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Significant examples

Draped Bust/Small Eagle Eagles 1795-1797 Facts

Eagles first appeared in the Fall of 1795, less than two months after the half eagles debuted. Both were designed by Chief Engraver Robert Scot, and feature Liberty wearing a cloth cap, facing right, with the legend LIBERTY above and the date below. Flanking the bust on these first year coins were ten stars to the left and five stars to the right. Inspired by a Roman onyx cameo carved in the first century B. C., the reverse depicted an eagle with widespread wings, perched on a palm branch with a wreath in its beak. Encircling the border is the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

The Philadelphia Mint struck just 13,344 eagles with this Capped Bust/Small Eagle design from 1795 to 1797. Although there are only three dates in the short-lived series, it encompasses seven varieties, five in 1795 alone, including the famous and rare nine-leaf palm branch variety. In 1796, sixteen stars flank Liberty, eight on each side, signifying the admission of Tennessee to the Union. The 1797 issue also has sixteen stars, arranged twelve to the left and four to the right. Both the 1796 and 1797 varieties share a common reverse: the palm branch under the eagle has eleven leaves, as opposed to the thirteen or nine leaves of the 1795 coins.

When grading this design, obverse wear first shows on Liberty's hair, cheek, shoulder and cap. On the reverse, check the eagle's wings, breast and left leg. A caveat, however: These coins were produced with manual presses and suffer from the unpredictable striking quality common to many early coins. What looks like wear on one coin may be only a loss of detail, while another coin with sharper details may in fact have more wear, and thus be in a lower grade. Additionally, adjustment marks from the filing of overweight planchets routinely plague all early U.S. gold. While these marks are mint-made defects, they don't necessarily affect the grade, but can often affect the value of a coin, depending on whether the marks are unsightly or barely noticeable.

Scot replaced the small eagle reverse in mid-1797 with the new Heraldic Eagle design, modeled after the bird on the Great Seal of the United States. The Capped Bust motif remained on the obverse until 1804, when President Jefferson halted production of both gold eagles and silver dollars. The eagle would not return until 1838, when it featured an entirely new design, Christian Gobrecht's Coronet Head Liberty.


Diameter: 33.0 millimeters

Weight: 17.50 grams

Composition: .9167 gold, .0833 copper

Edge: Reeded

Net pure gold: .5157 ounce pure gold

Mint Mark: No mint mark, all coin struck at the Philadelphia Mint.

Draped Bust/Heraldic Eagle Eagles 1797-1804

Old habits die hard. After renouncing almost a thousand years of kings and queens, banners and lineage, the founders of the United States of America went searching for a symbol of national heritage. Ironically, the one they adopted had its roots deep in the class structure of the Old World-a heraldic symbol, or coat of arms, dating from the knights and nobility of 12th-century Europe.

With their faces covered by helmets, medieval knights wore identifying emblems or symbols on the tunics covering their armor, giving rise to the expression 'coat of arms.' After the Crusades, the concept of heraldry spread throughout Europe, adopted by both noble and patrician classes, and later by lawyers, companies, colleges and towns. European countries adopted the practice of placing heraldic shields on the reverse of their coinage. 'Scudo,' the word for shield, even became a denomination of gold currency, as in 'scudo de oro.' Heraldic symbols on coinage were soon used all over the world.

The first precious metal coinage from the U.S. Mint, however, presented no such symbol, only depictions of the national bird, a naturally posed American bald eagle. These coins received widespread criticism, however, with the bird gracing their reverses derided as either a "scrawny eagle" or a "turkey cock." As officials pondered the poor reception afforded the designs, the preference shown by both Americans and Europeans for the more familiar coins of Old World origin was also on their minds. Adopting a heraldic motif would at once make U. S. coins more acceptable from both an artistic and practical standpoint. The closest thing the republic had to a coat of arms was the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. Designed by William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer and numismatist, the Great Seal was adopted by both the Continental Congress of 1782 and the U. S. Congress of 1789. Primarily used on treaties and other diplomatic documents, its heraldic design would make its first appearance on the quarter eagle of 1796, and next on the eagle, in 1797.

As Chief Engraver of the United States Mint since late 1793, Robert Scot was charged with adapting the Great Seal to coinage use. His Capped Bust obverse design used on the eagle since 1795, with its bust of Liberty in a cloth cap, facing right, continued unchanged. The inscription LIBERTY appeared above the bust with the date below. Scot's new reverse featured a cruder and less regal bird than that on the Great Seal, and to many, was artistically    inferior to the small eagle on the earlier coins. Scot's bird, with the Union Shield on its breast, holds thirteen arrows and an olive branch in its claws, with a scroll inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM in its beak. Above the eagle are thirteen stars enclosed by an arc of clouds, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounding the border. While Scot's design has both admirers and detractors, he did make one obvious technical error: He placed the arrows-symbolizing armed might-in the eagle's right (dexter or honorable) claw, and the olive branch of peace in the left (sinister) claw, reversing the placement seen on the Great Seal and heraldically conveying a warlike message rather than one of peace. Whether this was an honest mistake or a reflection of his hawkish sentiments, no one will ever know, but no change was made to this arrangement throughout the series' life.

The first eagles with the Heraldic reverse appeared in the summer of 1797, with an obverse showing Liberty's bust flanked by ten stars to the left and six to the right. The following year only thirteen stars appeared, but in two arrangements: nine left, four right; and seven left, six right. Both are over dates and quite rare-with less than 40 pieces known of the two varieties. Beginning in 1799, every obverse had thirteen stars, arranged eight left, five right.

Wear first appears on this design on Liberty's hair, cap, drapery and cheek. On the reverse, check the clouds and the eagle's wings and breast feathers. Often these coins were not fully struck, resulting in loss of detail that is often mistaken for wear, particularly on the shield. Adjustment marks, which resulted from filing excess gold from overweight planchets, are quite common to these early coins. While technically a mint-made defect, marks that greatly impair the aesthetic appeal of a coin may affect its grade, and certainly its price.

The Philadelphia Mint made 119,248 eagles of this design between 1799 and 1804, but many were destroyed in the huge melts that took place throughout the early part of the 19th-century.


Diameter: 33.0 millimeters

Weight: 17.50 grams

Composition: .9167 gold, .0833 copper

Edge: Reeded

Net weight: .5157 ounce pure gold

Mint Mark: No mint mark because all were struck at the Philadelphia Mint.


Akers, David W., United States Gold Coins, Volume V, Eagles 1795-1933, Paramount Publications, Englewood, OH, 1980.

Bowers, Q. David, The History of United States Coinage As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection, Bowers & Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1979.

Breen, Walter, United States Eagles, Hewitt Printing Corporation, Chicago.

Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I. Press/Doubleday, New York, 1988.

Yeoman, R.S., A Guide Book of United States Coins, 47th Edition, Western Publishing Co., Racine, WI, 1993.

Coin Stories and Photo's are courtesy Numismatic Guarantee Corp. (NGC) and are used with permission.