The early part of the 20th century was a time of great creativity in the design of U.S. coinage. August Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle was introduced in 1907, along with his Indian Head eagle. Victor D. Brenner’s Lincoln cent, commemorating in 1909 the centennial of the President’s birth, broke new ground- it was the first use of a presidential portrait on a circulating coin.
A few years later, in 1913, James Earl Fraser’s Indian Head, or Buffalo, nickel was introduced, followed shortly thereafter in 1916 by Adolf A. Weinman’s Winged Liberty Head (Mercury) dime and Liberty Walking half dollar and Hermon A. MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter. In the same time period, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition produced several silver and gold commemoratives, including the Charles E. Barber/ George T. Morgan allegorical quarter eagle (one of Barber’s most creative works), and Robert Aitken’s equally symbolic round and octagonal fifty dollar gold pieces. Following the acclaim received for Saint-Gaudens’ stunning efforts on the ten and twenty dollar gold pieces, President Theodore Roosevelt turned his attention to the other two gold denominations, the quarter eagle and the half eagle (production of one dollar and three dollar gold coins ended in 1889).
The Liberty Head half eagle had been minted since 1839. Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, and though he had done some work for the smaller denomination gold coins, the designs for the two remained unfinished. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a physician and art collector from Boston, had admired Egyptian reliefs displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A close friend of President Roosevelt, Bigelow promoted the idea of using a sunken design on American coins, and Roosevelt agreed. Bigelow apparently contacted and persuaded a fellow Bostonian and former student of Saint-Gaudens, sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, to create designs for the gold coins. Pratt used the same portrait on both the quarter eagle and the half eagle, a realistic image of a native American chief. The reverse displayed a bold standing eagle, a virtual copy of and perhaps tribute to the design Saint-Gaudens had used both on a Roosevelt inaugural medal and the Indian Head eagle. The use of an Indian on the coin followed the appearance of G.F.C. Smillie’s portrait of a Sioux Chief on the 1899 $5 silver certificate, but the imagery may also have been recognition of Roosevelt’s frontier heritage.
Not everyone approved of the designs, however, and Philadelphia coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman was one of the most vigorous in opposition. The incuse design, with devices and legends below the fields of the coin, promised to reduce wear on the features, but some thought the recessed areas would collect dirt and thus become a disease source. Others found fault with both the portrait and the eagle, though Mint Engraver Charles E. Barber, ever conscious of the technical necessities of coin production, had modified Pratt’s original eagle design. Claims that the coins could be easily counterfeited or wouldn’t stack properly (the latter an odd comment given the fact that the coins were rimless and had no design high points above the flat field) did not sway the President, and the new design was implemented. The Indian Head half eagle was minted yearly though 1916, after which production stopped, and then again in 1929, after which production permanently stopped. Though the mintage of half eagles in 1929 was generous, apparently most of that year’s coins were melted following President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 of April 5, 1933, which effectively ended the legal tender status, thus circulation, of gold coins in this country.
The obverse is dominated by a left-facing somewhat determined portrait of a native American chief wearing a full-feathered war bonnet. LIBERTY is at the top, and the date at the bottom. Six five-point stars are placed to the left along the coin edge, and seven to the right. The designer’s initial, B.L.P. are located below the portrait and above the date. The reverse displays a standing eagle facing to the left, perched upon a bundle of arrows with an entwined olive branch. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is at the top and the denomination FIVE DOLLARS is at the bottom, the words of both phrases separated by centered dots. E PLURIBUS UNUM, each word on a separate line, is to the left of the eagle, IN GOD WE TRUST, also with each word on a separate line, is to the right. Indian Head half eagles were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and New Orleans; D, S, and O mintmarks are located just to the left of the arrowheads. All design features except the mintmarks are incuse, recessed below the field.
Tens of thousands business strike Indian Half Eagles have been certified, with significantly more for the series high mintage 1909 issue from Denver. Prices are modest for most dates for grades up to MS62, but for San Francisco issues only to AU55; those pieces are expensive to MS64, and very expensive to extremely expensive as Gem and finer. Other than the San Francisco Indian Head half eagles, other higher priced coins are the 1909-O (extremely expensive finer than MS62), 1911-D (very expensive finer than MS60), and 1929 (very expensive in all grades). A few hundred proof Indian Head half eagles have been certified, generally fewer than 100 coins per year. All proofs are expensive, increasing to very expensive finer than PR62, and extremely expensive finer than PR66.
Designer: Bella Lyon Pratt, reverse possibly influenced by the designs of Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Circulation Mintage: high 3,423,560 (1909-D), low 34,200 (1909-O)
Proof Mintage: high 250 (1910), low 75 (1915; none in 1916 or 1929)
Diameter: 21.6 mm, reeded edge.
Metal Content: 90% gold, 10% copper
Weight: 8.36 grams