Coin History – The Sacagawea & Native American Dollar

Over the course of the last fifty years, the United States Treasury and United States Mint have tried multiple dollar coin designs to try to gain acceptance of the denomination by the public. The bad news is that all of those attempts have, to be put kindly, fallen flat. But there is a good news side of the story for us Numismatists: There are a plethora of great coin designs available over those fifty years.

The Sacagawea, or now as we know it Native American, Dollar was the first gold tinted clad coin that the United States Mint ever produced. Aimed to be easily distinguishable in pocket change, the Sacagawea almost didn’t happen as we know it today. Initially, the legislation for the coin called for the Statue of Liberty to be used on the Obverse of the coin. That was changed however to honor the contribution of Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide of Lewis & Clark on their expedition in the Americas. It was also the first dollar coin produced by the Mint that had a smooth edge, with year and Mint Mark information on the edge.

Ultimately however, the coin never gained the public’s favor despite a significant marketing campaign by the Mint before its initial release in 2000. Now, like the Presidential Dollar, the Sacagawea dollar is produced in exceptionally small numbers, mostly for Numismatic purposes.

Legislation

The legislation that brought us the Sacagawea dollar had the legacy of previously failed dollar issues driving it in large part. You have to go all the way back to the Eisenhower dollar, which you can read the history of in this Coin History article. In 1977, the Treasury decided that the larger size of the “Ike” dollar was simply too big for many Americans to carry with them and believed that a smaller coin would improve in use and circulation. In September 1978, that became a reality with legislation approving what would be the Susan B Anthony Dollar (you can read about its history here). The new dollar was introduced in 1979 to almost universal public rejection.

The issue with the “SBA” was its similar size to the Washington Quarter as well as its metallic look of the Quarter. It proved to be very easy for people to give out the coin instead of a Quarter or a cashier doing the same. The Anthony Dollar lasted just three years with the Mint ceasing production of the coin. By that time, there were millions of them in Federal Reserve vaults throughout the country.

Fast forward to the mid-1990’s. The supply of Susan B Anthony dollars in those vaults is beginning to dwindle. The reason was the increased and widespread usage of the coin in public transportation systems throughout the United States. Those who used mass transit, particularly those in large metro areas (think New York and Chicago in particular), would get Anthony coins from their local banks to have to pay for fares. Another factor? Las Vegas. Slot Machines and other gambling devices began accepting and using the Anthony Dollar. Finally, it can’t be dismissed that there were nearly 10,000 stamp machines in United States Post Office locations around the country that accepted the “SBA” too.

By 1997, multiple legislative initiatives were started in Congress to either revive the Susan B Anthony Dollar or come up with a newer, fresher solution. One of the first was from Delaware Republican Michael Castle. Mr. Castle’s legislation called for a dollar coin that had the Statue of Liberty depicted on it. The legislation had supports but floundered in Congress. The one that stuck however was introduced in October 1997 by Minnesota Republican Senator Rod Grams. His legislation called for a new design and production of a dollar coin, effectively killing any thought of reviving the “SBA”. During subcommittee hearings that year, the Treasury Department gave their support for a new dollar coin, suggesting that the coin be gold in color with a distinctive edge to help discern it from the Quarter. Those recommendations were taken on board in revisions to Grams’ legislation.

On November 8, 1997, the Senate approved the legislation with the House of Representatives doing the same a few days later on November 13th. The bill, knows as the 50 States Commemorative Coin Program Act was signed into law on December 1, 1997 by President Bill Clinton and became public law 105-124.

As the name of the bill suggests, the dollar coin was not all that was part of this new public law. Obviously the 50 States Quarter program came out of it but there was a key section of the bill that pertained to the dollar. That section was the United States $1 Coin Act of 1997. That part of the legislation allowed for a new dollar coin to be struck. It also called out some of the specifics for the coin:

  • The coin must be golden in color
  • The coin must have a distinctive edge
  • The coin must have tactile an visual features that make the denomination of the coin readily discernible

At the time, this was a significant departure in coin production for the United States Mint and the Mint knew that it would take time to get the various elements in place to produce the coin. Indeed, during the subcommittee meetings in 1997, the Treasury indicated it would take approximately 30 months before the new coin could be struck.

Importantly, this part of the legislation also called for the striking of Susan B Anthony dollars to fill the demand for dollar coins while the new coin was being designed and produced. Thus, the 1999 Anthony dollar coin came into being and a total of just over 41 million of them were struck.

Design History & Selection

The legislation that allowed for what would become the Sacagawea dollar left room for designs of the new dollar coin. While the legislation put certain restrictions in place – color and edge being the two most significant – it did not specify anything around what the design of the coin should be, leaving it to the Treasury to guide the design of the coin. To that end, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin appointed a Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee. This nine-person committee would ultimately decide on the design that would grace the coin. However, Secretary Rubin did put in one requirement: The coin should depict a representation of a non-living woman or women.

The Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee met in June 1998 in Philadelphia. In the meeting, they reviewed seventeen concepts that were submitted by the public and further review other suggestions that were received by phone, mail, fax, and email. Ultimately, on June 9, 1998, the committee announced that it was recommending a design depicting Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide that helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition of the Louisiana Territory in what is now the United States.

The significance of Sacagawea to The Lewis and Clark Expedition cannot be overstated. At 16 years old, she led the explorers through thousands of miles of territory. She was also key in establishing contacts with Native American populations throughout the journey as well as contributing to the expedition’s knowledge of the natural resources and history of the various regions in which they traveled.

However, not everyone was happy. Representative Castle objected to the design, advocating that the Statue of Liberty be on the coin. He went as far as to write a letter to his fellow members of the House of Representatives explaining his objection. In his letter, he suggested that the Statue of Liberty would be a more popular design and would go along with the overall objective of making the coin distinctive along with its edge and color scheme. These, together would “encourage its wider use by the public”.

To further make his point, Representative Castle had the General Accounting Office (GAO) conduct a public poll from November 18-22, 1998. The results seemed to back Castle’s point:

  • 65% preferred the Statue of Liberty to be on the coin
  • 27% preferred Sacagawea to be on the coin
  • 2% believed either design was acceptable
  • 3% believed neither design was acceptable
  • 3% had no opinion

Despite being armed with this information, Castle’s objections were overruled and Sacagawea was chosen as the subject of the coin.

While it could be argued that the sample size for the GAO’s poll was small, it clearly did show the public’s perspective on the new coin. Did the fact that the Treasury did not capitulate and put the Statue of Liberty on the new dollar coin doom it? No, certainly not. But equally, it did not help it either.

With the subject of the new dollar coin now defined, the Mint sent out invitations to 23 artists with guidelines as to what their design should depict. Those guidelines were reasonably straightforward:

  • The Obverse was to depict a representation of Sacagawea
  • The design had to be “sensitive to cultural authenticity, and try to avoid creating a representation of a classical European face in Native American headdress”
  • The Reverse was to depict an eagle symbolizing peace and freedom

In November and December 1998, meeting were held in Washington D.C. to review the submitted designs for the coin. Those meetings had a swath of key people including members of the Native American community, historians, teachers, members of Congress and Numismatic. After those proposed designs were reviewed, six Obverse and seven Reverse designs were selected for further consideration. Those Obverse and Reverse designs were further whittled down to 3 and 4 respectively after the Mint conducted a range of polls of focus groups to look at the designs. Throughout the process, the Mint receives some 90,000 emails on the about the coin. The final designs were forwarded to the United States Commission of Fine Arts where the final designs were selected.

For the Obverse, the Commission selected the design by sculptor Glenna Goodarcre. The design depicted Sacagawea with her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau in a papoose on her back. During The Lewis & Clark Expedition, Sacagawea carried her son this way for much of the journey. Goodacre had chosen Randy’L He-dow Teton, a Shoshone woman to help her captures the features of a young Native American, and more specifically a Shoshone, women for her design. For Jean Baptiste, the sculptor partially modeled the child after one-year-old Adam Scholz.

2000 Sacagawea Dollar Obverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)
2000 Sacagawea Dollar Obverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)

The Reverse Design was by Mint sculptor-engraver Thomas D Rogers, depicting a soaring eagle.

2000 Sacagawea Dollar Reverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)
2000 Sacagawea Dollar Reverse (Image Courtesy of NGC)

With her design approved, Goodacre visited the Philadelphia Mint engraving department no less than six times from late 1998 to the summer of 1999. The purpose of the visits were to finalize the designs. While there is not a well document record of what Goodacre had to change on her Obverse design, we do know that Rogers had to make some modifications before production could begin. In his original proposal for the Reverse, the eagle was depicted flying over a mountainous scene. This was removed and the positioning of the eagle was adjusted along with other features on the Reverse.

While final design changes were happening, the Mint was working on a composition for the new coin. The legislation authorizing the new coin indicated that it had to be a color different than the “clad” copper-nickel silver color that had been on the Susan B. Anthony dollar as well as the Jefferson Nickel, Roosevelt Dime, and Washington Quarter. The Mint experimented with several compounds but settled on a manganese brass cladding for the coin. Around a pure copper core, there would be a mixture that consisted of 77% copper, 12% zinc, 7% manages, and 4% nickel. The composition gave the coin a gold color but, importantly remained non-magnetized.

Ceremonial strikes of the first Sacagawea dollar took place on November 18, 1999 in Philadelphia. Dignitaries, Mint and government officials, and special guests were invited to the event. Because the coins were struck with a 2000 date, the were not legal to release during this first strike ceremony. Therefore, the coins had to be saved and were later sent to those dignitaries, officials and guests. Mass production of the new dollar coin began shortly thereafter.

As readers likely know, artists commissioned by the Mint for their designs are compensated for their work. IN the case of Goodacre, she received a $5,000 commission for her design of the Obverse of the Sacagawea dollar, about $8,200 in 2021. Interestingly, she requested that she be paid her commission in, wait for it, dollar coins! The coins were delivered to her on April 5, 2000 by Mint Director Diehl and other Mint dignitaries. The coins were struck on a burnished blank specifically for Goodacre to give them a unique finish. The special burnished finish was also used on 75,000 dollars pressed in Denver that were included in the Millennium Coin & Currency Set.

Marketing

Perhaps no other coin in the history of the United States Mint was marketed as heavily as the Sacagawea dollar. From commercial partnerships, television ads, and literally loading retail outlets with the coins to hand out as change, it was not for a lack of effort by the Mint to make the new dollar coin a success.

When the act authorizing the new dollar was enacted, it gave the Secretary of the Treasury the ability to “adopt a program to promote use of such coins by commercial enterprises, mass transit authorities, and Federal, State and local government agencies”.

First, the Mint established a commercial arrangement with Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. That arrangement saw the Mint ship a total of $100 million worth of the new dollar coins to locations throughout the United States starting in January 2020. The goal was to get the new dollar circulating by having the retailer give the coin as change.

Next, the Mint went on a massive advertising campaign that consisted of some 1,600 television, radio and print advertisements. The television ads were… cringeworthy. Just take a look and if that voice sounds familiar, it should. It is Michael Keaton.

Finally, the Mint opened up a partnership with General Mills which saw a unique promotion running with the Cheerios brand of cereal that had various levels of prizes involving coins from the Mint.

  • 10 Million boxes of Cheerios would have a year 2000 dated Lincoln Cent
  • 1 in every 2,000 of those boxes would contain a new Sacagawea Dollar
  • 1 in every 4,400 of those boxes would contain a certificate redeemable for 100 Sacagawea dollars

All together, the Mint spent approximately $41 million in promotion of the new dollar. The Mint also made sure there were plenty of the coins to go around. In 2000, the Mint produced 1,290,114,404 of the coins across the Mint facilities.

Reception of the Sacagawea Dollar

Despite the heavy advertising and “seeding” of coins at Wal-Mart, public reception of the coin was poor at best. Businesses were not sold on the coin and many did not want to have them in their tills. The coin also received mixed reviews from Congress with some feeling the design on the coin was good but the coin itself was not. Some complained that the coin’s golden color made it look like “play money” while others complained of it not being hefty enough to distinguish by feel. Of course, many of these same Congresspeople had signed the bill that authorized the coin. So go figure. But the lackluster reception and almost immediate dropping of the coin by businesses had all the makings of another Susan B. Anthony dollar situation, which is pretty much what happened.

Production in 2001 dropped a staggering 90% by the United States Mint to just 136.56 million coins and by 2002, the dollars were only struck for sales to collectors. The short party for the Sacagawea dollar was effectively over. Even with a redesign of the coin in 2009 and release into circulation that year through 2011, there was little uptake in usage of the dollar coin.

2009 Native American Redesign

With a hope of reinvigorating acceptance of a dollar coin, the Native American $1 Coin Act was signed into law on September 20, 2007 by President George W. Bush. The act called for the Sacagawea dollar to depict “images celebrating the important contributions made by Indian tribes and individual Native Americans to the development of the United States and the history of the United States.” Further, the act called for other design changes:

  • The date of the coin to be removed from the Obverse and added to the edge of the coin
  • “E Pluribus Unum” removed from the Reverse and added to the edge of the coin

The Mint also opted, as it was not required by the act, to move the Mint Mark to the edge of the redesigned coin.

The program required that a new Reverse design be introduced every year and in order to determine which designs to depict on the coins, officials from the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Native American Caucus and the National Congress of American Indians were consultants and appointed a liaison to the United States Mint. Each year, with consultation from the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Institution, 12-15 designs are sent to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC). Once final selections are made, they they are sent to the Secretary of the Treasury for approval. It is an excellent, inclusive program and process.

Here are the design names for each year of the Native American Dollar series:

  • 2009 – Three Sisters
  • 2010 – Great Law of Peace
  • 2011 – Wampanoag Treaty
  • 2012 – Trade Routes in the 17th Century
  • 2013 – Treaty With the Delawares
  • 2014 – Native Hospitality
  • 2015 – Mohawk Ironworkers
  • 2016 – Code Talkers
  • 2017 – Sequoyah
  • 2018 – Jim Thorpe
  • 2019 – American Indians in Space
  • 2020 – Elizabeth Peratrovich and Alaska’s Anti-Discrimination Law
  • 2021 – American Indians in the United States Military

As for future releases:

  • 2022 – Ely Samuel Parker
  • 2023 – Charles Alexander Eastman
  • 2024 – 100th Anniversary of Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

Collecting the Sacagawea & Native American Dollar

With the series being limited in production and circulation, there are few key dates when it comes to the Sacagawea or Native American dollar. The rarest of the coins come from its first year of production. The 2000-P “Boldly Detailed Tail Feathers”, or simply the Cheerios variant. Less than 100 are known to exist today and in Mint State-65 demand a premium of $3000 or more. Also highly sought from 2000 is the Goodacre burnished finished presentation variants. They command about $500 in MS-65. Beyond this, the 2015-W Mohawk Ironworkers enhanced uncirculated will cost around $25 while the 2019-P American Indians in Space enhanced uncirculated will be around $20. Beyond this, virtually all of the coins in MS-65 can be acquired for less than $8 each, making it an easy and affordable coin to collect.

On a historical note, there were also thirty-nine 22-Karat gold versions of the Sacagawea struck in 1999. These were given the denomination of $5 and originally the plan was to release these for collectors. However, there came into question if the Mint could strike coins in a composition that was different from what was authorized. The idea was scrapped and 12 of adequate quality survived (the rest were melted). Those 12 coins went to space aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-93) in July 1999. Following their return, they were sent to Fort Knox for storage and remained there until 2007 when they were displayed at the World’s Fair of Money. The coins went back to Fort Knox after the show and have not been seen since.

References

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