The half dollars produced at New Orleans starting in 1838 were the first half dollars of the United State to be produced outside of the main facility at Philadelphia. As it worked out, the first New Orleans half dollars would also be the start of a fascinating story that would see New Orleans as the only facility other than Philadelphia to produce half dollars for an extended period only to have New Orleans production cut short by the Civil War and then return decades later. It is a complicated story but one that makes the first half dollars of New Orleans produced in the period prior to the Civil War an interesting group with an important place in history.
In the 21st century, it is hard to imagine just how important New Orleans was to the United States in the 1830s. Much of the exportable output of America’s heartland came down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and left through New Orleans. It was a trade hub to rival New York. This commerce would be facilitated by a mint. At the time roads were bad and railroads were in their infancy.
By the 1830s the government of the United State became interested in the idea of branch mints. There had been upgrades in Philadelphia, but a growing nation needed not only greater coin production, but also some diversity in terms of geography to serve the needs of an expanding nation.
The discovery of gold in the hills of Georgia and North Carolina had opened the door to branch mints as transporting that gold to Philadelphia was a long and potentially dangerous process. Simply to service the gold fields it was logical to approve small facilities in Dahlonega, Ga., and Charlotte, N.C.
The situation in New Orleans was completely different. No one had found gold near New Orleans, but the city had emerged as a major transportation center. Gold and silver could be easily sent to New Orleans and it could easily ship new coins to a number of areas of the nation. Moreover, the city was definitely interested in having a mint as a prime piece of real estate was offered to the government for a new facility. That was enough to settle the deal and a mint was approved.
The situation at New Orleans was never one that seemed to go as planned. The New Orleans facility was going to be large as it would produce both gold and silver coins unlike the facilities at Dahlonega and Charlotte, which would only produce gold. New Orleans, thanks to that prime location, would also eventually be producing larger numbers of coins than might have been expected as later shipments of gold from California or silver from south of the border would end up being turned into coins in New Orleans.
Initially, however, New Orleans was over budget and behind schedule with the first coins not being struck until May of 1838 when a small number of dimes was produced.
The situation with the half dollar was different at the time as it must be remembered that silver dollar production was just being considered after having been suspended in 1804. There were Gobrecht dollars produced in 1836, but by 1838 a full-scale return to silver dollar production was not ready and that was especially true for a mint that was just being opened. At least briefly, the half dollar was the largest silver coin in regular production.
It appears that there was a decision to strike a ceremonial 1838-O half dollar, or it might have simply been a test of the equipment being the largest coin the facility would be producing at the time. Whatever the case, sometime in 1838 or perhaps 1839 there was a small mintage of Capped Bust half dollars about which there are more questions than answers.
We cannot be precisely sure when the 1838-O half dollar was produced nor can we be exactly sure how many were produced. What we do know is that it was a proof-only issue and that is important as it would be the first branch mint proof in the history of the United States.
The confusion arises as the 1838-O half dollar was not included in the reports of that year. For many years there were debates as to precisely how many were made and that was complicated by the fact that for some time with minimal information many were not even aware that there even was an 1838-O.
In 1894 the debate among the experts of the day suggested a mintage of anywhere from a few pieces to 12 or 15. As it turned out, the chief coiner at New Orleans at the time, a fellow named Rufus Tyler, had given some clue suggesting that the mintage was “not more than 20 pieces.” Of course that is not precise although today many use the 20 total as a mintage.
How many examples of the historic 1838-O survived is another issue without a clear answer. The famous Col. E.H.R. Green attempted to acquire them all as he was prone to do things like that having an unusual lust for literally cornering the market on any number of important coins or other items of interest. His total stood at seven, but in fact we have learned there are a few that escaped Green as the expectation today is that there may be as many as dozen.
Whatever the case, they are rare and expensive with the Eliasberg coin realizing over $120,000 in 1997. Heritage sold an example in February of 2008 for $632,500. In today’s market the expectation would be that the 1838-O if offered again might bring a $1 million price. While that might be jumping the gun a bit, it is certainly not out of the question for a nice example as there are very few coins of the United States that could be considered as historically important as the 1838-O half dollar.
Fortunately for type collectors in 1839 New Orleans would produce a regular Bust half dollar. The 1839-O had a mintage of 178,976. The mintage is not high and New Orleans at the time was not a hotbed of coin collecting, making the 1839-O a tough date, but at least one that can be found. A G-4 lists for $240 while an MS-60 is $2,850. If you can find one an MS-65 is listed at $40,000, but basically in any grade the 1839-O is a good deal as it is the only normally available example of a New Orleans Bust half dollar. In Mint State there are not many to go around, with PCGS reporting just over 30 examples graded but a few were very nice with the MS-65 and better total being six pieces.
In 1840 the design of the half dollar would be changed to the Seated Liberty design and New Orleans was quick to produce a larger mintage with the 1840-O having a mintage of 855,100. That total makes the 1840-O available today at $36 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $450. The grading service totals suggest that a Mint State example is a good deal at current levels as the 1840-O has only been seen by PCGS a total of 14 times in Mint State while the $600 in MS-60 1841-O has been seen just over 25 times. That would suggest that the 1840-O should be more expensive than the 1841-O, but it would be wrong to jump to conclusions.
The demand for Seated Liberty half dollars is very modest and the numbers sent into grading services are generally very low, which suggests caution before reaching conclusions. With the limited demand, it is possible that some have simply not submitted some coins especially in low Mint State grades as the real prizes in terms of Seated Liberty half dollars would be higher grades. It may be that the 1840-O should be more expensive but it also may be a long time before we see that price change take place.
There is no need to wait for price adjustments for the 1842-O, which saw its mintage of 957,000 between small and medium date examples. The medium date is relatively available but the small date is not with a G-4 listing of $650 as opposed to $35 for the medium date. The medium date is $1,250 in MS-60, which is well above average but the small date, if you can find one, is priced in Coin Market at $16,500 in MS-60.
The New Orleans issues from the next few years are basically in the pattern of the 1840 and 1841. They are available in a grade like G-4 and while not expensive in Mint State they cannot be considered available as they all have small numbers graded. This would prove to be very typical for New Orleans issues as in the 1840s and 1850s there were few if any avid collectors in the area. Moreover, the half dollar was a high denomination that would not have been heavily collected at the time. There is another factor as well as collecting by date and mint was not widespread at the time and that means that most collectors of the day would have opted for a Philadelphia example of any specific date as they were usually more available. Consequently the New Orleans Seated Liberty half dollars seem inexpensive based on the numbers known but for them to move significantly in price would require additional demand.
The 1846-O would be another case where there are varieties. One has a medium date while the other has a tall date. The regular medium date is available at normal prices ranging from $30 in G-4 to $550 in MS-60, but the tall date is much tougher with a listing of $165 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $6,650. This last price is almost double what it was three years ago. PCGS certainly confirms that high price as it has seen just 18 examples of the tall date and only one was called Mint State.
The dates from 1847 through 1850 showed New Orleans was busy as all had mintages in excess of one million pieces putting them all in the group around $30 in G-4 and $650 in MS-60 although the 1848-O is slightly better in MS-60 at $750 with only 13 Mint State examples having been graded at PCGS.
By the early 1850s there were problems with silver coins. The discovery of gold in California had upset the traditional gold-to-silver ratio and it was actually costing more than their face value to make silver coins. The public discovered that fact and promptly began hoarding silver issues. That produced a national coin shortage. There was only one way to solve the problem and that was to reduce the silver content slightly, but the Congress stalled on that decision opting instead to make a 75 percent silver three-cent piece.
The situation left the mints in a terrible position. On a limited budget anyway, if they produced coins, they lost money. If they did not produce coins, they were open to charges of doing nothing about a national coin shortage yet if they made the coins and lost the money the public simply hoarded them anyway.
The outcome was something of a bad compromise, which was that mintages declined. The 1851-O mintage dropped from levels in excess of 1 million to just 402,000, making the 1851-O a better date with a G-4 price of $40 although an MS-60 is not too expensive at $700 and that is supported by a PCGS Mint State total of just under 25 coins.
The 1852-O mintage was even lower at 144,000. That results in a G-4 price today of $75 while an MS-60 is at $3,850 and that is probably low as PCGS reports just 4 examples graded Mint State. In the case of the 1852-O and perhaps the 1851-O even the mintages are potentially deceptive as in 1853 the Congress finally took action to lower the silver content. That produced some melting of the older and slightly larger issues with the dates from the 1850s being the likely candidates to have been most heavily melted.
The change came in 1853 but not before New Orleans produced some 1853-O half dollars of the old design and silver content. These coins would have no arrows at the date or rays on the reverse. The problem is that we have no idea how many examples of this 1853-O were produced. It was almost certainly small as only a few examples are known to exist, with the Eliasberg 1853-O with no arrows or rays producing a price of $154,000 back in 1997. What makes that price so interesting is that the coin involved was graded VG-8. With only a few known examples auction appearances are rare, but it is safe to assume that if a nice example were offered it would be likely to bring an impressive price.
The rest of the 1853-O half dollar mintage would be of the reduced silver content and would have rays on the reverse and arrows at the date. The mintage of that type would be 1,328,000, making it better at $38 and $2,350 in MS-60 but available.
In 1854 the rays were removed but the arrows at the date would remain and it would remain that way in 1854 and 1855 with the New Orleans totals for the two years standing at 5,240,000 for the 1854-O and 3,688,000 for the 1855-O. Both being $28 in G-4 and $600 and $650, respectively, in MS-60 with an MS-65 of either at $8,000.
Starting with the 2,658,000 1856-O the arrows at the date were removed. The mintages of the period would remain large as even though there had been Seated Liberty silver dollars produced since 1840, the use of silver dollars was very limited. In fact, by 1856 about the only use of silver dollars was basically for export as the half dollar remained the largest silver coin in regular use. New Orleans had made silver dollars a couple of times but their mintages were generally small so the large half dollar totals can be understood. The large totals make the dates through 1861 available although the continuing problem of poor saving makes Mint State examples a continuing challenge even when the prices guides indicate that prices are at reasonable levels.
The one date of the period that really stands out is the 1861-O. The 1861-O mintage began early that year with the facility under regular U.S. control. The mintage was 330,000 in January at which time the facility was seized by the state of Louisiana which found silver and dies and then struck another 1,240,000 pieces. When Louisiana joined the Confederate States of America, the facility technically came under control of the Confederacy and at that time an additional 962,633 pieces were struck. That meant a total of 2,532,633 1861-O half dollars were minted technically under three different flags.
The problem today is telling who was in charge at the time any specific 1861-O was struck and the fact is it cannot be determined with certainty. Some numismatic scholars tracing die marriages believe they have it figured out.
There is also a little guidance as four Confederate half dollars were created with a different design. All are extremely valuable but all have an advanced die break from the bridge of the nose to the edge, passing close to star seven. Any regular 1861-O with such a die break can be safely assumed to have come from the last stages of production which would mean the facility was under Confederate control. Coins with that die break do command a premium.
Once the supply of silver was exhausted or the dies were worn out, the production of 1861-O half dollars ended and with it the active role of the New Orleans Mint. Union forces took the city in 1862, but the Mint did not resume work at this time.
Once the Civil War was over, the government was perfectly content to let the New Orleans facility gather dust but that changed in the 1870s when required silver dollar production would bring New Orleans back to life. Later it would once again produce half dollars with the Barber design beginning in 1892 before finally ending its period of coin production in 1909.
In terms of a legacy, the early half dollars of New Orleans certainly take a back seat to very few other issues as they were historic and interesting coins. With a couple great rarities in their ranks it is not really possible to complete a set of early New Orleans half dollars. That doesn’t mean these coins should be ignored, because virtually all the other dates are available.
Anyone who assembles a set of Capped Bust and Seated Liberty half dollars learns of the workings of a distinguished mint. Mark Twain as Sam Clemens in his riverboat days might just have carried one of these coins in his pocket.