The following article appeared in the October 6, 2009 edition of Numismatic News and is reprinted here by permission of Numismatic News and the author with all rights reserved.
In 1954 Walter Breen published “The Secret History of the Gobrecht Coinages 1836–1840,” which is still useful today.
The final sentence in this work is perhaps prophetic in that it says “It is
safe to say that the last word on these has yet to be written.”
What Breen wrote is still true today in that we do not yet have the full
story of the Gobrecht silver dollars of 1836–1839. But
some unexpected discoveries have produced surprising new information about this
Prior to 1954, Gobrecht dollars were thought
of simply as pattern coins and not regular issues. Breen’s monograph changed
collector perception of the Gobrecht dollars and they
became more popular.
Perception changed again in the 1970s with two publications. The first
was Breen’s 1977 catalogue of proof coins and the second was a 1978 series of
articles that appeared in Coins Magazine.
Walter Breen showed that the way to distinguish a restrike
Gobrecht dollar from an original was relatively
simple: when the coin was rotated on either the horizontal or vertical axis the
eagle had to be flying upwards at an angle of roughly 30 degrees. (The rotation on the vertical axis – medal turn – applies only to
the special coinage of March 1837 when the dies of 1836 were used.)
The Coins Magazine articles
laid out in detail that the Gobrecht dollars of 1836
(1000 pieces), 1837 (600 pieces), and 1839 (300 pieces) were legal coins under
the relevant coinage laws, making them part of any U. S. type collection.
Breen categorized the Gobrecht dollars in four
basic alignments: I – eagle flying upward when rotated on a horizontal axis
(coin turn), II – eagle flying upward when rotated on a vertical axis (medal
turn), III – eagle flying level when rotated on a horizontal axis, and IV –
eagle flying level when rotated on a vertical axis.
Walter Breen’s criteria for distinguishing original Gobrecht
dollars from restrikes were generally accepted within
a short time and remained in place for several years. In the mid 1980s,
however, ‘revisionists’ began to attack the Breen criteria by claiming that
pieces with the eagle flying flat (after rotation) were, in many cases,
originals and not restrikes.
The revisionist claims fall apart immediately when one realizes that
United States coins are never issued with deliberately skewed (asymmetrical)
reverses, which is clearly the case with alignments III and IV. The only
special case is 1837 where the dies of 1836 dies were inverted (medal
turn/alignment II) because of the new law of January 1837, which changed the
weight and fineness of all silver coins; in this way the two different issues
dated 1836 would not be confused.
This critical alignment stumbling block to the revisionist theory did
not in fact prove a stumbling block at all. It was simply ignored, making it
easier for the revisionists to claim that restrike Gobrecht dollars were actually originals.
One of the principal arguments of the revisionists was that the dies in
1837 somehow became loose and the dies rotated, thus producing coins in
alignments III and IV. Rotated die coins do exist from this period but such
pieces are generally restricted – for technical reasons – to coins cent-sized
and smaller. The fact that Gobrecht dollars would not
have been issued by the Mint with a skewed reverse has also been conveniently
ignored by the revisionists.
For 1839 the revisionists have made the bizarre claim that Mint
officials decided to issue coins in a medal turn with a skewed reverse
(alignment IV), which was pointless considering that U.S. coins are always
issued in coin turn with a symmetric reverse (alignment I). The only known
exception to this rule is the 1837 dollar coinage, where the dies were inverted
(medal turn) because of legal requirements.
The recent discovery of new documentation has profoundly changed our
understanding of the Gobrecht dollar coinage,
however. It has been known for some time that the annual report for 1837, completed
by Mint Director Robert M. Patterson in January 1838, did not include the 600
silver dollars of March 1837. The present writer assumed that this was merely
an oversight and that Mint Treasurer William Findlay had accidentally
overlooked this entry in the Bullion Ledger, from which coinage figures were
obtained for the annual report.
One of the documents recently located, however, was the report to
Congress – by the Treasury Comptroller’s office – covering Philadelphia Mint
bullion operations in 1837. The Comptroller’s report, which was prepared using
quarterly data furnished by William Findlay, correctly stated that 600 dollars
had been coined in 1837. In other words Findlay had informed the Treasury of
the 1837 dollar coinage but Mint Director R.M. Patterson had deliberately
ignored this very same information from Findlay in his annual report for 1837.
The Treasury report, completed in February 1839, was submitted to the
Mint for examination of possible errors and none was found. After Director
Patterson had signed off, it was sent to Congress. However, even after the
director saw the figure of 600 dollars coined in 1837, the 1840 Mint Report –
prepared in January 1841 – did not correct the ‘mistake’ although a table of
coinage (by date and denomination) covering through 1840 was printed. Such
tables were presented on a semi-regular basis in later years but did not
mention the 1837 dollar mintage.
It was now clear that Director Patterson no longer considered the silver
dollars of 1837 as actual coinage and that this decision had been made by the
end of that year. This in turn indicated that the coins had been melted and not
issued by the Mint but a search of the 1837 bullion accounts turned up nothing
to justify this assumption. Because the 600 coins had been delivered under a
warrant signed by the director, it would have been necessary – in order to
balance the bullion accounts – to flag such an entry as special and it was
puzzling that nothing was found.
To confuse matters further, the 300 silver dollars coined in late
December 1839 were in fact listed in the annual report covering that year. A
search of the bullion accounts, however, produced no special entry showing that
the 1839 coins had been paid out to a bank or individual depositor. (In a similar
vein, no entry was found in the bullion accounts for 1837 showing any
distribution of the 600 dollar coins of that year, also puzzling because 600 of
the Gobrecht dollars of December 1836 had been paid
out to the Bank of the United States via the expected special entry in the
The next item found, however, put everything in perspective. The
November 21, 1840, issue of Niles’
National Register carried a short item reading “NEW COIN. The United States
mint is engaged in coining a new dollar of a smaller diameter, and consequently
more convenient, than the Spanish coin, and is altogether better executed. Three years ago  a new die was got up, the coins from which
looked so bad that it [the die] was broken up.”
The same short item, with slightly different wording, was also found in
a similar New York City publication dated November 14, indicating that both
papers had used a story from a local newspaper, probably of Philadelphia or
Washington. It is likely that the original reporter had access to a source in
the Treasury Department who knew the details of the 1837 mintage. (The Mint
might have been the source but it seems doubtful that Director Patterson would
have enjoyed discussing this particular problem.)
While the 1840 Niles account
is slightly garbled, understandable considering that the reporter did not
understand the mechanics of coinage, it is clear that the 1837 dollar coinage
was a failure from Patterson’s viewpoint. Coupled with the deliberate omission
of this mintage from the 1837 report, it was certain that the coins were melted
at the Mint but exactly when was now the question. As noted above, nothing was
found for 1837 and it was not clear at first where such a special entry might
That the coins were not well struck in 1837 means only one thing, that
the steam coining press was used. The 600 pieces would not have been made on
the screw press because Director Patterson already knew the results from that
press – the December 1836 mintage had been made on the large screw press. The
first steam press was completed for use in March 1836 but it was not powerful
enough to coin dollars; the director therefore waited until a second and larger
press was finished, in March 1837.
That the 600 pieces of March 1837 were struck on the steam press also
means that the edges were reeded and not plain as in
December 1836; it would have been pointless otherwise. The Numismatist for April 1912 noted the existence of a reeded-edge 1836 Gobrecht dollar
but whether this is a lone survivor of the 600 is unknown as the writer has not
seen the piece. It would have to be in alignment II (and uncirculated, as
opposed to proof) to be an original 1837 coin, however. It could not be in
proof condition as steam presses were never used for such strikings.
The Philadelphia Mint bullion accounts were searched to see what could
be found. One source of information was that until 1873 individuals or banks
could bring silver to the mints for coinage and records still exist for the
names, kinds, and value of such deposits. However, the special flagged entries
would of necessity not be found in the volumes listing private depositors
because the 600 coins of March 1837 were government property after being
delivered under warrant. In other words, the special deposits being sought must
not be found in the books for private deposits.
Moreover, such special deposits of dollar coins must also be an exact
dollar amount, because of the denomination involved. These special bullion
deposits must be called “silver coinage,” meaning that they were deposited on
Mint account and consist of actual U.S. silver coins. (Older U.S. silver coins
were sometimes deposited by the Treasury for recoinage
but these were well worn and did not come in exact dollar amounts.)
Only four entries meeting these exact conditions were found in the
Bullion Ledgers for 1837–1840:
July 31, 1839 $780.00
November 30, 1839
April 30, 1840 $325.00
July 31, 1840 $1,040.00
The dates shown are, to a certain extent, fictional in that the deposit
in question might have been made in mid month. The deposits shown in the
Bullion Ledger give such information only for the last working day of the
Given what we already know about the Gobrecht
dollars of 1837, there is no doubt that the November 1839 entry indicates that
650 silver dollars were deposited as silver bullion, 600 pieces from the
delivery under warrant and 50 extra pieces that were used for the normal set-up
of the dies and spoilage; the extra pieces also fell under the known practice
of Lights and Heavies to arrive at the correct legal weight for a given
delivery. (Extra planchets were always on hand for
such purposes in a coinage run.) The April 30, 1840, entry, not by coincidence,
reports exactly half that amount and nicely accounts for 300 dollars under
warrant plus 25 extra pieces; these are clearly the December 1839 Gobrecht dollars, an unexpected bonus.
The November 1839 entry is especially interesting as it is seems nearly
certain that the dollars of 1837 were melted specifically to be used as bullion
for the December 1839 coinage. The timing cannot be mere coincidence as these
coins had been struck more than two years earlier.
Exactly why the surplus pieces were retained with the coins struck under
warrant is not certain. It seems likely that the extra pieces were also
carefully studied, however, in order to determine if the Flying Eagle reverse
was a viable motif for regular dollar coinage.
There is no information available at present to determine which coins
were melted under the July 31, 1839, entry of $780, but it is possible that
this refers to quarter or half dollars, probably the latter. The deposit of
July 31, 1840, is also uncertain but may represent a rejected batch of the
first silver dollars coined with the new reverse design in July 1840. (It may also have been the melting of a final test run of the
Flying Eagle reverse – see below under 1840.)
The information so far presented shows that the entire 1837 and 1839
coinages were melted. It also tells us that the Flying Eagle design on the
reverse of the Gobrecht dollar coinage created
problems – the designs did not come up well – when struck on the steam coining
press. It was therefore for this reason that the Flying Eagle motif was
scrapped and replaced by the old (1807) Reich eagle in 1840.
That the Mint would melt unwanted coins does not come as a surprise.
From 1830 to June 1833, for example, 234,000 half cents dated 1828 and 1829
were used as alloy in the gold and small silver coinages.
1836 Name Below Base (Pattern).
Nothing new has been learned about this issue but it is clear from
published sources (Cogan and Sellers) that such pieces were in fact struck.
Cogan published his claim, that 18 pieces had been made, in the June 1867 American Journal of Numismatics and
several people who were still at the Mint, or closely associated with it in the
1830s, were readers; no one contradicted Cogan’s statement, a telling point for
its accuracy. The figure of 18, however, was probably a guess by Cogan’s source
(Robert Patterson ?) as it was not usual Mint practice
to keep records on the number of pattern pieces struck. If an original does
show up it will be in alignment I; all pieces seen to date, however, are restrikes in alignments III or IV.
Those who dispute the accuracy of Cogan’s statement in the AJN claim that his source of information
was former Mint Director James Ross Snowden. That officer,
however was not at the Mint prior to 1848 and would have had no direct
knowledge of the 1830s; in 1867 he had also been out of office for six years.
On the other hand Robert Patterson (son of Dr. R.M. Patterson) certainly was
there in the late 1830s as was Franklin Peale, the former Chief Coiner.
1836 Name On Base (coin turn), mintage of 1,000
pieces in December 1836.
All are in alignment I. It has been found that Dr. Patterson presented a
piece to the American Philosophical Society on December 16, 1836, indicating
that specimens had been struck by this time; unfortunately this coin is no
longer in the Society’s collection.
There has been a certain amount of debate on whether the pieces struck
for circulation are in fact true proofs. The present writer will let others
argue this point but will note that there is no question that true proofs would
have been struck for key Mint officers as well as favored collectors.
1836 Name On Base (medal turn), mintage of 600
pieces in March 1837.
The originals were struck with a reeded edge
on a newly-finished (and larger) steam coining press. A small number of
plain-edged proofs for collectors were struck on the screw press and it is from
this group of coins that present-day examples (in alignment II) are seen; these
originals are very rare. The entire mintage of 600 pieces (made on the steam
press) was melted in early December 1839 though a reeded-edge
specimen reported in The Numismatist for
1912 may be a lone survivor of the March coinage if it is in alignment II and
uncirculated rather than proof. Any Gobrecht dollar
dated 1836 in alignment III or IV is a restrike.
Nothing new has been learned about this pattern coinage though the
presence of a specimen in the 1851 Roper sale would seem to indicate that
pieces were struck in late 1838 or early 1839 for submission to Treasury
Secretary Levi Woodbury and President Martin Van Buren. This would have been
necessary because of the change in design from that originally approved by
President Andrew Jackson in 1836. No correspondence has yet been found on this
matter, however. If any originals still exist, they must be in alignment I. All
other pieces are restrikes.
In 1954 Walter Breen speculated that the stars were moved to the obverse
on the pattern of 1838 because it was realized that there soon be too many
stars. We now know, however, that this was done to improve the quality of the
strike. Elimination of the reverse stars meant less metal flow on this side of
the coin during the minting process.
1839, mintage of 300
pieces in December 1839.
All 300 struck pieces were melted in the spring of 1840 and there are no
originals (alignment I) known to the writer. The revisionist theory that
alignment IV specimens (medal turn, eagle level) are originals cannot be true
as the U.S. Mint did not issue coins in medal turn nor
with a skewed reverse. Had the late December 1839 test run been successful, the
Flying Eagle design on the reverse would have been kept and the coins would not
have been melted.
1840, the new eagle on
It is clear from the above discussion that Dr. Patterson opted for the
change to the old Reich eagle of 1807 when he was unable to obtain a quality
coinage of dollars on the steam coining press in either 1837 or 1839 using the
Flying Eagle motif. The question of why the change was made has long mystified
numismatists but has now been fully answered.
The item printed in the November 1840 Niles’ National Register poses some additional questions. Dollar
coinage had actually begun in July 1840 but there was then a delay of several
months until coinage resumed in November. The newspaper notice implies that
such coinage had just commenced, leading to speculation that there were
problems with the initial coinage in July. It is known that sculptor Robert
Ball Hughes spent considerable time at the Mint in 1839 and 1840 executing new
plaster models for several of the silver coins, including the dollar; one has
to wonder just what his role was, if any, in connection with the silver dollar
It is possible, though speculative, that Hughes executed a plaster model
– from which a die would have been made – of the Flying Eagle reverse and that
a test coinage run was made in May or June 1840. The July 31 report of U.S.
silver coins being melted may be connected to such an attempt. (That the 1839
coinage was not melted until the spring of 1840 may indicate some hesitation
about the reverse design change but this is speculative until further
documentation is found.)
Gobrecht Dollar Restrikes.
These might have been made as early as the mid 1840s though it is more
likely that none was struck until after 1855 and the rise of coin collecting in
this country. It is nearly certain that the last Gobrecht
dollar restrikes were made by Mint Director James
Ross Snowden in early 1860 although there is a slight chance that a few were
struck under Director Henry R. Linderman in 1868 just
before he ordered all old dies and hubs destroyed.
The assertion that restrikes extended into the
1870s is not correct. This claim is based on the fact that a certain number of Gobrecht dollars appeared for the first time at auctions in
the 1870s. These pieces had simply been laid aside years earlier waiting for
the right moment to be marketed.
25th Congress, 3rd Session, Senate Document 279: Comptroller’s report on
Philadelphia Mint bullion operations in 1837.
National Archives, RG 104: Inventory Entry 1 – General Correspondence,
Entry 23 – Peale Correspondence, Entry 96 – Bullion Ledgers, Entry 97 – Bullion
Journals, and Entry 113 – Silver Bullion Deposits. RG 217: Auditor’s reports on
the 1837 Philadelphia Mint bullion accounts.
Hughes, Jeremiah – editor. Niles’s National Register, Volume 59, Baltimore, 1840. Issue
of November 21, 1840.
Raguet, Condy – editor. The Financial Register of the United States. Volume I, Philadelphia, 1838. Pages