Indian Head Pennies
One of America’s most famous and beautiful coins is the classic Indian Head Penny, which was made from 1859 to 1909. It was replaced later in 1909 with the Lincoln Penny – so even though it was last made over a century ago, it is actually the immediate predecessor of our current one-cent coin!
Nonetheless, few collectors today have ever seen a genuine Indian Head Penny. It was the first permanent replacement for the large-size Penny coin, so it was a revolutionary coin and it took people a while to get used to it. Even so, it was initially almost twice as heavy as today’s Lincoln Pennies!
When it first appeared in 1859, this was the first coin other than the rarely-seen gold $1 and $3 coins to feature a Native American image. As a result, the coin is evocative of the history and culture of America’s westward expansion. The American West was still “wild” at this time, and pioneers were streaming west to places like California and Oregon on desolate and dangerous trails.
Native Americans represented the unknown frontier. They were also symbolic of nature, since they lived simple lives and depended upon nature to supply everything from food to shelter.
Due to a quirk in the law, however, the coin does not actually show a Native American! All U.S. coins were required to depict an image representative of Liberty, and previous coins showed standard portraits of Lady Liberty. James B. Longacre, the Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, chose to portray Liberty on this coin with a Native American headdress – so it combines a portrait of Liberty with a Native American theme.
The reverse features the Union shield at the top and an oak wreath surrounding the denomination. The Union shield symbolized a single and united nation, while oak represents military strength. These were powerful images in pre-Civil War America, because they sent a strong message about the federal government’s intent to keep the Union intact. Shortly after the coin was introduced, Abraham Lincoln was elected President and the Civil War started.
All Indian Head Pennies were struck at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia until 1908 – but in 1909, the final year of issue, it was also made at San Francisco. One of the most popular ways to collect Indian Head Pennies is to find one coin from the 1800’s and one from the 1900’s, but it also makes a great addition to any collection of vintage American coins.