The origin of this issue is shrouded in controversy. It is generally believed that the Three Dollar gold piece was adopted as a direct result of the postal rate dropping from five cents to three cents in 1851. A three dollar gold issue allowed purchasers to buy large quantities of the new stamps without having to use the then-unpopular copper Large Cents or the new, tiny silver Three Cent pieces.

Three Dollar Gold

The Mint Act of February 21, 1853 authorized production of the three-dollar gold coin

 

The Three dollar gold piece was designed by James Longacre. The obverse features an “Indian Princess” modeled after the Greco-Roman Venus Accroupie statue then in a Philadelphia museum. Liberty is wearing a feathered headdress of equal-sized plumes with a band bearing LIBERTY in raised letters. She’s surrounded by the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Such a headdress dates back to the earliest known drawings of American Indians by French artist Jacques le Moyne du Morgue’s sketches of the Florida Timucua tribe who lived near the tragic French colony of Fort Caroline in 1562. It was accepted by engravers and medalists of the day as the design shorthand for “America.”

The reverse depicted a wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn and cotton with a plant at top bearing two conical seed masses. The original wax models of this wreath still exist on brass discs in a Midwestern collection.

There are two boldly different reverse types, the small DOLLARS appearing only in 1854 and the large DOLLARS on coins of 1855-89. Many dates show bold “outlining” of letters and devices, resembling a double strike but probably the result of excessive forcing of the design punches into the die steel, causing a hint of their sloping “shoulders” to appear as part of the coin’s design. The high points of the obverse design that first show wear are the cheek and hair above the eye; on the reverse, check the bow knot and leaves.

Three dollar gold pieces were struck at four mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans and Dahlonega. There are two major types: the small letters reverse which was made only in 1854 and the large letters which was produced from 1855 until the denomination was abolished in 1889. In both cases the size of the lettering refers to the word DOLLARS.

This was not a popular denomination when it was struck and mintages were, for the most part, extremely limited. Only one date, the 1854, had a mintage figure greater than 100,000 and only four more exceeded 25,000. There are seven issues that had original mintages of fewer than 1,000.

As mentioned above, this is an essentially impossible denomination to complete. The 1870-S is unique (it is in the Bass collection and is currently on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs) while the 1875 and 1876 were produced in very limited quantities and only as Proofs.

A total of just over 535,000 pieces were issued along with 2058 proofs. The first coins struck were the 15 proofs of 1854. Regular coinage began on May 1, and that first year saw 138,618 pieces struck at Philadelphia (no mintmark), 1,120 at Dahlonega (D), and 24,000 at New Orleans (O). These two branch mints would strike coins only in 1854. San Francisco produced the three-dollar denomination in 1855, 1856, and 1857, again in 1860, and apparently one final piece in 1870. Mintmarks are found below the wreath.

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