The 1851 Indian Head silver dollar is one of the most iconic and popular coins in American history. It is the first coin to feature the Indian Head design, which became a staple of US coinage for over 50 years.

The 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar is also a significant coin for its role in the development of the American West.

The design of the coin was created by James B. Longacre, who was the chief engraver of the United States Mint at the time. Longacre was inspired by Native American women he had seen in the American West, and he wanted to create a design that would be both symbolic and beautiful.

The coin was also widely used in the American West, where it was used to purchase goods and services all over the region. The coin helped to fuel the economic growth of the American West and played an important role in the development of the region.

History of the 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar

Design Competition

The 1851 Indian Head silver dollar originated from a design competition held by the United States Mint in 1849. At the time, the California Gold Rush was in full swing, and the Mint wanted a new dollar coin design that would represent the expanding western frontier.

Engravers submitted draft designs, including several depicting Liberty wearing a Native American headdress. The winning obverse design by James B. Longacre featured a representation of Lady Liberty wearing an Indian headdress, leading to the coin’s “Indian Head” moniker.

Production and Distribution

The Indian Head silver dollar entered production at the Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco Mints in 1851. The three Mints struck approximately 1.7 million Indian Head dollars that year. The coins saw extensive use in commerce, especially in the American West where silver dollars were preferred over smaller denominations and privately minted coins.

The Indian Head dollars facilitated trade and business transactions in the western frontier regions. They also gained popularity in East Asia due to thriving trade between the U.S. and countries like China and Japan in the mid-19th century.

Role in the American West

The Indian Head silver dollar became an iconic symbol of the American Old West. It was the preeminent silver trade coin used by pioneers, cowboys, entrepreneurs, and miners during the latter half of the 19th century.

The large silver dollars were convenient for buying and selling horses, cattle, food, lodging, and supplies throughout the frontier. They were also used for gambling in saloons, paying for entertainment like stagecoach shows, and more.

Some specific examples include paying Native American tribes for land distribution deals and purchasing mining claims during the California Gold Rush.

Design and Features of the 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar


The obverse of the 1851 Indian Head silver dollar was designed by the renowned artist James Barton Longacre. It features a left-facing portrait of Lady Liberty wearing a feathered headdress. Thirteen stars representing the original 13 colonies encircle the portrait.

The word “Liberty” appears above Liberty’s head in a simple sans-serif font, while the date “1851” is below. Longacre’s Indian Head design was inspired by Native American portraits and classical Greco-Roman goddess depictions.

This was the first time a non-allegorical figure was featured on an American coin.


The reverse depicts an elegant wreath surrounding the words “United States of America” and the denomination “One Dollar.” Olive leaves grace the left side of the wreath, while corn husks adorn the right. The wreath signifies success and triumph.

This agricultural wreath design hearkens back to the early days of the American Republic as an agrarian society. The wreath would remain largely unchanged as the standard reverse design for silver dollars until the introduction of the Morgan dollar in 1878.


Two varieties of the 1851 Indian Head dollar exist: the Type 1 and the Type 2. On the Type 1, the last feather in Liberty’s headdress points between the upper left tip of the 1 and the eyelash of the 5 in the date. On Type 2, the feather tip points directly to the eyelash of the 5.

The Type 2 is rarer and more valuable to collectors. Approximately 562,000 Indian Head dollars were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1851, with the Type 2 comprising less than 1% of the mintage.

Some other minor varieties exist relating to the size and shape of the digits in the date. Additional scarce varieties include proof versions with mirrored surfaces and two-feather variants with only two feathers in Liberty’s headdress rather than the usual three.

Collecting the 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar


When collecting the 1851 Indian Head silver dollar, grading is crucial. Professional coin grading services like PCGS and NGC assign a numeric grade from 1 to 70, with 70 being a perfect mint state coin. Higher grades mean much higher values for these rare coins.

Some key grades to look for are MS-60, MS-63, MS-65, and MS-67+. An 1851 Indian Head dollar in MS-60 condition may sell for around $1,000, while an MS-67 example could fetch over $100,000 at auction.


As one of the earlier dates in the series, the 1851 Indian Head dollar carries a premium. Only 1,300,630 were minted, making it scarcer than later dates. In lower uncirculated grades, values range from $1,000 to $5,000.

In MS-65 condition, the 1851 sells for $20,000 to $50,000 depending on eye appeal and surface marks. Top-tier MS-67 coins trade for six figures at auction. Key factors driving value include mintage, condition, and demand from collectors.

Where to Find

Finding an 1851 Indian Head dollar takes patience and luck. Checking major auction houses like Heritage Auctions and Stack’s Bowers is a good start, as they frequently offer these for bidding. Coin dealers that specialize in rare U.S. coins may also have some in stock.

Attending major coin shows increases the chances of locating one as dozens of dealers will be present. Joining online collector forums and expressing interest is another avenue to explore. With some diligent searching, an 1851 can turn up but expect to pay strong money even for example in lower grades.

Collecting the 1851 Indian Head silver dollar presents challenges but the satisfaction of owning this historic American rarity makes the search worthwhile. By understanding how grading impacts value and using multiple avenues to locate pieces, collectors give themselves the best opportunity to add 1851 to their collection.

The 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar in Popular Culture

Movies and TV Shows

The 1851 Indian Head silver dollar has made cameo appearances in several classic Western films and TV shows. For example, in the 1962 movie How the West Was Won, a shady poker player bets an 1851 Indian Head silver dollar during a high-stakes card game.

In a 1965 episode of Bonanza, Ben Cartwright uses an 1851 Indian Head silver dollar to buy supplies at the general store in Virginia City. These appearances showcase the coin’s popularity and use as currency in the Old West setting of these productions.


The 1851 Indian Head silver dollar is referenced in some classic country and folk songs. Johnny Cash’s hit I’ve Been Everywhere includes the lyric “I’ve been to…Lost Wages, down in Vegas, even Frisco Bay.”

This refers to the coin’s extensive circulation and use for gambling during the Gold Rush era. In the folk song Clementine, the narrator “lost his Clementine” by gambling away an 1851 Indian Head silver dollar in a high-stakes card game, highlighting the coin’s prevalence in poker games of the time.


In the novel The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk, one of the main characters Captain Queeg obsessively rolls an 1851 Indian Head silver dollar in his hand to calm his nerves. This illustrates the coin’s unique design and shows it as a touchstone object important to a fictional character.

In Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, an 1851 Indian Head silver dollar is mentioned as part of the treasure buried by robbers in a cave. The specific date shows Twain’s attention to period detail and use of the coin to signify valuable loot for the story’s characters.

1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar – Conclusion

The 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar is a significant and iconic coin in American history. It is a beautifully designed coin that played an important role in the development of the American West. Whether you are a coin collector, history buff, or simply appreciate beautiful objects, the 1851 Indian Head Silver Dollar is a coin that is sure to fascinate you.

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