Everyone who has ever handled a United States coin knows that eagles and buffaloes appear on many coins. Big birds and bison aside, a good number of coins feature animals, birds and fish. Quite a few state quarters feature animals, but creatures can be seen on coins dating back to 1616 in the English New World colonies.
The first coins struck for the English colonies did not feature an eagle or a buffalo, but a hog. Twopence, threepence, sixpence, and shillings were made for the Sommer Islands, now known as the Bermuda Islands. The detailed hog, with curly tail and snout, appears on the obverse, along with the denomination, in pence and shillings. Why a hog? The islands was home to a great number of these animals, a welcome sight to the colonists, who needed food.
Tokens showing an elephant with full tusks were struck in 1694 bearing inscriptions for London, New England and Carolina. Not much is known about these tokens. It was believed that these pieces were struck by the Royal African Company, whose symbol was an elephant, but perhaps the elephant was used just as a novelty.
A deer, complete with antlers, graces the obverse of the Connecticut copper Higley pieces of 1737. The animal is crudely sculpted, but attractive in its own way.
The state quarters began in 1999, with each of the 50 states being honored with a specially designed quarter. The All-American buffalo can be found on a few of these coins, but various animals appear on others.
A lovely group of three galloping mustangs is found on the 2006 Nevada quarter. This particular coin was welcomed by many collectors who appreciate a good design.
A horse is seen on the 2001 Kentucky quarter, recalling the famous Kentucky Derby. Caesar Rodney and his horse appear on the first state quarter, the 1999 Delaware coin. Don’t forget Wyoming and its bucking bronco logo, long a symbol of that Western state.
Different species of birds, too, are seen on statehood quarters. No eagles, but a Louisiana brown pelican, a Carolina wren, a mallard duck of Arkansas, Minnesota’s loon, the scissor-tailed flycatcher from Oklahoma, are all shown on quarters. South Dakota’s state bird, the ring-necked pheasant, flies over Mount Rushmore. The peregrine falcon, state bird of Idaho, is shown up close, in all its fierce detail. An endangered species in the 1970s, the peregrine falcon made a comeback, and was taken off the list in 1999. A California condor, another endangered species, soars above Yosemite Valley.
A cow, with an ear of corn and wheel of cheese, is found on the quarter for Wisconsin, the Dairy State. It is not very good art, but the theme is apt. A brown bear, holding its fresh salmon meal, appears on the Alaska coin, considered one of the more attractive state quarters. And a leaping king salmon is seen by itself on the Washington state quarter.
Classic commemorative issues of the 1892-1954 period host a menagerie of different animals. The grizzly bear, the state animal of California, appears on both the 1925 California Diamond Jubilee and the 1936 Bay Bridge half dollars. The last grizzly bear in California was killed in Tulare County in August 1922. Grizzly bears were once found in great numbers in California, before the Gold Rush brought more settlers. The model for the 1936 coin was not an actual bear, but a composite of bears from local zoos.
Wisconsin is the Badger State and a plump badger is found on the 1936 Centennial half dollar. But the nickname does not actually refer to the animal. It refers to people, the lead miners of the 1830s lived in temporary housing – caves cut into hillsides. These abodes were called “badger dens” and the people living there, badgers.
A catamount, a wild cat, appears on the reverse of the 1927 Vermont half dollar. Catamounts were believed to be extinct in the Green Mountain State, but in recent years a few have been spotted near Montpelier. Ethan Allen appears on the obverse of this coin. He and his Green Mountain Boys reportedly were patrons of the Catamount Tavern. The figure of the catamount itself was thought to be a more appropriate design than a view of the tavern. To this day, the sports teams of the University of Vermont are called the Catamounts.
The seal of the city of Hudson, N.Y., includes a rendering of Neptune, the sea god, riding a spouting whale. The seal is reproduced on the Hudson half dollar of 1935.
Gertrude Lathrop, designer of the 1936 Albany, N.Y., half dollar, kept a live beaver in her studio to serve as the model for the animal on the coin. The beaver is shown chewing on a maple branch. The beaver was instrumental in the founding and development of the city of Albany; the fur trade flourished there in the 1650s and 1660s. The town was once known as Beverwyck. To this day, the beaver is remembered. An AHL hockey team affiliated with the New Jersey Devils is called the Albany Devils, but the team name Beavers had been proposed.
The same designer executed the 1938 New Rochelle half dollar, depicting a fatted calf. The city was founded by French Huguenots, who gave away a fatted calf every year on June 20, as part of the purchase price for 6,000 acres.
Explorer Cabeza de Vaca traveled from Florida through Texas in 1535. His name in English means “head of a cow,” so the half dollar commemorating this exploration shows a cow’s head. De Vaca was the first European to describe the area of America from Florida, through the Gulf states, to Arizona. His exploration began on April 9, 1528, many years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. He told stories of great wealth to be found, along with a great ocean within America; his stories inspired other explorers to come to America and see what the New World had to offer.
A wise owl poses on the beautiful $50 gold pieces commemorating the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The proud bird is seen on both the round and octagonal coins. A group of eight dolphins swims among the angles on the octagonal coin. Two dolphins appear on the Panama- Pacific gold dollar.
And if you want a mythical creature, the Panama-Pacific quarter eagle shows Columbia riding a hippocampus. The hippocampus’ upper body resembled a horse, and the lower body, a fish or dolphin. In mythology, Poseidon, the sea god, rode a chariot drawn by a team of these creatures.
Horses appear on the only classic commemorative silver dollar, the 1900 Lafayette dollar, and the first modern commemorative, the 1982 George Washington. The 1995 Civil War $5 gold piece shows a soldier riding a horse.
Eagles and buffaloes aside, many different types of animals are seen on United States coins, from Colonials to modern commemoratives. A virtual zoo can be assembled featuring simple, crude renderings, to modern portraits of powerful creatures. Topical collecting is popular with foreign coin specialists, but the United States series by itself contains many interesting depictions of beautiful animals and birds.
Perhaps with the explosion of new coin issues of recent decades will cause U.S. collectors to take a page out of the book of world topical coin collectors. Collecting animals on U.S, coins is a great way of setting a limit on the number of coins you need to buy to complete a set. For hobbyists on a budget, that is good news.