Type 1, Small Eagle

Obverse of 1797 Half Dollar
Obverse of 1797 Half Dollar

Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): This design is similar to that of the other silver denominations of the 1796-97 years. The obverse depicts Miss Liberty facing right, with flowing hair and a ribbon behind her head, her plunging neckline covered with drapery. LIBERTY is above, and the date is below. Varieties of 1796 exist with either 15 or 16 obverse stars, while those of 1797 all have 15 stars. The reverse illustrates an open wreath enclosing a small eagle, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the fraction ½ surrounding.

Of all the silver design types, the half dollar of 1796-97 is the rarest and most desired, eclipsing even the elusive 1796 quarter. The reason is not hard to determine, as the original mintage for both years was a miniscule 3,918 pieces, of which likely only about 5% of that number remain. This type is the limiting coin for a complete Copper/Silver U.S. type set. Examples in any grade are few and far between, and even an About Good or Good specimen when it appears at auction, is sufficient to generate a degree of excitement. Most known pieces are in lower grades, About Good to Very Good. Nice Fine to XF pieces are subjects of intense collector interest and spirited bidding, often into the six figure range. Coins above Extremely Fine are very rare, and major numismatic prizes. Some 1796 half dollars exist with prooflike surfaces. In higher condition levels, while both dates are rare, 1797 is even more so than 1796.

A numismatist is apt to find that this particular coin will be the stumbling block or the greatest challenge to finishing an exhibit of United States silver coin design types. Probably about 200 to 300 pieces exist in all grades.

Mintage of half dollars resumed in 1801 after a three-year hiatus between 1798 and 1800. This style, which continued through 1807, continued the Draped Bust obverse motif introduced in 1796, with 13 stars (seven left and six right) now standardized. The new “heraldic eagle” reverse introduced on the dimes and dollars in 1798, and the half dimes in 1800 now appeared on the halves as well. An adaptation of the Great Seal of the United States, it consisted of an eagle with a shield on its breast, holding arrows and an olive branch, with a scroll inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM in its beak. Above the eagle is an arc of clouds, below which is a group of stars. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds. No denomination appears.

There are no rare dates within the 1801 to 1807 span, although the 1801 and 1802 are the toughest, and some varieties are elusive. Nearly all specimens encountered display weakness of striking in one area or another, with the quality of strike becoming worse and worse as the years advanced. Nearly all halves dated 1806 and 1807 show weakness. Specimens are typically found in grades from Very Good to Very Fine, although Extremely Fine pieces can be found with some frequency. AU pieces are scarce, and strictly Uncirculated coins are rare. Even an Uncirculated specimen of 1807, for example, is apt to be very weakly defined in such areas as the rims, the obverse and reverse stars, and parts of the eagle.

-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers