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Viewpoint: Is Morgan’s eagle an error coin?

By Steve McGowan

In the first quarter of 1878, a change was made on the design and depiction of the American Bald Eagle for the Morgan silver dollar.

The first Morgan dollars had eight tail feathers (top). That was almost immediately changed to seven (bottom). (Images courtesy Heritage)

In Q. David Bowers 5th edition book on the Fabled Coin, various statements unattributable to any particular source are found.

Some examples are as follows: “Eagles always have an odd number of Tail-feathers” and “Everyone knows Eagles have 7 Tail-feathers.”

Another reads, “Previous eagle designs had 7 Tail-feathers.”

A recent blog from Littleton Coin Company on the same subject made reference to an unknown ornithologist who agreed on the 7 Tail-feather depiction back in 1878.

Today, experts in the field of ornithology at Cornell and William & Mary College concur and agree without exception that the American Bald Eagle has always had exactly 12 tail-feathers.

It is stated in Bowers’ book that then-Mint Director Linderman said, “the change from 8 to 7 feathers was important.” And he directed that the change be made.

For the record, it should be noted that since 1792, coins showing the eagle design have depicted anywhere from 4 to as many as 15 tail-feathers and other numbers as well. Whether John Mercanti’s design on the reverse of the American silver Eagle depicting the accurate number of 12 tail-feathers is from fact or fiction is anyone’s guess.

Does it matter? In 1878, based on false claims and other curious notes on the depiction of the Eagle and its tail-feather count, someone, (Director of the Mint Linderman) thought it did matter.

As a long-time collector, I feel that details matter.

Ask your followers their opinion on the 1878-8TF Morgan. Let’s put the numismatic experts to work on the topic. You had my opinion via email a few days ago. If Director Linderman at the time deemed it important enough to overrule the designer, George T. Morgan, and reduce the number of tail-feathers to 7, then the coin in question cannot and should not be referred to as a coin design error.

On the other hand, ornithologist Ph.Ds today at both Cornell University and at William & Mary College have concurred that eagles always have exactly 12 tail-feathers. If the opinion of these ornithologists is accepted, then of course the 7-tail-feather Morgan design from 1878 to 1921 must be considered an error coin.


This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.


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2 Responses to Viewpoint: Is Morgan’s eagle an error coin?

  1. wbeat says:

    Since the Morgan dollar’s debut 140 years ago, the tail feather question has generated a lot of interest in the series. Tail feather varieties created and attracted collectors. And, because of their popularity, they are even listed in the Red Book.

    The switch from 8 tail feathers to 7 happened within the first few weeks of Morgan dollar production, and according to numismatic lore, it was because eagles had an “odd number of tail feathers.” Research and interest in old U.S. Mint records continue to bring new information on the Morgan dollar series to light. Most people today agree Bald eagles have 12 tail feathers, as mentioned in Littleton’s blog, Eagle Tail Feather tall tale becomes the stuff of legends.

    Back at the time of their release, the public did notice the change to the Morgan dollar tail feathers and wondered if one of the designs was counterfeit! The U.S. Mint had to ask the newspapers to publish articles stating that the reverse on the Morgan had changed. In 1878, people were more concerned about whether their money was real! If they did collect (a dollar was a lot of money to put aside), it was usually just one example of the coin. As early as 1898, The Numismatist ran an article by George Rice about the 1878 Morgan dollar tail feather varieties and from there, interest slowly developed.

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