Indian Head Eagle $10 Gold Piece - A Reflection of Our Country's Greatness
The Indian Head Eagle has said to be the result of the unprecedented collaboration of a great sculptor and a dynamic President.
Beginning after his re-election in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth president of the United States, proposed the idea of the introduction of new, more artistic designs on US coins. He wrote to his Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw, complaining that U.S. coinage lacked artistic merit. He felt that coins were more than simply rounded bits of metal, they were a powerful reflection of a country's greatness. While touring the Smithsonian Institute in 1905, Roosevelt marveled at the classic beauty he beheld in the ancient Greek coinage that was on display and quickly realized that American coinage seemed so "bland." The artistry of the classic Greek coins crystallized Roosevelt’s decision to launch new designs for a whole range of U.S. coins.
The Man Behind the Coin Design
So, the president contacted the sculptor who had created his 1905 unofficial inauguration medallion, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He asked the aging sculptor to produce a new series of coins. Saint-Gaudens was by then, a renowned sculptor and an artist who shared the President’s vision for expressing America’s national identity visually through art, so he agreed to produce a variety of coins similar to the ancient Greek coins Roosevelt had admired. Unfortunately, the sculptor’s busy schedule limited him to sketching the basic design on a paper napkin while on the train from Washington. He told Roosevelt that he would entrust all the actual work to his 34-year-old associate, German-born Adolph A. Weinman, better known to collectors today for his Mercury Dime and Walking Liberty Half Dollar.
We first have to understand that by 1905, America had grown to become the most powerful nation on earth. Roosevelt wanted to see coin designs that would reflect America's pre-eminent status. At Roosevelt's request, the Mint hired Saint-Gaudens to redesign the cent and the four gold pieces. Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens first considered a uniform design for the four gold denominations, the double eagle ($20), eagle ($10), half eagle ($5), and quarter eagle ($2.50). Since the previous Liberty Head designs had been first struck more than 25 years prior, they could be changed without an act of Congress.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was an American sculptor who most embodied the ideals of the "American Renaissance". Born in Dublin to a French father and an Irish mother, Saint-Gaudens was raised in New York, after his parents immigrated to America when he was only six months old. Saint-Gaudens referred to his early relief portraits as "medallions" and took a great interest in the art of the coin. Diagnosed with cancer in 1900 and despite his waning energy, he continued to work, producing a steady stream of reliefs and public sculpture. In 1904, his studio burned, with the irreplaceable loss of the sculptor's correspondence, his sketchbooks, and many works in progress.
New Indian Head Eagle Designs
The new $10 Indian Head Eagle design featured a native American on the obverse and a standing eagle on the reverse.
When Saint-Gaudens began work on new coinage designs. He fashioned images of Liberty in both full figure and bust motifs, and eagles in flying and standing positions—the latter derived from the reverse of the Roosevelt medal. Although he preferred the bust of Liberty and the standing eagle for the twenty-dollar coin (as they appeared on the unique 1907 $20 pattern), after much correspondence with the President throughout 1906 and early 1907, it was finally decided that this combination would appear on the $10 gold coin.
The obverse of the coin bears the feathered head of Liberty, which was originally intended for the one-cent piece. At Roosevelt's insistence, Liberty shed her laurel crown for a handsome, but historically impossible Indian feathered war-bonnet. “Liberty in a headdress”, Saint-Gaudens stated, “was designed in accordance with the suggestions of the President.” The Indian was theoretically modeled after the figure of Nike (representing Victory) that was part of the Saint-Gaudens equestrian Sherman Monument located at the entrance to New York’s Central Park. While the sculptural effects of the original designs are admired, the representation of Liberty adorned by a ceremonial headdress not worn by female native American was extremely contradictory because that particular headdress would have only been worn by male warriors. The word LIBERTY was inscribed on the Indian's headdress, with 13 stars above the head and the date below.
Interestingly “In God We Trust” was left off of the original obverse design and caused public outrage. President Roosevelt firmly believed that the use of the Deity’s name on coins smacked of blasphemy, particularly since they might be used for all sorts of immoral purposes. However, after 33,500 Philadelphia and 210,000 Denver pieces were struck, Congress insisted that the lawfully mandated (Act of March 3, 1865) motto be returned to the coin, and it was placed to the left of the eagle. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber added the words and made other minor modifications to Saint-Gaudens's design.
The reverse was a representation of America’s national symbol, the bald eagle standing on a bundle of arrows with an olive branch at its feet and on the edge of the coins, there are forty-six stars, one for each State. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is to the eagles right and encircling the periphery above the eagle is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Below is the denomination TEN DOLLARS. It was actually his original concept for the reverse of the double eagle and bears a close similarity to his reverse design for the inaugural medal he created for Roosevelt. It has been noted that Saint-Gaudens's ultimate inspiration for the reverse was an Egyptian coin portraying a standing eagle, which was illustrated in a book he owned and had lent to Roosevelt. Saint-Gaudens artistic license aside, a more serious issue for the Mint was the reality that the raised edge of the first Indian Head coins would not stack. This would be a huge problem for commerce, and the modified rounded rim pieces would not strike with satisfactory quality.
The coin, as sculpted by Saint-Gaudens, was in too high relief for the Mint to strike readily; completion of the design modifications necessary to make the coin sufficiently flat to be struck by one blow of the Mint's presses took months. Following the sculptor's death on August 3, 1907, Roosevelt insisted that the new eagle be finished and struck that month. New pieces were given to the President on August 31, which differ from the coins struck later for circulation.
The Indian Head eagle was struck regularly until 1916, and then intermittently until President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Theodore’s cousin, directed the Mint to stop producing gold coins in 1933. Its termination ended the series of eagles struck for circulation begun in 1795. The government in the late 1930s melted many Indian Head eagles; the 1933 issue is a particular rarity, as few were distributed. Other very elusive dates in mint state are the 1909-D, 1911-D, 1913-S, and the 1915-S. In gem condition, all ten Indians are scarce, including the issues most commonly found in mint state, 1926, and 1932.