The three-dollar gold piece was authorized by the Act of February 21, 1853. First struck in 1854, the coin was never popular with the general public and saw very little circulation. Today, some numismatists theorize that the $3 denomination would have been useful for purchasing postage stamps of the day (with their face value of 3?) or for acquiring 100 silver three-cent pieces (“trimes”), which were also in circulation at the time.
These gold coins changed hands in the East and Midwest until 1861, after which they disappeared from circulation; through the 1860s, fewer than 10,000 were struck annually. In 1874 and 1878, mintages were increased significantly in anticipation of the coins going into broader circulation. On the West Coast, the three-dollar gold piece did see circulation throughout the series’minting, though they probably weren’t seen in change very often after the 1860s.
The head on the obverse represents an Indian princess with hair tightly curling over the neck, her head crowned with a circle of feathers (the band of which is inscribed LIBERTY). A wreath of tobacco, wheat, corn, and cotton occupies the field of the reverse, with the denomination and date within it. The coin weighs 77.4 grains, and was struck in .900 fine gold.
In the year 1854 only, the word DOLLARS is in much smaller letters than in later years. The 1856 Proof has DOLLARS in large letters cut over the same word in small letters. Restrikes of some years were made, particularly Proofs of 1865 and 1873.
Although these coins did not see extensive day-to-day circulation, collector interest was high, and many three-dollar gold pieces were saved by speculators beginning about 1879. As a result, Mint State examples are fairly numerous today. The 1870-S coin is unique, currently residing in the Harry W. Bass Jr. Collection on loan to the American Numismatic Association.