Collecting Indian Head Cents 6


The year 1857 saw tough times not only in the United States, but internationally as well. Slavery here in the US was a big topic, but an even bigger topic was 1857 would be the first time that there was a worldwide economic crisis. One of the reasons behind this was the sinking of the USS Central America which was supposed to be bringing gold from San Francisco to the eastern banks.

1857 saw a Coinage Act which no longer allowed foreign coins as legal tender in the United States. The act would also stop the production of half cents and reduce the diameter of the cent from 27.5 millimeters to 19 millimeters. A pattern of a small cent would be shown to Congress in 1856. It would be introduced to the public in 1857 as the Flying Eagle Cent. Though 42,000,000 would be minted between 1857 and 1858, the Flying Eagle Cent was not popular as it was difficult to strike and considering of shrinking the eagle was not popular. Chief Engraver of the US Mint, James Longacre was now given the task to design a new cent to replace his Flying Eagle Cent.

Brief History of the Indian Head Cent

The supposed story behind the initial design of the Indian Head Cent was that Longacre’s 12 year old daughter, Sarah, was at the mint and upon wearing an Indian headdress, was sketched by her father. This cannot be true as Sarah was 30 years old in 1858. Longacre claims his inspiration was viewing a statue of Venus that was currently loaned to Philadelphia from the Vatican. In any case, the rule of thumb back then was the obverse of a US coin needed to have a depiction of the goddess Liberty. Back then, the Half Dime, Dime, Quarter, Half Dollar and Dollar had a Seated Liberty on their obverses. However, Longacre did it, the obverse of the new cent would display a Caucasian woman with an Indian headdress.

The Indian Head Cent was first minted in 1859 with a composition of 88% copper and 12% nickel. The reverse would display a laurel wreath, but would change in 1860 to an oak wreath with a small shield on the top.

By 1864, nickel was in high demand. The Coinage Act of 1864 would make the Indian Head Cent thinner with a composition of 95% copper and 5% tin.and zinc. This is how it would stay till the end of the Indian Head Cent in 1909. US Cents were only minted in Philadelphia until 1908 when San Francisco began minting them.

By 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted a new look on US coins and allowed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a new cent and four gold coins. At the time, Charles Barber’s coins, the Liberty Nickel, Barber Dime, Barber Quarter and Barber Half Dollar were around less than 25 years which meant Congress would have to approve them. The Indian Head Cent had been around over 40 years at the time. So, Roosevelt saw the opportunity to change it. Unfortunately by 1907, Saint-Gaudens would be diagnosed with Cancer and would pass away in August. At the time, the only design he showed the President for the cent was a flying eagle design. This couldn’t be used because of an act in 1873 which wouldn’t allow an eagle on a US cent. It was considered that the next cent display Abraham Lincoln as the centennial of his birth would occur in 1909. The last Indian Head Cents would be minted in Philadelphia and San Francisco in 1909.
Indian Cents are still popular to coin collectors today as they were during the 50-year period that they were minted. If you were building a US Type Step, you could include three different Indian Cents:

  1. 1859 with the Laurel Wreath reverse
  2. 1860 – 1864 which included nickel
  3. 1864 – 1909 which were thinner without nickel

Key Dates

Ask a coin collector what the key date for the Indian Cent collection would be, and most of them would say the 1877 cent. Production of the cent reduced after the Civil War seeing only 852,500 minted in 1877. By 1880, production increased again with the first 100,000,000 mintage occurring in 1907.

Other key dates include the two San Francisco coins, 1908-S and 1909-S. In fact, the 1909-S would have the lowest mintage at only 309.000, but the 1877 cent is still more valuable.

Indian Head Cent Values

Based on the 2018 Red Book:

  • 1859 – $15 in Good Condition, $55 in Very Fine, $285 in Mint State 60
  • 1860 – 1864 – $15 in Good Condition, $30 to $60 in Very Fine, $110 to $300 in Mint State 60
  • 1864 – 1876, 1878 – $15 to $100 in Good Condition, $30 to $500 in Very Fine, $90 to $1,000 in Mint State 60
  • 1877 – $900 in Good Condition, $2,000 in Very Fine, $3,800 in Mint State 60
  • 1879 – 1909 – $2 to $12 in Good Condition, $6 to $30 in Very Fine, $40 to $100 in Mint State 60
  • 1908-S – $90 in Good Condition, $145 in Very Fine, $290 in Mint State 60
  • 1909-S – $400 in Good Condition, $550 in Very Fine, $1,000 in Mint State 60

For the Most Part, Not the Toughest to Collect

If you take out the 1877 and 1909-S, an Indian Head Cent collection is not impossible to do. The last 30 years would be easy to collect with their higher mintages. Something to consider, don’t you think?


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6 thoughts on “Collecting Indian Head Cents

  • Dana

    Hi Kevin,
    History is very cool and I really enjoyed your article. I have many old coins but never new if they were worth anything so you have provided me with a lot of great information. My mother has a silver dollar dated in the 1800’s, (I am not sure of the exact date), but it would be interesting to find out if it is worth anything for her. I have bookmarked your website and look forward to reading more and learning about these rare coins. Thank you again for the great history lesson.

    • Kevin Post author

      Thanks for the comment Dana! I’m guessing your mom has a Morgan Silver Dollar which was minted from 1878 to 1921 and is probably one of the most popular US coins among collectors. I wrote about them a couple of months back if you want to check it out. Glad to hear you bookmarked my site and I hope you stop back often.

  • Brian

    I do like to collect coins from time to time and I must say that I really enjoyed reading this article about Indian Head cents. There’s a lot of history and information that I did not know about them especially about their design and how they came about. You said they are not the hardest to collect. What are some great places to find them?

    • Kevin Post author

      You can find Indian Cents at Coin Shows and Coin Stores. You can also find them online like Ebay and Etsy. Except for the key dates, Indian Cents aren’t pricey, especially the last 30 years. Thanks for the comment Brian!

      • Brian

        Hey thanks for the info! I was wondering if it is even possible to find a very select few that might be in circulation? I work at a bank and sometimes it is surprising what ends up coming through there.

        • Kevin Post author

          To be honest Brian, I haven’t seen an Indian Cent in circulation in a long time. I have found Buffalo Nickels and silver Jefferson Nickels. Just a few days ago, I got a 1919 Lincoln Cent in change, but no Indian Cents. Maybe you can find them in penny rolls at the bank. Good luck!