The Louisiana Purchase Gold Dollars
Thomas Jefferson’s government did not originally intend to acquire the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was chiefly concerned with preserving American trading access to the Mississippi River and the city of New Orleans. Amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and a slave revolt in what is now Haiti, it was unclear whether France would be capable of defending its possessions in North America against Great Britain. Jefferson initially offered to purchase just New Orleans and a small amount of land for $10 million, but Napoleon replied with an offer of the entire territory for just $15 million.
The acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase was a landmark event in the early history of the United States, and commemorations of its centennial were widespread. One of the main celebrations was the famous 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair, which was officially entitled the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition. The cost of the Exposition greatly exceeded that of the Louisiana Purchase itself a century earlier, and numerous fundraising efforts were undertaken in advance of its opening.
A federal appropriations bill in 1902 authorized $5 million for the Exposition, including $250,000 in the form of commemorative one-dollar gold coins to be sold at a premium as a means of raising funds. The bill’s language was sufficiently ambiguous that Mint officials chose to produce two versions of the coin: one featuring President Jefferson, and the other featuring President William McKinley, who had been assassinated the previous year. About 75,000 pieces were actually struck in 1902, but all of the 250,258 coins produced possess a 1903 date. They were the first US commemoratives struck in gold.
The design of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition dollar is uncomplicated and generally characteristic of Barber’s designs. The lettering on both sides is “small, crowded, and even,” as noted by art historian Cornelius Vermeule. Nonetheless, the appearance of real people on US coinage was a relatively recent innovation. Barber’s depiction of President McKinley on the obverse – bowtie and all – was based on real life, as McKinley had at one point sat for Barber. For the other obverse design, Barber based his depiction of Thomas Jefferson off of Jefferson’s Indian Piece Medal. These medals, designed by German immigrant John Reich a century earlier, were distributed to various Native American tribal leaders by Lewis & Clark during their expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. The reverse design is consistent between both versions.
Farran Zerbe, a numismatist who would later serve as the President of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), was deeply involved in the distribution and marketing of the coins. Zerbe planned to sell the coins for $3 apiece – triple face value – but this was seen as too expensive by most collectors. Despite various efforts, only a fraction of the mintage was sold by the time of the Exposition’s opening in 1904. In total, approximately 35,000 coins were sold to the public, and the remaining 215,000 or so coins were returned to the Mint and melted.
The 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair was nonetheless a great success. The event is known for having been held in conjunction with the 1904 Olympic Games in Saint Louis, and for the popularization of new technologies and food items.