Indian Head Design and the Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle

It was said by House Speaker, Joseph Gurney Cannon, that President Roosevelt was so involved in domestic policy-making that “The fellow at the other end of the avenue wants everything from the birth of Christ to the death of the devil.” It was true that President Roosevelt was akin towards changing regulations from ones of the utmost importance, to small affairs such as his attempted rule change in the game of football. So it should come as no surprise that when the President found dissatisfaction with the artistic quality of American coinage that he would see that something be done about it.

A good friend, and world renowned sculptor; Augustus Saint-Gaudens was tasked with the job of creating a design for the Eagle and Double Eagle Gold Coins. While typically the designs would be downsized for the smaller denomination Eagles, President Roosevelt felt that there needed to be a bit of diversity, and so the smallest denominations were chosen to have a different design than Saint-Gaudens liberty. While the image the famed artist created has become the most beloved design in U.S. minting history; it presented some problems when it came time to actually produce the pieces: ultra-high relief made the coins un-stackable, and the newly passed law, which mandated that the “In God We Trust” insigne always be included, presented the problem of space.

While the Mint was rallying for a way to stamp the design created by Saint-Gaudens, the smaller denominations were put on the back burner until the Eagle and Double Eagles release in 1907. This gave President Roosevelt the perfect opportunity to begin commissioning his own artist, as Saint-Gaudens had succumbed to cancer in August of that year; and he would get the opportunity for the creation of one of the most unique designs every minted in U.S. history.

Finding the Designer with the Vision

A friend of the President, returning from a recent stay in Japan, had the perfect person in mind for designing the lower denomination Eagles. Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow was working with Boston sculptor Bela Pratt to create a design that could be both high-relief, and solve the stacking problem associated with the Saint-Gaudens design. Expressing interest in the potential new project, Roosevelt commissioned Pratt to create a model—all this was done without input from the Mint.

During a meeting in April 1907 between the two friendly cohorts and the Mint Director, Frank Leach, the new design was presented. In his memoirs the Leach comments, “A coin, with the lines of the design, figures, and letters depressed or incused, instead of being raised or in relief, would meet the wishes of the bankers and business men, and at the same time introduce a novelty in coinage that was artistic as well as adaptable to the needs of business.”

One of a Kind Design

And what a novelty it is: For the $2.50, and $5 gold coins, the incused design is the first and only U.S. coin to have the image sunken into the coin. On the Obverse, a realistic Indian brave with war bonnet is shown, with the date, thirteen stars, and “Liberty” forming a circle around the startling portrait. Shown on the Reverse is Pratt’s rendition of the eagle used on the Indian Head Eagle designed by Saint-Gaudens, and used as the basis for the new design by Pratt. The eagle stands proudly, posing upon fasces, and an olive branch; the intertwined symbols of preparedness and peace. A truly unique design, it did not come without a bit of controversy. One such detail that some of the public had trouble with was the portrait of the Native American, which some thought looked a bit emaciated. Art historian Cornelius Vermeaule said in 1970, “The Indian is far from emaciated, and the coins show more imagination and daring of design than almost any other issue in American history. Pratt deserves to be admired for his medals and coins.” He later said that the design “marked a transition,” towards naturalism; which is an artistic movement that sought to represent figures truthfully, without elements of artificiality.

Fun Fact: The new coins entered circulation in November 1908, and almost immediately caused controversy. One such man that rose above the general outcry was numismatist Samuel Chapman, who wrote to the President in December to offer his criticism of the new coins. He had multiple grievances with the design ranging from “crude and hard” portrait of the Native American, to the ease he believed the coin could be counterfeited; but none seemed more ridiculous than his belief that the coins represented a risk to the general public’s health. He said that the incused design, “will be a great receptacle for dirt and conveyer of disease, and the coin will be the most unhygienic ever issued.” Despite criticism, the Quarter Eagle and the Half Eagle were minted for sometime; the smaller denomination from 1908 through 1915 and again from 1925 to 1929, and the $5 coin from 1908 to 1916 and once more in 1929.


As of today (3/2/2015) the melt value of the Quarter Eagles is around $146.19, and the Half Eagles is around $292.51; though the values of the coins lie not with the intrinsic value of their precious metal makeup, but with their historic, and numismatic value. As with other unique coins, the rarer the coin, the more value that coin has. For example the 1911 Quarter Eagle minted at the Detroit Mint has a low mintage of 55,680; average mintage figures are in several hundreds of thousands. In a recent Heritage Auction in April of 2013, a Quarter Eagle with a condition of MS-66 was sold for $176,250.00 in Illinois. For the Half Eagle, the rarest coins in the series were minted in 1909 at the New Orleans Mint, and command a hefty price at auction; in fact as recently as January 2015 a coin with the condition MS-66 was sold for $646,250 in Florida.

Each coin featuring the Pratt design in an absolute treasure in terms of numismatic value, and represents not only the change in American coinage, but also offers a glimpse of an important time in U.S. minting history. The Indian Head gold coins would be a wonderful addition to any collection, and can provide a great investment opportunity. Call today at 877-795-9585 to learn more about owning this fantastic piece of history, or Click Here to take a look at our Indian Head Quarter Eagles, or Click Here to see our Half Eagles.