U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

1859-1909 Indian Cents

1859 Indian Cent was the first year of issue
1859 Indian Cent was the first year of issue

The search for a replacement for the unsatisfactory (for striking purposes) flying eagle cent led to the production of several patterns. These are of two main obverse types, those with a small and skinny-looking eagle and those with an Indian. The Indian appears in full headdress and is identical to that actually used for later coinage. In addition, regular flying eagle Proof cent dies were used for the obverses of certain patterns, probably to produce delicacies for collectors.

The series of 1858 pattern cents is an extensive one, for the skinny flying eagle, regular flying eagle, and Indian cent obverse dies were produced in combination with several different reverses. Sets of 12 different 1858 pattern cents were sold by Mint officials to interested persons. While most such groupings have been long since dispersed, I had the pleasure of acquiring an intact set from the firm of David Bullowa, of Philadelphia-in the early 1950s.

Perhaps the most interesting and significant of all 1858 patterns is the piece catalogued in Dr. J. Hewitt Judd's United States Patterns as J-208, the so-called 1858 Indian cent. This piece has an Indian head on the obverse and a laurel wreath on the reverse and is identical, except for the date, to a regular issue cent of 1859. At one time I became enamored of this particular variety and set about hoarding them. I was able to identify a number of different die varieties of this particular issue, indicating that they must have been struck over a period of time, possibly at later intervals (as were 1856 flying eagle cents), in order to satisfy the demand from collectors and to provide a little extra, but quite unofficial, income to Mint employees. All specimens struck were in Proof condition; no Uncirculated pieces were made.

The Indian cent design met with immediate favor, and in 1859 cents of this style were first produced for circulation. The 1859 design used a laurel wreath without a shield at the top for the reverse motif. Later in the same year it was decided to redesign the reverse, so several hundred pattern issues were made using an oak wreath with a shield at the top. Although a very few pieces were made in Proof, hundreds of these were made in Uncirculated grades, presumably intended for distribution to congressmen and other influential officials. Exactly how these were actually distributed, I don't know, but it is apparent that most of them went to collectors. Circulated specimens are exceedingly rare. Because this pattern issue was struck in Uncirculated or business-strike format, with frosty mint lustre, a grade rare for a pattern (most patterns are Proofs), a number of people have considered this to be a "regular issue." As the oak wreath with shield design was not officially used until 1860, a better term would be "transitional pattern." However, there is no doubt that the piece is interesting and significant, and owning one is a desire of many collectors of small cents. Likewise, ownership of an 1858 Indian cent has always been popular. Both of these pieces, the 1858 and 1859 transitional issues, have the same status and claim to collect ability as the 1856 flying eagle cent.

1859 represents the only year Indian cents with the laurel wreath reverse were made for general circulation. Thus, these cents are isolated as necessities for a complete type set of United States coinage. Specimens are readily available in lower grades, somewhat scarce (reflective of the demand for them) in Uncirculated condition, and quite elusive in Proof. Only a few hundred Proofs survive, many of which are impaired.

Indian cents with the oak wreath and shield reverse, struck in copper-nickel alloy, were minted from 1860 through 1864 inclusive. These constitute still another design type necessary for a set. The scarcest date in that range is the 1861, of which 10 million were made. The commonest date is 1863, with a mintage figure close to 50 million.

Specimens are readily available in all grades. Proofs were struck of each year and exist to the extent of several hundred of each date. Certain business strike issues, particularly 1863 and 1864, are often seen weakly struck, a characteristic evident on the tips of the headdress feathers.

Cents of 1864 were produced in three varieties: the copper-nickel format, the bronze format without "L" on ribbon, and the bronze format with the letter "L". But, I am getting ahead of myself at this point.

Beginning in 1862, and becoming a real problem in 1863, was a shortage of small coins in circulation. The Civil War wasn't going well for the North. At one point Confederate money was worth more than Union money, and the outcome of the conflict between the states was very uncertain. As a result, citizens hoarded all of the "hard money" they could find. Initial hoarding was limited to gold and silver coins, but before long even lowly one-cent pieces were not to be found in general circulation.

To fill the need for a medium for commerce, many private issues appeared. One of the most famous of these groups from a numismatic viewpoint consisted of encased postage stamps issued by several dozen different merchants. Far more plentiful, and issued by the millions, were so-called Civil War tokens. These form the subject of my discussion here. During the 1862-1864 period more than 10,000 varieties of these were made, and the total coinage ran into the millions.

Following the adoption of copper-nickel metal, beginning in 1857 for coinage of flying eagle cents, pieces were struck from this hard alloy. The Mint experienced many problems. Included were difficulties in preparing the planchets and rapid die wear due to the hardness of the metal. This metal hardness situation continued after the change to the Indian head design in 1859. It was proposed that a thin copper or bronze format be adopted, but this was rejected on the theory that the pieces would not be "substantial" enough to be accepted by the public.

When thin bronze Civil War tokens were circulated by the millions in 1863 and were being accepted by citizens and merchants alike as being worth one cent in trade value, the Mint took sharp notice! The public was willing to accept lightweight bronze coins after all!

Proof dies for the 1863 copper-nickel cent were used to strike a number of pattern cents on thin bronze planchets. Perhaps to differentiate these from copper-nickel issues (although such differentiations weren't needed, as the metal differed in coloration), the dies were misaligned 180 degrees, so that the obverse and reverse of each trial striking were oriented in the same direction (whereas on regular issues the obverse and reverse are aligned in opposition). These particular pattern issues, listed as Judd-299, were struck to the extent of hundreds of specimens. They are particularly significant for they were the forerunners of the small bronze cents which were used for more than a hundred years afterward (with the exception of 1943).

At the beginning of 1864 the old copper-nickel standard was in effect, but soon the new bronze cent, a coin of thinner format weighing only 48 grains (in comparison to 72 grains for the copper-nickel issue), became the standard. Most 1864 thin bronze cents were struck without Longacre's initial "L" on the ribbon, but a few million were made with the distinctive "L" signature. These latter pieces, several times more elusive than the earlier issues, are considered scarce today.

Beginning in 1858, Proof sets were readily available to collectors. Prior to that time, distribution was made primarily to those with special connections at the Mint, to influential politicians, and others. By 1864 the ordering of Proof sets was a popular pastime for numismatists. Sets were produced early in the year. Indian cents at the time were the type without the "L". Later, an estimated 20 pieces of the 1864 "L" variety were made in Proof, thus creating a rarity. The Guide Book estimates Proof mintages of 1864 cents to have been 370 of the copper-nickel type, 150 of the bronze type without "L", and 20 of the bronze type with "L".

Shortly after the introduction of the bronze cent, the Mint began redeeming the "old" copper-nickel cents-at an initial rate of over 10,000,000 per year. At one time the director of the Mint noted this was wasteful and unnecessary, but the practice continued.

Small bronze Indian cents were minted continuously from 1864 to 1909, thus creating a separate design type. In this span several interesting varieties occur. The so-called 1869/8 "overdate" (although it may be a recut 1869 date rather than 1869 over 8) is three times or more rare than a regular 1869. In 1873 varieties with open 3 and closed 3 were made. In the same year an interesting variety with the word LIBERTY sharply doubled on the headdress was produced. These latter pieces are quite rare, and only a few dozen exist.

In 1886 the hub die was changed. Indian cents from 1859 through 1886 have the last feather of the headdress pointing between the I and the C of AMERICA; from mid-1886 to the end of the series in 1909 the same feather points between the C and the A. The 1886 year comprises both varieties.

Another interesting variety is provided by the 1888/7 overdate, discovered by James F. Ruddy in 1970 when he found a pair of them while going through a group of Indian cents which had been secreted for years in a Virginia mansion. How unusual it was to find two pieces together, especially since the variety had never been identified before! The overdate is fairly clear, especially on higher grade pieces. The issue remains rare today, and the total population is probably not more than a dozen or so. The two discovery coins went in different directions, one to Maryland dealer Julian leidman and the other to Robert Marks, an Arkansas collector.

In 1908 cents were struck for the first time at a branch mint. Slightly more than one million 1908-S coins were produced, followed by 309,000 1909-S Indian cents the following year. These constitute the only mintmark varieties of the series. The year 1909 saw the final production of Indian cents. They soon became relics of the past.

Setting aside Indian cents was a popular pastime of many storekeepers during the 1940s. When I first started collecting in the early 1950s, Indian cents had all but disappeared from circulation. In looking through a bag of 1,000 cents obtained at a local bank, representing $10 face value, I would be lucky to find one or two Indian pieces, usually of such dates as 1905, 1907, or some other common issue, worn nearly smooth. Within a few years none there were to be seen. However, hope springs eternal, and in 1983 a Bethlehem, New Hampshire collector found a 1905 Indian cent in circulation (big deal-it was worth about 5Oc!).

Among bronze Indian cents of the 1864-1909 years there are a number of scarce issues. In general, pieces dated prior to 1879 are elusive. 1864-L, 1871, 1872, and in particular 1877 are key dates. Even a well-worn 1877 cent is an object of numismatic desire. Later scarce issues are limited to 1908-S and 1909-S.

Uncirculated pieces with full original mint color are scarce for issues dated prior to 1879. Later Indian cents, although much more plentiful in worn grades, still are not seen with great frequency in high states of preservation. It is an unfortunate commentary on the market for Indian (and early Lincoln) cents that the majority of "Choice brilliant Uncirculated" pieces advertised owe their "brilliance" to dipping or cleaning. Most of these are simply Extremely Fine, AU, or brown Uncirculated pieces that have been given the artificial appearance of brilliant Uncirculated. This situation, although existing for a number of years, blossomed around 1960 when an enterprising dealer discovered that vast numbers of new collectors were coming into the market, people who could read advertisements and who knew that "brilliant Uncirculated" was a good condition to own, but didn't know the first thing about how to determine the grade. A few minutes spent cleaning an Extremely Fine coin and, presto, a coin worth $1 or $2 magically became worth $50! Or, so it appeared. To stimulate sales, these pieces, really worth $50 if they had truly been brilliant Uncirculated, were advertised at discount prices, say, $20 to $30. As readers of popular periodicals could not determine which ones were truly in the grades stated and which ones were not, and as the periodicals themselves did little in the way of policing advertisers, the result followed Gresham's Law: the bad drove out the good. Soon the market for all Indian cents weakened, as collectors were confused and disoriented. Twenty years later the appeal of collecting Indian cents in higher grades had not fully recovered.

At the same time it should be mentioned that the collector or dealer with an experienced eye can quickly determine such pieces, so they pose no real threat. However, there is an apparent threat, and this has deterred many would-be buyers. The pricing structure of legitimate Choice Brilliant Uncirculated pieces is thus much, much lower than it really should be, resulting in a windfall of a sort for experienced numismatists who can purchase beautiful coins, when they can be located, for prices that are probably fractions of what they otherwise should be!

The type set collector will find that any Indian cent of the 1900s will suffice. Issues in this range are plentiful in all grades. I advise that the date collector adopt a condition standard and try to stick to it. For example, issues prior to 1879 might be collected in Fine grade, while later pieces (which are less expensive) might be in Extremely Fine preservation. Of course, those who can afford it would be advised to assemble Uncirculated or Proof pieces, taking care to avoid misrepresented items.

Indian head "pennies" were part of the American scene for a long time, from 1859 to 1909. Today a well-worn example has an interesting tale to tell-where has it been, what has it seen? Such items are incredibly romantic. As child in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, I once saw a group of Indian cents imbedded face-up in a concrete doorstep. Never having seen such pieces before, and realizing that they were at once unusual and rare, I desired to own one. Shortly thereafter, at an auction held as part of a church benefit, an iron bank full of pennies came up for sale. I had seen it earlier, and peering through the latticework of the toy bank I saw Indian cents within. But, the price realized for the bank and contents was $3, far more than an eight year old could afford at the time. Like motherhood, the flag, and apple pie, Indian cents are an American institution.

Q. David Bowers has been in the rare coin business since 1953 when he was a teenager. The author has served as president of the American Numismatic Association (1983-1985) and president of the Professional Numismatists Guild (1977-1979), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the ANA (the Farran Zerbe Award), was the first ANA member to be named Numismatist of the Year (1995), has been inducted into the Numismatic Hall of Fame (at the ANA Headquarter in Colorado Springs), is a recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the Professional Numismatists Guild (The Founders' Award), and has received more "Book of the Year Award" and "Best Columnist" honors given by the Numismatic Literary Guild than any other writer. He has has written over 40 books, hundreds of auction and other catalogues, and several thousand articles.
The key date in the Indian Cent series is the 1877
The key date in the Indian Cent series is the 1877
In 1908, Indian Cents were minted for the first time at a branch mint, such as this 1908 San Francisco issue
The key date in the Indian Cent series is the 1877
PCGS Library