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Oct 18 2020

The First Half Eagle Struck in 1795

A research query forwarded by Q. David Bowers pointed us toward the biography of Henry William de Saussure, the second director of the U.S. Mint, who had a short tenure in that position, July -October 1795. Written in 1841, the biography lends a charming anecdote regarding the Mint under de Saussure: 

“General Washington, whose habit was to see the heads of departments every week at his table, upon one of these occasions, expressed to the director of the mint his satisfaction at the activity which had been introduced into the silver coinage, and added, ‘I have long desired to see gold coined at the mint but your predecessor found insuperable difficulties. I should be much gratified if it could be accomplished before I leave office.’ ‘I will try,’ was the reply ; and the director went to the mint, summoned the officers, ascertained the wants and difficulties of each department, and by great diligence, speedily removed all obstacles. In six weeks he carried to the President a handful of gold eagles, and received his thanks and approbation.” 

Breen’s Encyclopedia gives a coining period of July 31 to September 16, 1795, for the first half eagles and further states that the half eagle dies were in production while David Rittenhouse was still Mint Director. A $5 gold piece from the Yale University collection, said to have been the first struck and reputedly owned by Martha Washington, was stolen in the 1960s, along with a Brasher doubloon and other pieces, and never recovered. The piece is alluded to in correspondence from Dick Picker to Eric Newman, May 1, 1962, after Yale curator Ted Buttrey exhibited the piece at the New York Numismatic Club. Buttrey commented to Len Augsburger via email on June 17, 2017, “The $5 gold, like the Brasher, was part of the Yale collection which I curated. The collection was stolen after I left Yale in 1964. The Brasher showed up later, but there is no way to trace the $5.”

Link to Memoir of the life, character, and public services, of the late Hon. Henry Wm. De Saussure on Newman Portal: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/book/589594

Link to Richard Picker correspondence on Newman Portal: https://nnp.wustl.edu/library/archivedetail/520539
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