The “Indian Head” design first issued in 1859 is actually a representation of Liberty wearing an Indian headdress, not an actual Native American. The first year featured a laurel wreath on the reverse. This was changed after one year to the oak wreath with a small shield. Coins of 1859 and early 1860 show a pointed bust. Those made from late 1860 until 1864 have a more rounded bust. Prior to the issuance of nickel five-cent pieces in 1866, these coins were popularly referred to as nickels or nicks. Later, they were called white cents.
During the Civil War, nearly all gold and silver, and eventually the copper-nickel cent, disappeared from circulation in the Midwest and East. In larger cities, thin, copper, cent-sized tokens began to be issued by merchants to fill the void left by the missing cents. The government stepped in and with the Act of April 22, 1864, issued its own thin, bronze coin and made the issuance of the merchants’ tokens illegal.
The obverse was redesigned near the end of 1864. A slightly sharper portrait included the designer’s initial L (for Longacre) on the lower ribbon behind the neck. If the coin is turned slightly (so Indian faces observer) the highlighted details of the L will appear to better advantage. The tip of the bust is pointed on the variety with L, and rounded on the variety without L. This design continued until 1909, when the design was replaced with the Lincoln cent.
On coins minted from 1859 through mid-1886, the last feather of the headdress points between I and C (Variety 1); on those minted from mid-1886 through 1909, it points between C and A (Variety 2).