After the United States struck its first gold dollars (in the form of commemoratives) in over a decade in 1903, more would follow in subsequent years. In this article we will discuss the 1904 and 1905 Lewis And Clark Exposition gold dollars, struck to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which took place from 1804 to 1806. The expedition is famous for its exploration of the Western United States, with figures such as Sacagawea and Thomas Jefferson playing important roles. Many of the coins were sold at the The Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, held from June 1 to October 14, 1905, in Portland, Oregon to honor the expedition and its legacy.
Charles E. Barber, who had also been responsible for the design of the Louisiana Purchase gold dollars dated 1903, designed the Lewis and Clark gold dollars. The busts by Barber are based on portraits by Charles W. Peale from the early 19th century.
On the obverse of the coin is a left-facing bust of Meriwether Lewis, with the date placed below the bust between dots and LEWIS-CLARK EXPOSITION PORTLAND ORE. curving around the rim.
Lewis was born on August 24, 1774, in Ivy, Virginia. After a short stint in the Virginia Militia in the 1790s, he enrolled in the United States Army; by the time of his discharge, he had risen to the rank of Captain. In 1801, he became an aide of President Thomas Jefferson, who selected Lewis to lead an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to secure the region (and the valuable fur trade, dominated by the British at the time) for the United States.
Lewis appointed William Clark to share command of the expedition. Clark is featured on the reverse of the commemorative gold dollar, facing left as well. Below Clark is the denomination, ONE DOLLAR, with UNITED STATES OF AMERICA placed around the rim.
William Clark was born on August 1, 1770, in Ladysmith, Virginia. In 1789, at age 19, Clark joined a Kentucky Militia and fought in the Northwest Indian War. Clark would later enlist in the Legion of the United States, but retired from the military at age 26, presumably because of poor health.
Much of what we know about the Lewis and Clark expedition derives from the journals both men kept, which detail the voyage extensively. They departed from the St. Louis, Missouri area in May, 1804, and arrived at the Pacific Ocean a year-and-a-half later, setting up camp in present-day Oregon in late 1805. They returned the following year, arriving back in St. Louis in September of 1806, a year later than anticipated. The expedition greatly improved maps and knowledge of the Pacific Northwest and to this day remains one of the most successful expeditions ever undertaken in the United States.
To celebrate all of this, a Centennial Exposition was held in 1905 and the gold dollars were struck and sold in conjunction with the event. They were issued and distributed by the Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair Company. Numismatist and entrepreneur Farran Zerbe played a role in the distribution, as had been the case with the Louisiana Purchase gold dollars, but this time he delegated through middlemen. Initially, the coins were available for purchase at $2 each, less than the sale price of the Louisiana gold dollars, which sold for $3 each.
Despite the lower prices, sales of the 1904 Lewis and Clark gold dollar were poor. The Act of April 13, 1904 had authorized a total of 250,000 coins, but the Philadelphia Mint only struck a tenth of this number — 25,000 — in September of 1904. The following year an additional 35,000 pieces dated 1905 were struck, even though the 1904 dated coins were far from being sold out.
Zerbe, through D.M. Averill & Co. of Portland, raised the price of the 1904 issues to $2.50 per coin, claiming that they were almost sold out. This was an attempt to raise interest in the 1905 issue, still available for $2 per coin, or six for $10 total. This had little effect, and later approximately 40,000 coins (about 15,000 dated 1904 and 25,000 dated 1905) were returned to the Philadelphia Mint and melted. This left net mintages of approximately 10,000 coins each for both the 1904 and 1905 issues.
Unlike the Louisiana Purchase gold dollars, the Lewis and Clark issues are much more difficult to find, especially in high grade. Despite the similar mintages, the 1905 is much scarcer in Uncirculated condition, although neither the 1904 or 1905 issue is all that common in higher grades. Most appear to have been purchased by casual coin buyers who treated the coins badly, resulting in many circulated, cleaned, and damaged pieces in today’s marketplace.
According to Q. David Bowers, advertising for this issue was minimal, and without a doubt many coin collectors who would perhaps have purchased one of the commemorative gold dollars were not even aware of the issue. Bowers also raises the possibility that Zerbe retained a large number of the 1905 dated issues until the early 1930s, when he cashed them in for face value when all (non numismatic) gold coins were recalled. This would certainly explain why the 1905 issue is so much scarcer than the 1904, despite the similar mintages.
Despite all this, neither issue is impossible to find in MS-65 condition, although the issue does come with a mid to upper 5-figure price tag. Recently, price differences for the 1904 dated issue graded MS-65 and MS-66 have come closer together, but the 1905 issue is rare at that level and anything finer is practically impossible to find without deep pockets and a lot of patience. The last PCGS MS-67 1905 was sold at public auction in 2000; NGC graded examples are occasionally available but not common. Both PCGS and NGC have also certified a few Proofs, but the status of these has been disputed by some numismatists.