August 08, 2009

Indian Head gold dollars

Designer moves date to reverse on gold dollar

By William T. GibbsLongacre's designs for the 1849 to 1854 gold dollar depict a portrait of Liberty wearing a coronet inscribed with liberty on the obverse, and a wreath encircling 1 dollar, with the date below dollar. The same Coronet Liberty portrait was used on the double eagle (patterns of which were struck in 1849).

The 13mm diameter of the gold dollar was considered too small, and it was increased to 14.86mm in 1854. Completely new designs were introduced as well in 1854.

The obverse depicts Longacre's standard Liberty portrait, but wearing a stylized Indian headdress rather than coronet. The legend "United States of America" was moved to the obverse. A completely new, more substantial wreath was placed on the reverse, with the denomination and date still placed within the wreath.

Longacre's Liberty-as-Indian portrait was used for just three years, on seven different dollars. It was replaced in 1856 with a slightly larger, new Indian Head portrait that is virtually identical to that used on the $3 gold coin, introduced in 1854.

The first Indian Head gold dollar portrait is generally referred to as the Small Head, while the second Indian portrait is generally called the Large Head. However, the differences between the two portraits are more than just size: the shape of the bottom of the neck differs; the shapes of the feathers differ; and the hair is differently shaped (curlier on the Small Head portrait).
1854-89 Three Dollars Indian HeadChief Engraver James Barton Longacre chose an "Indian Princess" for his obverse--not a Native American profile, but actually a profile modeled after the Greco-Roman Venus Accroupie statue then in a Philadelphia museum. Longacre used this distinctive sharp-nosed profile on his gold dollar of 1849 and would employ it again on the Indian Head cent of 1859. On the three-dollar coin 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."Comment:  As I noted before, there's some doubt about whether Longacre modeled the Indian Head cent on the Venus statue or a little girl or both.

Interesting to note that in 1849, the Plains chief image was only a couple decades old. (The first Plains chief portrait was done in 1822.) The image wasn't firmly rooted in people's minds as the representation of Indians. So what did Longacre do? He used a Florida Indian headdress instead of a Plains Indian headdress.

You gotta love the naked symbolism of the coin's image. A white woman of Greek descent comes to the "New World," lands in Florida, takes the "crown" of the local Indian chief, and presumes America to be hers. In other words, putting on Indian attire symbolically means taking possession of the Indians' land and heritage.

For more on the subject, see $5 Indian Head Gold Coin.

Below:  The 1859 Large Indian Head gold dollar.

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