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Eagles – Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle, 1797-1804

The highest denomination coin authorized by the Mint Act of 1792 was the ten-dollar gold piece, one of three gold coins approved by Congress for the young nation. A ten dollar denomination fit with the decimal system promoted both by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and was intended to be the main coin for international trade and other large transactions. However reasonable the plan, the reality was that the five dollar half eagle was preferred by those engaged in international trade because it was approximately the same size as the dominant gold coins of other nations. Domestically, eagles rarely circulated because the face value was nearly equivalent to a week’s wages for the typical worker. The final detriment to the eagle’s use was an unfavorable domestic silver to gold ratio, compared to that of other countries. It became profitable to trade one ounce of U.S. gold for sixteen or more ounces of foreign silver, and then use fifteen of those silver ounces to procure another ounce of U.S. gold, netting a profit of one ounce of silver. The result was predictable: U.S. gold disappeared, except for the pieces secured in bank vaults or safely kept by citizens of sufficient means to set aside the precious coin.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Against this background, the Mint responded to criticisms of the “scrawny” eagle depicted on the first ten dollar coins by changing the reverse design to that of a heraldic portrayal of the national symbol. Some have speculated that the change was in part a response to a perceived preference for a national symbology reminiscent of European traditions, and the eagle and shield motif of the Great Seal of the United States fit that need. Both the Continental Congress and the U.S. Congress had adopted the Great Seal, designed by William Barton of Philadelphia, a lawyer and a numismatist. The portrayal also more closely matched the styles of the common and familiar foreign coins that still circulated in the nascent country, perhaps an encouragement for the use of the domestic coin as well. Chief Engraver Robert Scot adapted the Great Seal for the reverse, though some believe the result to be less artistic than the Small Eagle version. More attention has been placed on Scott’s “blunder”, his placement of arrows (thus war) in the eagle’s right, or honorable claw, and the olive branch (peace) in the left, or sinister, claw; symbology that probably would not be noticed by most people today. It was a reverse of the representation found on the Great Seal, but no changes were made to the arrangement during the life of the series. By 1804, melting of gold coins had become rampant, and the mintage of eagles was halted by President Thomas Jefferson following the 1804 issue.

The obverse displays a right-facing Liberty wearing a soft cap, with long flowing hair streaming down the back and curling from under the cap at the front. An incongruous sweep of hair is wrapped from the back of the head around the cap, giving an impression that may account for the Turban Head name often attached to the type. The date is at the bottom and the word LIBERTY more or less at the top, generally to the right of Liberty’s cap, the two legends separated by six-point stars, which form a circle inside the dentils along the rim. Not unusual for the time, the number of stars displayed on the obverse varied. The 1797 eagles have 16 stars, ten to the left and 6 to the right. In 1798 there were 13 stars, some with nine left and four right, others with seven left and six right. From 1799 forward there are 13 stars displayed, eight left and five right.

The reverse has in the center a left-facing eagle, wings outstretched with the tips extending nearly to the dentilled rim. A shield covers most of the body, and the eagle holds in its beak a loop of a ribbon displaying E PLURIBUS UNUM, positioned in front of the right wing and in back of the left. The eagle’s right claw clutches several arrows, the left an olive branch. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA nearly circles inside the rim, the words separated by the eagle’s wing tips and tail. Above the eagle are 13 small six-point stars in two arcs, six at the top and five below, with an additional star on each side of the eagle’s head. Above the stars, below STATES OF is an arc of clouds. All coins were minted at Philadelphia and display neither mintmark nor denomination; the value of the eagle was determined by its gold content.

Census and population reports show a few thousand Capped Bust Eagle, Heraldic Eagle certifications. A few prooflike circulation strikes have been identified, along with a couple of pieces designated as either specimen or proof, including a remarkable Deep Cameo piece. All Capped Bust Heraldic eagles are very expensive, even at low grades; anything finer than VF is extremely expensive, with prices approaching one-half million dollars for Gem and finer examples. More expensive issues are 1798/7 9×4 Stars and 7×6 Stars and the 1804 Crosslet 4 pieces. The proof restrike 1804 is extremely expensive, with prices approaching nearly two million dollars in Gem.


Designer: Robert Scot, with possible assistance from John Smith Gardner
Circulation Mintage: high 44,344 (1801), low 1,742 (1798)
Proof Mintage:4 or 5 estimated for 1804, with a plain 4 (restrikes minted around 1834 for diplomatic presentation)
Denomintion: $10.00 Eagle
Diameter: ±33 mm, reeded edge
Metal content: 91.67% gold, 8.33% copper
Weight: ±17.5 grams
Varieties:Several known, including 1798/7 9 Stars Left, 4 Stars Right, and 7 Stars Left, 6 Stars Right (all known 1798 eagles are overdates); 1799 Large Stars Obverse and Small Stars Obverse; and 1803 Small Stars Obverse, Large Stars Obverse.

Additional Resources :

CoinFacts: www.coinfacts.com
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins: 1795-1933. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
Early U.S. Gold Coin Varieties. John W. Dannreuther and Harry W. Bass Jr. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.

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