not have a denomination specified on them. The merchants of the day would simply fix a price on a gold coin based on the amount of gold in it. Each coin had to be weighed. It sounds unusual, but at the time it must be remembered there were assorted numbers of gold coins from various nations in circulation, so the merchants had to really be ready to deal with almost any gold coin from anywhere in the course of business.
The initial gold eagle mintages were small, with a total of 5,583 in 1795, 4,146 in 1796 and 3,615 for 1797. The 1797 total is an estimate as the year saw a reverse design change to a large eagle and it is thought that the large eagle reverse total was 10,940 pieces.
Based on surviving numbers, it appears that the 1795 is on the low end of what would be expected based on its mintage. It’s been suggested that early gold issues should have a 3-10 percent survival rate and the 1795 with roughly 150 examples known today would be near 3 percent. Of course, a large denomination would probably normally be at the low end as few could afford to save them and merchants of the time would have been inclined to melt them as the Mint law put too much gold in the coin.
There are two varieties of the 1795 with one having 13 leaves while the other has 9. The more available 13-leaves variety currently lists for $28,500 in F-12 while the 9-leaves is $30,000 in the same grade. In MS-60, the 13-leaves is much less expensive at $122,500 compared to $250,000 for the 9-leaves variety. The PCGS Mint State total for the 13-leaves stands at 60 while the 9-leaves total is just 7 with the suggestion being that the mintage of the 9-leaves was just 500 pieces and that is actually supported by the fact that only about 10 percent of all the 1795 eagles seen are the 9-leaves variety.
One interesting thing we have learned from the study of the 1795 and other early gold eagles is that the coins found today generally have very little wear. That is probably because of the high denomination as it appears that if a gold eagle made it into circulation it quickly ended up in a vault or other safe place, serving as a reserve. As a result, XF-40 and above coins are seen with more regularity than would normally be expected. Typically the coins will have adjustment marks which are parallel lines in the center of the coin. There are also weak strikes in certain areas such as the centers of the stars, dentils and high points of Liberty.
Those problems, however are typical of issues of the 1790s. In some cases, however, we have to simply be happy that any examples survived as the 9-leaves variety of the 1795 seems to have had a terrible survival rate. There is no way of explaining why, but if we assume a mintage of perhaps 500, the 20 or so that remain today are much lower than what would normally be expected and that low total puts it on a par with the 1798/97 with 7 stars left and 6 stars right as the toughest of the early eagles. The one thing good about the 9-leaves variety is that they seem to come in Mint State as 7 of the 12 graded by PCGS were called Mint State.
The second year of gold eagle production saw the mintage placed at 4,146, although in this instance there are few varieties. To obtain a 1796 today you are likely to pay $27,500 for an F-12 although the majority seen in the market will be XF-40 examples, which tend to cost in the neighborhood of $50,000.
The 1797 was complicated situation as the small eagle reverse was produced first with that estimate being 3,615 followed by 10,940 with a large eagle reverse. The small eagle reverse is very tough at $31,500 in F-12 while an MS-60 is $200,000. The small reverse is interesting as it has a die crack from about 4:30 to Liberty’s chin with only a couple reported without that crack. The numbers in Mint State are extremely low with NGC reporting 7 while PCGS reports only 2 in Mint State of 27 graded and none called Mint State has ever been graded higher than MS-62. This brings up another point you learn with almost all early gold eagle dates and that is that they may be in Mint State, but they will generally not be in upper Mint State grades. There are simply too many potentially weak areas in a large gold coin from the period. The strike is likely to he weak and adjustment marks are common, all making an early Mint State gold eagle a nice coin but not one that will match up with a Mint State gold coin from say, 2005.
The large eagle reverse of 1797 was the first of the new type that was produced through 1804. There would be higher mintages resulting in lower prices with an available date at $9,000-$10,000 while an MS-60 would start at around $37,500. Despite the lower prices and greater availability, the problems of weak strikes and adjustment marks are still very much a fact of life so realistically there are very few coins of even of the most available dates where you are likely to find examples in MS-64 or MS-65. In fact PCGS has seen just 11 coins graded MS-65 from all the dates combined.
There are also some very special pieces with the large eagle reverse such as the 1798/97 which came with either 9 stars left and 4 stars right or 7 stars left and 6 stars right. The reported mintages were 900 and 842, respectively, making either a very tough date. The more available 9 stars left and 4 stars right is at $13,500 in F-12 while the 7 stars left and 6 stars right is at $28,500 in the same grade.
How many of the two really exist is an interesting question and one where the grading services can be of some help. PCGS reports 33 examples of the 9 stars left and 4 stars right but just 7 of the 7 stars left and 6 stars right. At NGC they report 24 examples of the 9 stars left and 4 stars right, but only 4 examples of the 7 stars left and 6 stars right.
We cannot view the grading service totals as the final word on the matter as they potentially have not seen every example and in some cases it is likely that a coin has been submitted more than once. That said, their totals are still the best indication we have as to numbers known today and clearly having seen only 13 examples of the 7 stars left and 6 stars right it would appear that the number of this significant rarity known today might very well be under 25 pieces.
Even the more available 9 stars left and 4 stars right would appear to be tougher than many have suggested. The old estimate that there might be 100 examples seems overly optimistic based on the grading service combined total of just 57. Certainly there could be more that the grading services have not seen, but finding another 43 seems highly unlikely. If anything it seems a revised estimate of perhaps no more than 75 known examples would be in order.
The 1799 is a higher mintage date with its production put at 37,449, which at the time was a new record for a gold eagle. In terms of availability the 1799 ranks with the 1801 as the most available dates and least costly early gold eagles in any grade. While available they should not be taken for granted. There are safely around 150 Mint State examples of the 1799 reported by PCGS and while that is a solid number there is also a good deal of demand and the examples are almost all in lower Mint State grades with only eight having been called MS-65 or better. The 1801 is actually slightly more available in Mint State according to the PCGS totals although not in MS-65 or better where it has only been seen a couple times.
The other dates of the type are far less available although not much more expensive. That is simply because very few collect early gold eagle by date. That can come as no surprise to average collectors when they see the prices.
Consequently, there is little pressure on the minimal supplies of dates like the 1800, which had a reported mintage of 5,999, although the suspicion is the total might have been slightly higher. Whatever the actual total, the 1800 lists at $9,500 in F-12 and $39,500 in MS-60, making it only slightly more expensive that the 1799 and 1801.
The same is true of the 1803, which had a 15,017 mintage. Like the 1800 the 1803 brings a small premium in Mint State where both it and the 1800 have been seen just over 40 times by PCGS roughly one-third as often as the most available dates. With basically only type demand the premiums for the 1800 and 1803 are unlikely to change significantly as the available supply while smaller than other dates is enough to meet the very modest date collecting demand at present.
The 1804 is a different situation. The 1804 had a low mintage of 3,757 pieces at which time production of the gold eagle along with the silver dollar was suspended. Had the story stopped there the 1804 would be simply a better date, but 30 years later when officials wanted to assemble proof sets to be presented on a trade mission the gold eagle and silver dollar were still suspended. They checked the records and learned the last official production of each had been 1804.
The Mint was then asked to make a small number of 1804 silver dollars and gold eagles. Of the course the silver dollars were the first 1804 silver dollars as those showing up in the records as having been produced in 1804 were actually dated 1803. Lesser known is the fact that the 1804 gold eagles produced in the 1830s had a plain “4” while the original ones produced in 1804 had a crosslet “4.”
The original crosslet “4” gold eagles with their low mintages are tough at $16,500 in F-12 and $92,500 in MS-60 today. PCGS has only seen 39 examples in all grades combined and of that total just 10 were called Mint State.
The plain “4” gold eagle is a different matter. We are not sure of the actual mintage, but between 6 and 10 pieces is a good bet. There are perhaps four examples known today making the plain “4” 1804 eagle actually tougher than the famous 1804 dollar. The more famous 1804 dollar, however, is much more expensive although we have not really had a good head-to-head test of the plain “4” 1804 eagle. It lists for $400,000 in MS-60 in Coin Market and for $1,750,000 in MS-65. Since they were all struck to impress foreign leaders, quality is presumed to be high. What an example might bring if offered today is hard to predict.
The 1804 would be the final gold eagle struck for more than three decades. The next time there would be a gold eagle produced they would be a Coronet Head design.
While short-lived, the early eagles were an important coin in their day and they remain an historic coin today. While most collectors are content with just one if they can afford it, it is possible to complete a set at least in circulated grades. However, you opt to approach early gold eagles, they are very special coins that are certain to please every collector.