Privately minted territorial coins from the Old West have a special place in the hearts of many numismatists, and among the most popular of these pieces are the Lesher Dollars. Struck in Colorado around the turn of the 20th century, these So-Called Dollars are large silver medals that were made during the very early 1900s by a mining industrialist named Joseph Lesher.
Lesher was born in Fremont, Ohio, on July 12, 1838 and moved to Colorado after his service in the military during the Civil War. Lesher was lured to the western frontier by the prospect of the riches to be had in mining. However, he became a silver miner just as the whitish-colored precious metal was beginning to experience a marketplace slump. With the discovery of gold near Pike’s Peak, Lesher relocated to the town of Victor to make a living in mining and real estate investing. He became an ardent advocate of the Free Silver movement popular in the 1890s and, as history shows us, a hard-money visionary.
As western mines fell on hard times during the waning days of the 1800s, Lesher devised a plan to stimulate the local economy of the Cripple Creek mining district of Colorado. He created a private mint where he could strike large silver medals with the hopes of stimulating activity at local silver mines, thus helping bolster the local economy while potentially improving the outlook for his own stakes in the local mining industry, too.
He believed that silver was worth $1.29 per ounce – nearly double the actual prevailing silver bullion price of 65 cents per ounce for silver. Regardless, the intrepid Lesher decided to strike silver dollars on the basis of his bullion valuation and let the public decide if they would use or disregard the new coins in circulation.
He took a chance on November 13, 1900 by striking the very first of his So-Called Dollars – coins he referred to as Lesher Referendum Dollars. Over the course of the next couple years, he produced approximately 2,000 to 3,000 silver medals. All Lesher Dollars are octagonal in shape and bear a plain edge, though they vary in physical size, technical specifications, and declared face value.
Those struck in 1900 carry a face value of $1.25 and measure 35 millimeters in diameter, weighing one troy ounce or 480 grains. Pieces from in 1901 are considerably smaller and lighter, with a $1.00 face value, a 32-millimeter diameter, and weight of 412-1/2 grains – identical to a United States silver dollar coin of that time.
The compositional fineness of the Lesher Dollars is .950 fine silver, the balance being composed of copper and representing a coin of greater silver purity than the federal counterpart United States Mint silver dollars, which in the early 1900s were .900 fine. Overall, the Lesher medals were designed with the purpose of competing against the federally produced silver coinage of the time, though in no way were they intended to be mistaken as legal tender.
Wanting to operate his private mint within the confines of the law, Lesher reached out to Senator Henry Teller of Colorado for counsel. So long as his coins were not being produced to resemble or be mistaken for legal tender, Lesher would be in the litigatory clear. And so he was. His silver medals were unique in appearance, looking unlike anything that any private minter, let alone the United States Mint, was striking at that time.
And, unlike the federal coins coming from the technologically state-of-the-art United States Mint of the early 1900s, Lesher Dollars were hand punched. As a result, Lesher Dollars are found with many individual peculiarities, and specialists have identified six types and 12 varieties. All Lesher Dollars are rare, and four of these issues offer only one known survivor. Many Lesher Dollars are counterstamped with the names of individual businesses and merchants, using these pieces as both mediums of trade and also as promotional trinkets.
Lending to the mystique behind Lesher Dollars is in trying to determine how many pieces exist. While Lesher’s concept was grandiose, his plan never really did materialize at the scale he proposed, and he stopped making his curious silver medals only a couple years after launching his private mint. Lesher never did revamp the monetary system in his corner of Colorado, but he did create a fantastic numismatic niche where he and silver coins have created their own colorful legacy.
In 1914, former American Numismatic Association President and The Numismatist Editor and Publisher Farran Zerbe interviewed Lesher about his So-Called Dollars. Among the findings of the interview was that Lesher recalled striking between 3,000 and 3,500 medals, though more contemporary efforts to ascertain the original mintage suggest fewer than 2,000 were made. Many of these coins turned up in hoards over the years, though perhaps less than half of the theorized mintage is accounted for today.
More than a century after Lesher’s death on July 4, 1918, the marketplace for these special territorial pieces remains robust. Entry-level prices for Lesher Dollars begin at around $1,000, though many trade for much more than that. Most Lesher Dollars in the uncirculated grades take $5,000 to $10,000, and a few pieces far eclipse those figures. Given the strong interest for Lesher Dollars among collectors, PCGS offers a platform for series specialists with the 18-coin Lesher So-Called Silver Dollars, Circulation Strikes (1900-1901) Registry Set.
- “About Joseph Lesher.” Lesher Dollars. Accessed December 15, 2020.
- Coletta, Paolo E. “Greenbackers, Goldbugs, and Silverites: Currency Reform and Politics, 1860-1897,” in The Gilded Age: A Reappraisal edited by H. Wayne Morgan. Syracuse University Press, 1963.
- Leonard, Robert D., Jr., Ken Hallenbeck, and Adna G. Wilde, Jr. Forgotten Colorado Silver: Joseph Lesher’s Defiant Coins. The History Press, 2017.