Makes Western Mints a Challenge
By Paul M. Green
Some of the most
interesting coins in U.S. history are still some
of the lesser known by collectors and dealers.
The Seated Liberty half dollar has quite
literally been under the radar for most of the
past century. That said, in an age where we have
much better information of all types available
it may prove to be a time when some hobbyists
really look at Seated Liberty half dollars and
discover that in their ranks are some very
interesting coins that are great values.
The Seated Liberty half dollars where the real
consistent pattern of potentially tougher dates
can be found are frequently those that were
produced far away from the 19th century
collecting center, which was around
Philadelphia. People back at the time of the
Seated Liberty half dollar were rarely
collecting half dollars as the face value was
too high. If they were collecting half dollars,
it was likely to be only by date. The likely
source for a specific date was a coin from
Philadelphia and that means that especially in
upper grades the Seated Liberty half dollars of
San Francisco and Carson City can be a real
challenge for collectors in the 21st century.
There had been no Seated Liberty half dollar
produced west of the Mississippi prior to 1855.
Production in the first years after the 1839
introduction was in the main mint at
Philadelphia and at the mint in the commercial
port of New Orleans, through which much of the
nation's produce was shipped to the rest of the
United States and to the world.
If the taming of the frontier has a numismatic
timetable, it began with the location of a Mint
on the West Coast in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Mint had actually opened its
doors a year earlier in 1854, but the first year
the small facility was able to produce only gold
coins and even those mintages were primarily the
large gold eagles and double eagles. Other than
those two denominations, there were just under
20,000 gold dollars and token mintage totals of
quarter and half eagles. The latter two
denominations were both below 300 pieces.
In 1855 San Francisco made its first attempts at
silver issues. There is an important fact seen
in the early San Francisco silver coin mintages,
which is that the silver dollar was not a
priority. For the vast majority of Americans at
the time, the half dollar was the largest silver
coin they would regularly encounter.
In the case of silver dollars, the bulk of the
coins produced either ended up as reserves or
were shipped out of the country in international
transactions. As a result, the half dollar was a
much more important coin in circulation than we
The first attempt at Seated Liberty half dollar
production in San Francisco came in 1855 and it
totaled 129,950 pieces. That was a low mintage
at the time, but was still large enough that
there are examples today with a G-4 being priced
at $350 while an AU-50 is $6,850 and an MS-60 is
The Professional Coin Grading Service has only
seen one example of the 1855-S in Mint State in
the 44 coins of the date it has graded, so the
1855-S is as tough as the prices suggest.
So right off the bat, any collector interested
in the San Francisco Seated Liberty half dollars
gets nicked pretty hard.
The design of the half dollar would change in
1856 as the arrows were removed from either side
of the date. The mintage at San Francisco would
increase to a total of 211,000 pieces in this
second year of production, although that still
is relatively low, resulting in a G-4 price of
$85 while an available date of the type from any
mint is less than $30.
The 1856-S is listed at $3,500 in MS-60,
although Mint State examples are not seen with
any regularity as PCGS reports just three coins
called Mint State. A nice XF-40 example will set
you back $500.
A couple of factors must be remembered for
Seated Liberty half dollars of this era. The
first is to wonder how many were saved at the
time of issue or shortly afterward. Even for
circulated examples, large numbers of collectors
for half dollars were decades away. That means
many were never saved in any grade in any
numbers in the first place. It also must be
noted that in addition to silver dollars, the
Seated Liberty half dollar was frequently
exported and lost to American collectors.
In the mid 1990s there was an auction offering
of half dollars returned from Hong Kong. Those
half dollars were primarily 1850s and 1860s
dates sometimes chopmarked and what they prove
is that Seated Liberty half dollars did get
exported, so we have to assume the mintages
especially of half dollars produced in the West
are sometimes misleading in terms of how many
might be found today as in some cases there are
far fewer than would be expected.
Realistically, the San Francisco facility was
not capable of heavy mintages for all
denominations. It continued to struggle to
produce some half dollars each year as was seen
in the 158,000-piece mintage of the 1857-S. That
low total makes the 1857-S a $100 coin in G-4
and $3,500 in MS-60, but again there is
virtually no supply with PCGS reporting just
four examples called Mint State. There is an
MS-65 price of $19,000 for this and the 1856-S,
but realistically there is virtually no supply.
In the case of the 1857-S, for example, the
highest grade recorded is an MS-64.
In fact, PCGS does report an MS-65 1858-S, but
only one and it lists for a cheaper $12,500.
With a mintage of 476,000, the 1858-S is more
available than the first dates at just $38 in
G-4 and $950 in MS-60. In fact, it is seen more
often in Mint State than the earlier dates with
PCGS reporting 15 examples.
The 1859-S with a mintage of 566,000 is also
more available again at $38 in G-4 with an MS-60
at $750 while an MS-65 is listed at $12,500.
The 1859-S has a Mint State total of 19 at PCGS
with a couple at MS-65 or better and two at an
astonishing MS-68 and those two are the only
recorded MS-68 examples of the type from all
The 1860-S would have a similar mintage of
472,000 and a similar price in G-4 at just $38.
In MS-60, the 1860-S is $850 and in MS-65 it is
$12,500. Here the numbers show 18 examples in
Mint State but none above MS-64.
The mintage rose in 1861 to 939,500 and that
makes the 1861-S $35 in G-4 with an MS-60 at
$975 and an MS-65 is $9,500. The numbers
commercially graded are slightly higher in Mint
State at 22 pieces, but the lack of top quality
coins continued with PCGS reporting just a
single example in MS-65.
There was a heavy 1862 mintage of 1,352,000 and
this marked the Civil War era that saw mintages
generally down, but primarily at Philadelphia,
as out in San Francisco far away from the
conflict the impact of the suspension of specie
payments and the public hoarding was not the
same as in the East.
California, scene of the Gold Rush in 1849, saw
its citizens try to stick to specie payments as
much as possible when the rest of the country
was running on a paper economy.
The 1862-S is available for $30 in G-4, $460 in
MS-60 and $9,000 in MS-65 and, realistically,
the numbers graded are higher except for MS-65
where only one has been seen. The Mint State
total, however, is 35, which is a new high for a
San Francisco date.
The mintages continued to hold at high levels in
1863 with the 1863-S having a mintage of
916,000, putting it at the same prices as the
1862-S and much the same is true of the 1864-S
and 1865-S despite the fact that they had lower
There are, however, differences in Mint State
where the 1863-S has been seen over 40 times,
but the numbers seen by PCGS decline
significantly for the 1864-S and 1865-S, which
have been seen in Mint State just 10 and 12
times, respectively. That justifies the higher
MS-60 prices for the 1864-S and 1865-S.
The 1866-S would see a change in design as the
motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse.
Before those dies were used, however, an older
die without the motto was used to create 60,000
half dollars, making them the only 1866 half
dollars without the motto except for a single
1866 struck in Philadelphia that was specially
made as a proof.
The 1866-S without the motto was not a special
creation, it was just a usual example of slow
die shipments from out East and a tendency to
economize by using older dies.
The no-motto 1866-S is tough with its lower
mintage. It has a price of $460 in G-4 while an
MS-60 is $5,400. The PCGS totals support the
Mint State price as only four have been seen in
Mint State and none was better than MS-64.
The rest of the 1866-S mintage would total
994,000 pieces with the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
That impressive mintage, considering it was not
a full year's production, makes the 1866-S
available at a price of $33 in G-4 with an MS-60
at $650 and an MS-65 at $5,000. Actually the
prices are somewhat low when you realize that
PCGS has only seen the 1866-S 17 times and none
of them was nicer than MS-64.
The 1867-S would have another high mintage with
the total topping the one million mark and that
would be the case in 1868 as well, making them
fairly available dates at just $32 in G-4, $350
in MS-60 and $7,000 in MS-65, but for these
dates PCGS has seen only a couple examples in
MS-65. The 1868-S in particular looks to be a
good value as PCGS reports only a dozen in all
In the case of the 1869-S there was a mintage of
656,000, which puts the 1869-S at $35 in G-4
while an MS-60 is $600, which is a premium
level, although its MS-65 price of $7,000 is not
and it is seen in the PCGS totals as the 1869-S
is tough in Mint State where only eight have
been seen, but an unusually high percentage of
them were unusually nice as two were MS-64, two
more were MS-65 and one was MS-67.
The 1870-S and 1871-S could be called available
San Francisco dates with mintages over 1 million
in the case of the 1870-S and 2 million for the
1871-S. As a result, prices in G-4 are $31, and
$30, respectively, with the 1870-S at $575 in
MS-60 while the 1871-S is $400 with both at
$7,000 for MS-65.
There was, however, something new in 1870 in the
form of an 1870-CC and it is a special coin. It
was in 1870 when Carson City began coin
production, but the facility was handicapped
from the start as the expected large supplies of
silver did not appear at the door of that mint
as many of the local mine owners had a problem
with the superintendent, Abe Curry, and decided
instead to ship their silver to San Francisco.
As a result, Carson City had low mintages and it
would stay that way throughout the history of
the facility. The first year mintages might be
expected to be low as that would happen at any
number of facilities and that is seen in the
Seated Liberty half dollar mintage of 54,617.
With basically no collectors in the area to save
examples, that puts the 1870-CC at $900 in G-4
with prices in Mint State in six figures as PCGS
has seen only one example it called Mint State.
The 1871-CC is only slightly more available with
a mintage of 153,950. That puts it at $225 in
G-4 but again any example in Mint State is
highly unusual although an MS-60 is priced at
$15,000 as only three have been seen by PCGS.
In 1872 the Carson City half dollar mintage
would increase to 272,000 while the San
Francisco total would drop to 580,000. That
makes the 1872-CC the first Carson City half
dollar at under $100 in G-4 with a price of $85,
although Mint State examples remain elusive at
$8,000 in MS-60 with PCGS reporting half a
dozen. The 1872-S is more available at $31 in
G-4 with an MS-60 at $975 as PCGS reports 12
Imagine what the mintage totals for each might
have been had the silver mine owners liked the
Carson City Mint superintendent.
In 1873 with the declining price of silver, the
amount of silver in the half dollar was
increased slightly. Before the change Carson
City had a 122,500 mintage, which results in a
$225 G-4 price while an MS-60 is at $12,000 with
11 reported by PCGS.
There was also a mintage of 5,000 reported at
San Francisco, but that entire mintage must have
been destroyed as no examples are known today of
an 1873-S without arrows at the date.
There was a San Francisco mintage of the new and
slightly higher silver content half dollar in
1873 and that half dollar with a mintage of
233,000 would have arrows at the date. In fact,
there was a similar total from Carson City with
arrows at the date as that total was 214,560.
While close in mintage, the two are not close in
price. The 1873-CC with arrows is $150 in G-4
while the 1873-S with arrows is at $55 in the
same grade. The 1873-S with arrows is tough at
$2,200 in MS-60 but the with arrows 1873-CC is
even tougher at $5,700, although interestingly
enough, PCGS reports 14 Mint State examples of
the 1873-CC and just six of the 1873-S.
Both facilities produced 1874 half dollars with
arrows. The 1874-S total is 394,000 and that
puts it at $43 in G-4 and $1,850 in MS-60,
although PCGS reports quite a few with the MS-60
total being just under 35. The 1874-CC story is
different as it had a mintage of just 59,000 and
that makes it a $400 coin in G-4 while an MS-60
is at $10,500 and in this case the PCGS total is
just 10 pieces.
In 1875 the arrows were removed and for the
1875-1877 years there would be mintages of over
1 million pieces at both San Francisco and
Carson City. The CC dates run generally at $50
in G-4, because of the appeal of this mint to
modern collectors. The San Francisco pieces run
$28 in G-4.
MS-60 the San Francisco dates, which continue to
be more available, start at $360 while the
Carson City dates are between $560 and $650.
In 1878 the mintages dropped dramatically. At
Carson City, the 1878-CC total was just 62,000
pieces, which in the numismatic marketplace
produces prices of $450 in G-4 and $7,000 in
The San Francisco mintage was even lower at just
12,000 coins and the 1878-S is legitimately
scarce with a G-4 price of $23,500 while an
MS-60 is $70,000. In fact, PCGS has seen about a
dozen examples in Mint State, which is
interesting as it has seen only 22 in all grades
combined so more than 50 percent were Mint
The reasons behind the low 1878 mintages extend
beyond 1878, but production at of the half
dollars did not continue at the Western branch
Carson City never again produced half dollars
and San Francisco did not resume production
until the Barber series commenced in 1892.
Demand for new half dollars fell as Civil War
era hoards found their way back to the United
States from hiding places in Canada and
The two facilities as well as other branch mints
around the country were not dormant as they were
suddenly forced by Congress into massive Morgan
Over the years, Carson City and San Francisco
produced some interesting and sometimes very
tough Seated Liberty half dollars. For some of
the dates, the prices, are reasonable today for
anyone who wants examples of the Seated Liberty
half dollar from the two Western mints.
Trying to buy all of the dates from each
facility gets pricey, especially when you check
the lows mintages and numbers graded for some of
the dates. That makes the Seated Liberty half
dollars from the two Western facilities a
fascinating group to study and daunting to
collect, but you are getting great values in
terms of history for some scarce coins.