Ever since it was established, the United States Mint has created many different types of coins throughout history.
One of the first types of coins ever produced was the single-cent penny. Pennies were very useful coins for conducting business on a daily basis with small cents, even though they are of very limited value today.
One-cent coins remain some of the longest-lasting types of coins ever produced by the US Mint.
The United States Mint as an Institution
Established only recently after the founding of the United States itself, the US Mint has been producing various types of coinage and paper money for the USA, as well as for some other countries too.
In the earliest days of its inception, the US Mint was founded in and operated out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As the United States grew and expanded as a country, they needed to come up with quite a few additional facilities.
With each new facility came a new identifying mintmark that was added to each coin to show exactly where it was made. Other examples of these new facilities would be the mint at San Francisco or the one at Denver.
Out of all the pennies that were ever produced, the Indian Head penny remains one of the most popular varieties, especially among coin collectors. These types of coins were designed and minted just before the Civil War and they continued to be produced until just after the turn of the 20th century.
History of the Indian Head Penny
The origins of the Indian Head cent can be traced back to when the large-cent coin was the only one in circulation.
These copper coins were first minted in 1793, but they ran into immediate problems because the US government would not allow any precious metals other than silver and gold to be used as legal tender. Because of this, the large-cents could not be used for taxes or any other government payment.
When the 1850s came along, heavy fluctuations in the price of copper forced the US Mint not only to reduce the size of their pennies (at that time, the large-cents were about the same size as a modern silver dollar coin) but to also start exploring some compositions of precious metals that were not made only out of pure copper (such as some of the copper-nickel alloys that were soon developed).
Due to this need, the US Mint came up with the Flying Eagle Penny, which was produced in earnest from 1856 to 1858. This coin differed from traditional pennies because it contained less than 90% copper.
Unfortunately, these coins quickly experienced a range of design problems and they needed to be replaced with the Indian Head Penny, which first appeared in regular circulation in 1859.
Original Design of the Indian Head Penny
The original design of the Indian Head Penny was proposed by James Barton Longacre, who was the chief engraver of the US Mint. In a flowing letter to the director of the US Mint (James Snowden), Longacre explained some of the reasons for his newly conceived design in a long and detailed statement:
“From the copper shores of Lake Superior, to the silver mountains of Potosi from the Ojibwa to the Aramanian, the feathered tiara is as characteristic of the primitive races of our hemisphere, as the turban is of the Asiatic. Nor is there anything in its decorative character, repulsive to the association of Liberty… it is more appropriate than the Phrygian cap, the emblem rather of the emancipated slave, than of the independent freeman, of those who are able to say “we were never in bondage to any man”. I regard then this emblem of America as a proper and well-defined portion of our national inheritance; and having now the opportunity of consecrating it as a memorial of Liberty, ‘our Liberty’, American Liberty; why not use it? One more graceful can scarcely be devised. We have only to determine that it shall be appropriate, and all the world outside of us cannot wrest it from us.”
The design on the obverse side of the Indian Head Penny shows Lady Liberty wearing a traditional Native American headdress. Other legends hold that the image is actually James B. Longacre’s daughter, Sarah.
The legend claims that the young Ms. Longacre was at the mint the same day as some Native American visitors, and when wearing one of their headdresses, James Longacre made a quick sketch of her.
Unfortunately, this story is probably false since Sarah Longacre was already 30 years of age at the time the design was created, rather than 12. This intriguing design was and still is quite controversial because what is really depicted is a Caucasian woman who is wearing the headdress of Native Americans.
Though this is not the first time a US coin showed an image of a non-Native American wearing a Native headdress, it is the type of image that can add a fair amount of interest and controversy to the design of the coin.
The reverse side of the Indian Head Penny is quite a lot more basic, and it features a wreath surrounding the “one cent” face value. For the first two years of production, this was the basic design on the reverse side, but by 1860 the coin’s reverse was updated.
Though the wreath still partially encircled the “one cent” face value, a presidential seal was added to the top, and the wreath itself became more intricate in its design.
Values of Indian Head Pennies
For collectors, the Indian Head penny remains a very popular coin not only because of the years in which it was minted, but also for historical reasons. Due to the fact that the first years of the Indian Head’s production were just before the outbreak of the Civil War, many collectors consider these pieces to be part of American history.
For this reason, you will find that many of the coins that were produced through the first ten years of the Indian Head penny’s existence will currently sell for much higher prices than some of the other editions.
Another aspect of these coins that makes them so popular is their age. It is very rare that coins are able to survive more than 100 years, and with many surviving in excellent condition, they are extremely popular with coin collectors.
However, you will quickly discover that the popularity of Indian Heads varies from release to release. While some editions are extremely difficult to find, others exist in abundance. Almost always, you will find that the scarcest Indian Heads are those produced during the early years.
These are the coins that are not only the most sought after, they are also fairly high in terms of Indian Head penny value.
Valuable Penny #1: 1877 Indian Head penny: The 1877 Indian Head cent isn’t any type of error or pattern coin. It is just a regular-issue piece that was struck in very small numbers. There were only 852,500 originally minted. An even smaller number of them remain today. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin is about $600 in average condition.
Valuable Penny #2: 1873 doubled Liberty “closed 3” Indian Head penny: A doubled die coin of any era is rare to begin with, but an Indian Head cent is rarer still. The closed 3 is especially rare because only about a million 1873 cents of this variety were made, although about 11 million “open 3” cents were made. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin is about $500 in average condition.
Valuable Penny #3: 1869/9 Indian Head penny: The 1869/9 (9 Over 9 RPD) Indian Head Cent (Penny) is a Repunched Date error. This can be best identified by noticing a doubling of the number "69" where the main date was stamped on top of the same 1869 date. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin (for the 9 Over 9 variety) is about $250 in average condition and can be worth $1,000 to $1,200 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint condition.
Valuable Penny #4: 1909-S Indian Head penny: The 1909 S Indian Head Cent (Penny) mintmark can be found under the wreath on the reverse of the coin. This is also the rarest Indian Head Cent year/mint that was produced in terms of the total mintage number. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin is about $642 in average condition and can be worth $1,100 to $1,300 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint condition.
Valuable Penny #5: 1872 Indian Head penny: The 1872 Indian Head Cent (Penny) had two major varieties for the reverse of the coin. The USA Coin Book estimated value (for the Bold N Variety) of this coin is about $156 in average condition and it can be worth $800 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint condition. Proof coins of this variety can be worth $445 or more.
Valuable Penny #6: 1869 Indian Head penny: This coin had a mintage of 6,420,000 out of the Philadelphia Mint, so there is no mintmark. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin is about $130 in average condition and can be worth $650 to $750 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint Condition. Proof coins of this variety can be worth $420 or more.
Valuable Penny #7: 1871 Indian Head penny: The 1871 Indian Head Cent (Penny) had two major varieties for the reverse of the coin. The USA Coin Book estimated value (for the Bold N Variety) of this coin is about $91 in average condition and it can be worth $600 to $900 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint Condition. Proof coins of this variety can be worth $400 or more.
Valuable Penny #8: 1870 Indian Head penny: The 1870 Indian Head Cent (Penny) had two major varieties for the reverse of the coin. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin (for the Shallow N Variety) is about $109 in average condition and it can be worth $600 to $1,000 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint Condition. Proof coins of this variety can be worth $500 or more.
Valuable Penny #9: 1878 Indian Head penny: This coin had a mintage of 5,799,850 out of the Philadelphia Mint, so there is no mintmark. The USA Coin Book estimated value of this coin is about $50 in average condition and can be worth $400 or more in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint Condition. Proof coins of this variety can sometimes be worth $250 or more.
Another Very Valuable Penny
Consider the 1943-S copper Lincoln Wheat Penny. This copper cent is the one of the most valuable small pennies, with one example having sold for one million dollars at an auction in 2012. The 1943 Lincoln Pennies were produced by accident at the US Mint.
A few leftover copper planchets from 1942 were left in the coining press system and they were then struck with the 1943 penny dies. These coins are considered by the Professional Coin Grading Service the “most desirable and valuable of all mint errors” and they are very highly valued by many coin collectors.
Are the Most Valuable Pennies Also the Rarest?
So many types of coinage that were once minted over the course of history no longer survive today, for any number of reasons. This means that rare coins are usually quite valuable. Even though the two most valuable coins above are the rarest, the overall price doesn’t always correspond with how rare the individual coins are.
For example, many of the items on the list above are rarer in number than (for example) the 1877 Indian Head cent, but they are not as widely collected, so their actual value will be a little lower. Collectible coins that are in greater demand by a wider range of coin collectors are the ones that will command the highest prices.
Also, while mintage numbers are important for coin values, they do not always tell the full story. Some mint years are always going to be more valuable than others, and the minting location can also be an important factor.
It is a good idea to learn as much about the various minting locations as possible. The overall condition of the penny coin will also be vital in terms of its value. Well-kept coins can have much higher numismatic value than similar coins with lots of damage or wear and tear.
Damaged coins will often only be worth their face value to most coin dealers, even if they are very old coins.
Adding Indian Head Pennies to Your Coin Collection
Indian Head pennies are some of the most popular U.S. coins that coin collectors introduce into their collections to build a complete set.
Rare pennies are vital to any Indian Head cent collection. If you are an aspiring numismatist and you would like to start building a complete set of Indian Head pennies, use some of the advice we have given you to assess the value and rarity of your Indian Head pennies when it comes to some serious coin collecting.