The United States Mint has churned out golden dollars before. But when the U.S. Mint introduced the Sacagawea Dollar in 2000, it was the first time our nation had a golden dollar with no gold in it.
The story of the Sacagawea dollar probably begins in the late 1980's when lobbyists for a new dollar coin made a strong push for this coin denomination to be revived. No dollar coins had been struck for circulation by the U.S. Mint since 1980– dollar coins HAD been struck in 1981 but only for inclusion in special Mint and Proof sets. From the late 1980's through the late 1990's, the dollar-coin lobbyists pushed for a new dollar coin, but the U.S. Treasury dragged its heel. Throughout that period there were still millions upon millions of unused Susan B. Anthony dollars, one of the greatest coin failures in history, sitting in the Treasury vaults. Common wisdom held that they’d still be a surplus into the 23rd century.
But things had changed by the late 1990's. Thanks to the continually booming vending machine industry– think the U.S. Postal system, mass transit systems, self-service car wash vendors– there had been greater and greater demand for the dollar coin, at least in THIS segment of U.S. commerce. Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were doled out to the point that by 1999, supplies were dangerously low. Still, these vending machine businesses continued to demand dollar coins. Trouble is, the United States Mint was already in the process of making ready to launch a new dollar coin in 2000. But the vending industry could not wait that long for more dollar coins.
What to do? Well, what the U.S. Mint did, was to drag the Susan B. Anthony dollar dies out of retirement in the Fall of 1999. For the first time in 18 years, new Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were struck– the longest gap in the production of one coin type in U.S. history! Some 40 million 1999 Susan B. Anthony dollar coins were struck in the Fall of 1999. Which must have confused those in the public who noticed the new 1999 Susan B. Anthony dollar. They may even have heard that a new dollar coin was in the works, and perhaps wondered, “THIS is IT?!”
But no, there would indeed be a new U.S. dollar coin. New designs were already being considered for the new dollar coin in 1998. One design pattern showed the Statue of Liberty on the obverse. Another design pattern had a striking, flowing-haired Liberty bust design. The reverse design would feature a flying eagle. And whatever the new design was to be, the new dollar would be gold colored! There would be no repeat of the former Susan B. Anthony dollar fiasco, where the white-looking dollar coin was confused with the quarter!
Neither the Statue of Liberty design nor the Liberty bust design was chosen to grace the obverse of the new dollar coin. Instead, the Dollar Coin Advisory Committee chose a woman from the pages of U.S. history, albeit a woman little known to the everyday U.S. citizen. For the first time in U.S. history, a Native American woman (who actually lived) would adorn the face of a U.S. coin: Sacagawea.
Sacagawea was a Shoshone Indian, born in what is today, Idaho, in 1788. When she was about 12 years old, she was kidnaped by Hidasta Indians and taken to what is today, North Dakota. A few years later she was sol, along with another Indian woman, to a French-Canadian trader named, Toussaint Charbonneau. In 1804, Sacagawea and her husband met up with the renowned Lewis and Clark Expedition. They were chosen, as a husband and wife team, to accompany the expedition out West, where their knowledge of the land and languages of the West would serve the expedition well. Sacagawea, in particular, was needed as a translator should the expedition encounter Native American tribes in Hidasta territories. In such cases, Sacagawea could translate Hidasta to her husband, who would then translate in French to a Frenchman in the expedition, who in turn, would translate into English for Lewis and Clark.
This was not the only way Sacagawea her value to the expedition. Not only did she possess a knowledge of Shoshone trails, but she also knew of useful foods and medicines that could be procured in the western territories. Once she saved crucial journals and instruments from going overboard as the expedition river boat was tossed about by a storm. In 1805, Sacagawea bore a son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Now the presence of Sacagawea proved particularly valuable: her presence in the expedition as a woman with a baby (being carried on her back) indicated to Native American tribes they encountered, that the party of whites were friendly. So important was Sacagawea to the Lewis and Clark expedition, that she was given a full vote when the party was deciding where to winter in the cold months of 1805-06.
One of the most extraordinary stories concerning Sacagawea is the time the Lewis and Clark party met up with a party of potentially hostile Shoshone Indians. As it turned out, the leader of the Indian band was Sacagawea’s long-lost brother from her home tribe! Once again, this extraordinary young woman’s presence helped avert disaster for the expedition. After the expedition came to an end, Toussaint, Sacagawea and little Jean-Baptiste returned back east to live in St. Louis. There, Sacagawea died, giving birth to a daughter.
As no portraits were made of Sacagawea while she was alive, the designer of the new dollar coin, Glenna Goodacre, had no true model to go on. So Goodacare used Randy’L He-Dow Teton, a young Native American woman from New Mexico, to model for the Sacagawea dollar. The finished design shows young Sacagawea, young Jean-Baptiste sleeping cozily in his carrying-basket on his mother’s back. Sacagawea’s frontal bust turns to gaze back at the viewer over her shoulder. The reverse of the new coin showed an eagle in flight.
The Sacagawea dollar was innovative in U.S. coin in its three-quarters frontal bust design, as well as its gold-colored (but not gold content) surface. The new dollar was released early in 2000 with a whirlwind of publicity courtesy of the U.S. Mint. The new “gold dollar” was featured in cereal box promotions, grocery store giveaways, and TV ads, one which showed a talking George Washington (in his paper one-dollar likeness) urging the public to use the new dollar coin: “It’s money. So use it.”
But the new dollar coin never caught on, after its initial popularity as a unique-looking new collectible. Many people actually thought the Sacagawea dollar actually HAD gold in it! No doubt, thousands upon thousands (maybe millions) of people hoarded the Sacagawea dollar for that reason! Or perhaps people still preferred using the lighter, and easily folded, one-dollar bill– and why not, since the U.S. Treasury STILL refused to retire the dollar bill, despite having a vested interest in getting the dollar coin to succeed!
The year 2000 saw a HUGE mintage of Sacagawea dollars: over 767 million were struck at the Philadelphia mint, and over 518 million at the Denver mint. In 2001, production dropped to 62 million at the Philadelphia mint, and to just under 71 million at the Denver mint. By the end of 2001, it had become clear to the U.S. Mint that the Sacagawea dollar simply was not circulating. So in early 2002, the Mint quietly announced that dollar coins struck that year would not be released into commerce, but rather, would be collector-only issues. And mintages bore that scenario out: 3.8 million dollars were struck in Philadelphia, and 3.7 million in Denver.
That’s been the scenario of the Sacagawea dollar since then: only collector-issue “Sac’s” have been struck since 2002. The new golden dollar has been pronounced a failure. Will it be retired for good? Or will it be resurrected at a future time like the Susan B. Anthony dollar? Actually, an interesting scenario is in the works. Starting in 2007, a NEW type of dollar coin is to be issued: a series of Presidential gold dollars (kinda like the special state quarter series). So that means the Sacagawea dollar is dead, right? Actually, NO! It seems the Mint is going to CONTINUE striking Sacagawea dollars even as it strikes Presidential dollars AND paper dollars. How will this scenario sit with the spending and collector population? That remains to be seen.
As far as collectibility, only the highest mint-state Sacagawea dollars have any kind of value over face value. Even then it’s not much. In MS-63, the 2000 issues retail $2, the 2001 issues retail $4, and even in the collector-issue only years of 2002-present, MS-63 values are $2-$2.50. Maybe that will change if and when the Sacagawea dollar is truly retired.