What Is A Morgan Dollar?

The Morgan Dollar, ignored in circulation, is today one of the most famous and desired American coins in existence, thanks to its colorful history.

In 1873, the then-current American dollar coin was legislated out of existence. No one seemed to mourn its passing. When a new silver dollar arrived on the scene in 1878, no one seemed to welcome its return. There simply was not much clamoring among the American public for a heavy, nearly palm-sized dollar coin. But the Morgan Dollar was never a people's coin.

The impetus for the Morgan Dollar came from America's richest silver strike, the great Comstock lode in northern Nevada. The vein of silver was so thick and so rich that a million dollars of silver a week was coming from the Comstock mines. There had to be a market for this river of silver or the bustling Nevada economy would collapse. The Federal government was the obvious customer for all this silver and lobbyists successfully shepherded the new silver dollar into existence with the passage of the Bland-Allsion Act in 1878. Passed over the veto of President Rutherford B. Hayes, Bland-Allison required the United States Treasury to purchase between $2 and $4 million worth of silver bullion per month and coin it into silver dollars.

The new silver dollar was designed by George T. Morgan. The 31-year old Morgan was brought from his native England to serve as "Special Engraver" for the director of the Philadelphia Mint, Henry R. Linderman, in 1876. Ordinarily, coin design was left to the Chief Engraver, then William Barber. A sham competition between the two men was staged and, as the protege of the Director of the Mint, Morgan's design was chosen. On the front of the coin Morgan created a head of Lady Liberty, based on his Philadelphia schoolteacher-model Anna Willess Williams, and graced the back with a rather underfed eagle.

Ironically, Linderman left the Mint later that year to look after his failing health, Barber's son Charles succeeded him to Chief Engraver and Morgan was demoted to Assistant Engraver. He would remain in that position, his career stalled, for over 40 years. When he finally ascended to Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, George T. Morgan was over 70 years old. The Morgan Dollar was the only American coin he ever designed.

The first Morgan Dollars were struck on March 11, 1878, less than two weeks after the coin was authorized by Congress, at 3:17 in the afternoon on Press #4 in Philadelphia. It is currently is on display at the Hayes Library and Museaum in Fremont, Ohio. It had a metallic content of 90% silver and 10% copper. While most of the Morgan Dollars were minted in Philadelphia, a small mint was established in Carson City, Nevada to also press the coins near the source of the Comstock lode. The mine, however, played out shortly thereafter and the Carson City mint closed forever in 1893. The Morgan Dollars minted in Carson City are rare and highly collectible today.

More than 500 million Morgan Dollars were minted until production stopped in 1904, after the statutary 25-year run for a coin design. The silver dollars were never really popular - most were circulated in the sparsely populated West - and huge stockpiles were on hand. In 1918, more than 270 million Morgan Dollars were melted down to provide war-time silver for Great Britain. In 1921 another 86 million Morgan Dollars were coined but production was halted in 1922 for the commemorative Peace Dollar to mark the end of World War I. The design was so popular it became the regular silver dollar and no more Morgan Dollars were ver minted.

In death, as in life, the Morgan Dollar was ignored by the public. The silver dollar was not a collector favorite, either, as the smaller denominations were easier to afford. Millions more were melted down for their silver content, especially when silver prices rose. Finally, in 1972, the General Services Administration auctioned off a lot of 2.9 million scarce Carson City Morgan Dollars it had squirrelled in its vaults. Suddenly the Morgan Dollar was hot among collectors.

And then LaVere Redfield died. Redfield was a stock and real estate investor who made millions in Reno, Nevada. Redfield distrusted paper money and didn't have much confidence in banks, either. When possible, he tried to convert his cash into "hard money." He set his eye on the Morgan Dollar with its 90% silver content. Silver dollars were readily available at banks throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and Redfield bought them whenever he could. As he bought them, he put the silver dollars in bags and stored them in his basement. He was not a coin collector and didn't take much notice of the bags as he piled them under his house. He would eventually wind up with 400 bags filled with about 1,000 silver dollars each.

Redfield died in 1974 and while doing an appraisal of his estate, the Internal Revenue Service uncovered the stash of silver dollar-stuffed bags. The story goes that Redfield placed a note of the treasure asking the discover not to alert the IRS of the hoard. The total of 411,000 silver dollars - weighing 11 tons - were put for auction and fetched $7.3 million, the largest documented numismatic transaction in history.

Now the Morgan Dollar had genuine star status in the coin world. The dealers who purchased the Redfield hoard gradually dispersed the silver dollars into the collecting community, further stimulating interest in the coin. Today, the Morgan Dollar, ignored in circulation, is one of the most famous and desired American coins in existence.

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