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The Story of Peter – The Eagle That Landed at the U.S. Mint
By Dr. Mike Fuljenz

In one form or another, the bald eagle has appeared on U.S. coinage since 1794, reminding Americans that this majestic bird serves as an official national symbol of their country’s power and prestige.  It gained that recognition in 1782, while the fledgling republic was governed under the Articles of Confederation.

Some U.S. coins portray eagles in repose; these include the Walking Liberty half dollar and the Peace dollar.  Others depict them in heraldic form, as on the Liberty Head gold pieces and the Kennedy half dollar.  Perhaps the most stunning, however, are those that show them in full flight, such as the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold piece – widely hailed as the most magnificent of all U.S. coins.

One particular eagle occupies a niche that’s intriguing and unique in the annals of U.S. coinage.  He even had a name – and why not, since he was the real thing, not just an image engraved on a piece of metal.

His name was Peter, and he’s said to have made his home for more than half a decade at the Philadelphia Mint in the early to mid-19th century.

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There’s little doubt that Peter existed.  His stuffed body is on display at the current Philly mint, where it has been a popular attraction for decades for the building’s many visitors.  But serious questions surround the circumstances of his tenancy while he was alive – especially just which years he resided at the nation’s mother mint.

A U.S. Mint website for children states that “Peter, the original Mint Eagle” lived from 1830 to 1836 “at the first Philadelphia Mint.”  This appears to be at least partly inaccurate, since the first Philadelphia Mint, affectionately known as “Ye Olde Mint,” ceased operations in January 1833, when the much larger Second Philadelphia Mint began producing coins.  And given the cramped quarters at the original mint, plus the fact that it was spread among several small buildings, it wouldn’t seem conducive to hosting a resident eagle – however friendly the bird might have been.  According to the Mint website, “The real Peter used to live up near the roof of the building.  People would see him go out during the day to hunt for food and come home at night to sleep.”  Given this, it seems far more likely that Peter’s adopted home was the Second Philadelphia Mint, a spacious edifice made of marble which resembled an ancient Greek temple, with large, graceful columns in the front and rear.

There seems to have been a pattern to Peter’s comings and goings.  He was released each morning, according to most accounts; spent the day foraging for food, then returned to the mint each evening.  During these outings, he was a common sight in the skies over Philadelphia, which was then a small community by 21st-century standards – even though it ranked among the three or four most populous cities in the nation at the time.  U.S. Census figures show that “The City of Brotherly Love” had a population of 80,482 in 1830 and 121,376 in 1850.  And since the countryside was largely undeveloped not far beyond the city limits, wild creatures could frequently be spotted even in the heart of the urban center.

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The exact dates of Peter’s years at the mint hold significance for numismatic scholars, for he has been credited – rightly or wrongly – with inspiring some important U.S. coins.  Perhaps the most significant of these is the beautiful Gobrecht dollar, a coin designed by Mint Engraver Christian Gobrecht and first produced in 1836.  Peter supposedly served as the model for the eagle on this much-acclaimed coin – but logically, that would be possible only if he was known at the mint in 1836 or before.  Modern Mint officials might well have had this tale in mind when they approved the dates listed on their website.  Peter is also said to have inspired the eagle on the Flying Eagle cent, which was issued in only two years, 1857 and 1858.  Then again, some researchers maintain that the eagle on the cent was based upon the bird on the Gobrecht dollar.

By all accounts, Peter was remarkably tame by eagle standards.  He was given access to much of the mint’s work area, including the coining facilities, and frequently alighted on the coin presses themselves.   Sadly, this propensity ultimately led to his demise.  One day, while he was perched on the flywheel of a coining press, the operator – not realizing Peter was there – activated the equipment and the regal bird’s wing got caught in the fast-spinning wheel.  The wing was broken, and Peter died soon afterward.

The grieving mint employees took up a collection to hire a skilled taxidermist to stuff the bird’s body.  It has been viewed by visitors to the second, third and fourth Philadelphia mints since going on display well over a century ago.

As for Peter himself, he has become the stuff of legends.