Why the Sacajawea dollar coin was such an epic failure—and why the Tubman $20 will be better


The U.S. Treasury Department announced last week that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. The $5 and the $10 will also see some changes: Lincoln’s face will remain on the front of the $5, but the back will feature Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, and Marian Anderson. Hamilton will remain the face of the $10, but the back of the bill will feature notable members of the women’s suffrage movement: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul.

This isn’t the first time women have been placed on American money—technically, it’s the fifth (and sixth and seventh). Martha Washington was on the $1 bill in 1886 and Pocahontas was on the $20 from 1865 to 1869. Much later, Susan B. Anthony’s face was featured on the dollar coin from 1979–1981, and pulled out of circulation in 1999. Sacajawea replaced her for some time in the early aughts.

Susan B. Anthony will reprise her role on money. Martha Washington is our foremother, and Pocohontas, for better or worse, has been well memorialized by Disney.

Sacajawea, on the other hand, appears to have lost her shot. This is the story of how what might have been a substantive effort to honor a Native American woman turned into an embarrassing blip in our monetary history.

Sacajawea seemed like the perfect woman to honor on the American dollar. The Shoshone Indian helped guide Lewis and Clark during their journey west in 1804. Before then, as a child, she was kidnapped, sold into slavery and eventually forced to marry French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau. She died at 25. During her short, tragic life she, according to the Mint, prevented the famed explorers from being killed or starting a war:

[At 15] She provided crucial knowledge of the topography of some of the most rugged country of North America and taught the explorers how to find edible roots and plants previously unknown to European-Americans… most crucially, however, Sacajawea and her infant served as a “white flag” of peace for the expedition, which was as much a military expedition as a scientific one. They entered potentially hostile territory well armed but undermanned compared to the Native American tribes they met… Sacagawea often served as the translator. Not a single member of the party was lost to hostile action.

In other words, we owe her.

In 1998, the U.S. Mint started the process of selecting a new coin design to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar. A team of expert consultants, plus “120,000 emails and 2,000 letters and faxes” helped the Mint decide that Sacajawea should be the new face of the dollar coin. In 1999, the Mint revealed the new design.

In 2000, the U.S. Mint started to advertise the golden dollar as a timely replacement for the paper bill depicting George Washington. In a TV commercial, we see Washington’s face, superimposed on Michael Keaton’s body, enjoying his retirement. It’s weird.

“OK, so I’m not on the new golden dollar coin,” Keaton as Washington says, “that’s cool with me.” He adds, “the new coin is perfectly all right without me. In fact, I use it everywhere. It’s so money.”

Though the Mint throws out the tagline “changing the face of money” in their bizarre ads, it seems intended to convince American consumers that granting Sacajawea a spot on the dollar coin shouldn’t be seen as a knock on our first president. In another commercial, Washington says, “I know what you’re thinking: Why isn’t George on it?” We later see him in an astronaut suit, orbiting Earth. “Hey, change happens,” he says.

The ads do not appear to have convinced many Americans that coins would work just as well as bills. The New York Times reported in 2000 that people wanted to hold on to their bills, regardless of the cost.

“More than 75 percent of Americans, according to one recent poll, oppose eliminating the $1 bill in favor of any dollar coin,” the Times noted, adding, “so what if the Federal Reserve estimates that it could save $395 million annually by replacing bills that last 18 months with coins expected to last 30 years?”

Even lawmakers were unhappy with the change. A 2000 story published by the Scripps Howard News Service listed early criticisms of the coin from Capitol Hill:

“That’s a dollar?” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who contended what the Mint bills as “the golden dollar” lacks the heft necessary to represent its worth.”Frankly, all of our new money looks like play money, so it’s not any different from the new dollar bills with the exaggerated pictures,” she said… “Do I think it should have been even more distinct? Yes, I do,” [Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm] said. “For the greatest nation on Earth, we have crummy coins and currency. Compare them to Europe, and they look crummy, and that’s not a partisan statement, because there’s no partisanship when it comes to crummy coins.”

Still, the Mint touted the coin as a success at first. “The demand for the Golden Dollar featuring Sacajawea remains very high,” Mint Director Jay Johnson said in a 2000 statement.

The Mint said that it the time, it had “shipped over 800 million Golden Dollars through all of its distribution channels.” The Mint added that it “expects to produce the billionth Golden Dollar by the end of the summer. It took the previous dollar coin program, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, 21 years to reach a total mintage of 920 million coins.”

That didn’t last very long.

By 2001, The New York Times was wondering where the coins had gone. The paper reported that though the Mint touted it as ”the most successful dollar coin in history,” nobody appeared to be actually using it:

It seems that almost no one is spending the Sacajawea dollar coins. What most people are doing, once they’ve recovered from their surprise at first seeing the coin, is putting them aside as if they’ve found an unusual arrowhead. ”They tend not to circulate,” said Doug Tillet, a spokesman for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. ”They tend to wind up in people’s drawers, jars, and pockets.”

Banks explained to the Times that they planned on ordering the new coins if there was demand for them—but there rarely was. In general, it seemed, people regarded the coins bearing the image of a woman as a hassle:

When people do try to spend the Sacajawea coins, stores struggle to deal with them. Vijay Patel, a clerk at the 7-Eleven in Tarrytown, said he had about 20 of the coins last weekend, but that he exchanged them at the bank for bills. ”It’s very hard to hold those dollar coins,” he said, adding that the cash drawer only has room for nickels, dimes, quarters, and pennies.

Attempts to differentiate the coin from quarters by referring to it as the “golden dollar” also prompted opportunists to attempt to sell the coins at an inflated price. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote in 2000 that “some early fringe marketers implied that the yellow-metal coin contained gold. (It’s mostly copper.) They skated near the edge of dishonesty by calling it the new ‘gold dollar.'”

By 2002, the Mint had stopped producing the coin for public circulation. ABC News explained at the time that over the course of those two years, more than 1.3 billion coins were produced. They cost taxpayers more than $160 million. The Mint was supposed to make another 40 million coins in the following year, but after the clear failure, decided to make just 10 million for collector sets.

In ABC’s estimation, the effort was a woefully unsuccessful attempt to ease Americans away from the paper dollar: “This was the government’s third attempt to wean American consumers off the dollar bill in 30 years. The Eisenhower silver dollar was considered too big and heavy. The Susan B. Anthony dollar looked too much like a quarter. So the Treasury made the Sacajawea dollar golden instead of silver and smooth around the edges, not ridged.”

As ABC noted, coins are actually cheaper in the long run. At the time, it cost three cents to make a dollar bill, and 12 cents to make a dollar coin. But bills have to be replaced every year and a half, and coins last 30 years. Over time, the Sacajawea coin would have paid off. In the short run, it was a financial disaster.

Also lost among the buckets of federal funds: Sacajawea’s legacy. Her name wasn’t even on the coin; her image was an artist’s informed rendition because there’s no historical consensus of what she actually looked like.

During a 2002 Senate Treasury subcommittee hearing on the coin and its failure to circulate, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan expressed his dismay. “Since the golden dollar was unveiled by the U.S. Mint nearly two years ago, I have never received one in change anywhere in the United States. It seems to have nearly vanished, and I regret that…it appears to me that at this point the use of the golden dollar and the introduction of the golden has been a failure.”

Historian Amy Mosset gave testimony during the hearing, too. “As I visit audiences across the country I am quite surprised, and perhaps more dismayed, that so many people have never touched a Sacajawea dollar coin. They certainly know that the coin exists, but they have never had a golden dollar coin in their hand, and they have never had a golden dollar coin in their pocket.”

She continued that it was especially important to promote the coin ahead of 2003. “As we near the kickoff of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration next January, it would be unfortunate if we miss this one major opportunity to promote the dollar coin and to celebrate this young Native American woman who exemplifies the character and spirit of a true American hero.”

Ultimately, the effort failed.

For now, the Sacajawea golden dollar remains in production, at a much more modest rate. In 2007, George W. Bush signed the “Native American $1 Coin Act” into law, to continue the production of Sacajawea dollar coins with fresh designs on the back through 2016. For now, most of them are stashedunused—in the Federal Reserve.

The new $5, $10, and $20 won’t face the same challenges the Sacajawea dollar coin did. The Mint won’t have to convince people to change their habits, and even those most vehemently against the new bills are unlikely to stop using cash altogether (or limit themselves to using $1s and $100s).

Seeing Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and other influential women on paper bills won’t close the gender wage gap, but it’s a step in the right direction, and will force Americans to literally look at their faces whenever they open their wallets. That’s certainly not what happened when the Sacajawea coin went into circulation.

So as we embrace the bills of the future, let’s remember the woman money left behind.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.

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