Early United States Half Eagle Gold Coins
After the establishment of the Philadelphia Mint in 1792, coinage commenced with copper half cents and cents for circulation in 1793, followed by silver half dollars and dollars in 1794, silver half dimes in 1795 (the first issues being from unused 1794-dated dies), and quarter dollars in 1796. No gold coins were struck until the summer of 1795, by which time the copper and silver denominations had been inaugurated, save for the quarter dollar. The absence of gold was due to surety requirements, as noted under silver dollars above, not to any lack of desire or ability on the part of the Mint officials and staff.
Around May of 1795, David Rittenhouse, director of the Mint since its inception, assigned engraver Robert Scot to produce half eagle dies. Rittenhouse left the Mint at the end of June and was replaced by Henry William DeSaussure, who ordered that gold coin production should begin. On July 31st, 744 half eagles were delivered, followed by subsequent amounts through September totaling 8,707 pieces for the year. The Mint was over-optimistic as to the number of 1795-dated obverses might be used, with the result that dies with this date were kept on hand and used as late as 1798!
The first design was what collectors today designate as the Capped Bust to Right obverse (perhaps better called Conical Cap or Turban Head), Small Eagle reverse style. The Small Eagle motif apparently was taken from a first century BC Roman onyx cameo depicting an eagle perched on a palm branch, its wings outstretched, holding aloft a circular wreath in his beak. The same design was used on the $10 gold eagle. The diameter of about 1”, equal to 25.4 millimeters, remained in effect from 1795 through part of 1829.
The coinage of 8,707 half eagles with the 1795 date was accomplished by using numerous dies, including at least nine reverses with the small eagle motif alone. Throughout the next several decades, interesting die varieties were produced, including overdates, recut letters, and differences in size and position. The Small Eagle reverse style was continued through early 1798, the last year being a classic rarity.
In 1797, the new Heraldic Eagle reverse design was created, featuring an eagle with wings symmetrically spread and with a shield on its breast, stars and clouds above, and holding in its talons arrows and a branch, adapted from the Great Seal of the United States. In numismatic nomenclature this has also been called the Spread Eagle design (in certain 19th century catalogues) and the Large Eagle. The motif was not new to gold coinage, as it had been used on the quarter eagle in 1796.
From 1798 through 1807, coinage of the Heraldic Eagle reverse style was continued. Many different die varieties were produced, including several overdates.