There has been a lot of conjecture about the twelve-feather Sacagawea Dollar trial pieces. It had been speculated that the Eagle on the reverse of the trial pieces had twelve tail feathers instead of thirteen as is on the final product. Below are a couple of articles written by noted numismatist Tom DeLorey of his first hand account about seeing some of the twelve-feathered Sacagawea Dollars.
These articles originally appeared in COINage Magazine, are copyrighted by Tom DeLorey, and are reproduced here with his permission.
Dollar Adds a Tailfeather
In the January issue, I mentioned that I had had an opportunity to examine test strikings of the Sacagawea dollar at a press conference held here in Chicago on October 20, 1999. Now that the coins have officially reached circulation, I find that there has been a minor change in the design of the coin, and I think I may know why.
When I examined the coins in October, under the proud but watchful eye of U.S. Mint Dollar Coin Program Manager Greg M. Weinman, I naturally counted the tail feathers on the eagle on the reverse, just to see what the official count was going to be. I counted 12 feathers, and rechecked my count. There were definitely 12.
I mentioned to Weinman that the Mint had had a minor problem with the Morgan dollar when it was introduced in 1878, when, according to numismatic lore, an ornithologist had written a letter to the Mint to point out that eagles always had an odd number of tail feathers, while the first reverse hub clearly showed 8 tail feathers. The Mint corrected their oversight when it created (for technical reasons) a more strikable reverse hub with 7 tail feathers early into the Morgan dollar program, and when it created yet another reverse hub (the Reverse of 1879) late in 1878 it continued to use 7 tail feathers.
Weinman, a most gracious host, admitted that he had never heard of the 1878 design changes, but promised to look into it. That night I mentioned on the newsgroup rec.collecting.coins having seen the coins, and also the fact that they happened to have 12 tail feathers. Another contributor pointed out to me and to the group that the American Eagle bullion silver dollar has had 12 tail feathers ever since it was introduced in 1986, a fact I had clearly overlooked. Nobody else seemed to care, and the point was forgotten until now.
Apparently the Mint's engraving department created the 13th feather by splitting the wide center feather of the trial strikes, notching its end and rounding off the top and bottom halves into two distinct ends. The notch in not very deep into the feather, and on a weakly struck coin may disappear like the center line on a Mercury dime reverse. Likewise, on a well-worn die the shallow groove may disappear.
However, if you find a 2000-P Sacagawea dollar that has a well-struck single center tail feather ending in a wide, rounded tip, you may just have a 1999-struck trial piece. Happy hunting.
NOTE: This article has been abridged.
A Tail of
Back in the January issue, I mentioned how I had seen an early striking of the Sacagawea dollar on October 20th of last year, at a press conference here in Chicago to introduce the coin to the vending machine industry. Later, in a sidebar to a different story in the April issue, I described how I had noticed at the press conference that the trial piece being shown had 12 tail feathers on the eagle, and how I had casually asked the head of the Mint's dollar coin program, Greg M. Weinman, if he was aware of the changes that the Mint had made to the reverse of the Morgan dollar back in 1878.
(In brief, the first reverse of 1878 showed eight tail feathers on the eagle. The reverse design did not strike well because of the contour of the dies, and when the design was remodeled to correct the relief the tail feather count was changed to seven, and some 8TF dies were deliberately rehubbed with the 7TF hub. Later in the year, a third reverse was created.)
I told Weinman that, according to numismatic legend, someone had written to the Mint back in 1878 to say that an eagle always had an odd number of tail feathers on its backside, and that when the Mint made a new reverse hub in early 1878 to correct the mechanical problem with the striking of the new coins, it also changed the number of the tail feathers from eight to seven because of this alleged letter.
Mr. Weinman told me that he was unaware of the 1878 design changes, but that the 2000 design had been approved by an ornithologist. He then said that he would look into the matter, but I never heard back from him.
When I received my first Sacagawea in change on January 29th of this year, I immediately noticed that the eagle now bore a total of 13 tail feathers rather than 12. Checking images of the reverse design previously released by the Mint, (and still posted on their website as of July, 2000), I saw that the wide, central feather of the original design with its raised shaft (or rachis) running down the middle of the feather had been altered, the raised shaft being cut down and replaced by a shallow groove that divided the one wide feather into two narrow ones.
Curiously, the Mint has chosen to ignore my requests for information about this design change. I am even told by others that the Mint actually denies having made any change, but they have not denied it to me. They will not return my calls on the matter.
Oddly enough, the Mint was right the first time, and then changed it. An American bald eagle should have 12 tail feathers. This is not an easy fact to verify, as you will find if you try to look it up in your average household reference guides and encyclopedias. (This may be the universe's way of telling me that nobody else cares.)
Fortunately for the universe's karma and this article, my wife and I took a cruise to Alaska this Spring so that I might visit my 50th state before my 50th birthday, and by serendipity the ship's naturalist, a charming Brit named Graham Sunderland (who reminds one of Horace Rumpole's younger, smarter and more gregarious brother), was quite learned in ornithology. Not surprisingly, even he did not know how many tail feathers an eagle was supposed to have, but he did know who to ask.
The next day, at the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Juneau, he asked one of the caregivers (who literally hold live eagles in their hands) on my behalf how many tail feathers the American Bald Eagle was supposed to have, and the correct answer was: 12!
Well, if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, I plead good intentions with my comment to the Mint about the number of the tail feathers. I certainly had not expected them to act on it, as the Mint has used several different tail feather counts over the years, and it would be difficult to say that any particular one of them was "wrong."
Why did I notice it on the Sacagawea dollar? I don't know, unless it was because I knew that I would not be seeing another one for at least three months, and I wanted to memorize as many details as possible.
Why did the Mint change the design, especially when it had (presumably, though they will not release photos of them for verification) already struck the unauthorized (and some say illegal) 22kt gold Sacagaweas with the original design for a ride aboard the space shuttle?
Well, if nothing else, it would certainly make any trial strikings from the original designs much more valuable should they surface at auction, oh, let's say 20 years from now. In the meantime, save this article for future reference if and when they do.