In 1797, William Tate, an American Colonel of a French military force landed on the island of Britain in what is called the Last Invasion of Britain. His parents were rumored to have been killed by pro-British Native Americans in the Revolutionary War, giving him cause to lead this doomed expedition. Tate was no American patriot, however, and the South Carolina native was suspected of helping plan a French invasion of New Orleans and fled to Paris in 1797. It was very likely that Tate brought coins like the 1797 half dollar across the Atlantic with him and, given that he invaded Britain just months later, one of these half dollars could have participated in the last time a foreign force landed on the shores of mainland Great Britain.
This is one of the rarest of all United States coin types, produced as it was during just a single year in the late 18th century. Chief Engraver Robert Scot prepared the Draped Bust design for use on the Half Dollar sometime during 1796. For the obverse portrait, he used as his model a drawing by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart's model, in turn, was Mrs. William Bingham (born Ann Willing). The Scot design features a right-facing bust of Liberty on the obverse with either 15 or 16 stars arranged around the border. The word LIBERTY is at the upper border, and the date is below. On the reverse, a rather diminutive eagle with spread wings is perched atop clouds and surrounded by a wreath of what appears to be olive and palm branches. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is around the periphery, and the denomination expressed as 1/2 is situated below the knot of the ribbon that binds the wreath.
There are only three obverse dies and two reverse dies confirmed for this type, and all but perhaps one of the reverses were probably engraved in 1796. Two of the obverses display 15 stars around the border, which means that Scot would have to have prepared them prior to Tennessee's admission as the 16th state in the Union on June 1, 1796. The third and final obverse emerged sometime after that date, and it displays 16 stars around the border. Apparently, Scot completed the date to read 1796 on two of the obverses: one of the 15-star dies and the 16-star die. Only the first three digits in the date were punched into third obverse die, however, and it was not completed until the following year when a 7 was entered to yield a date of 1797. Scot probably prepared the second and final reverse at around the same time as he completed the third obverse die; i.e. in 1797.
These five dies were combined in four marriages and used to strike only 3,918 Half Dollars of the Draped Bust, Small Eagle type. Despite the fact that two of the obverse dies and one of the reverse dies were almost certainly ready for use, the Mint did not strike any Half Dollars in 1796. All deliveries of this type came in 1797, as follows:
February 28, 1797: 60 coins, probably 1796-dated examples with 15 stars on the obverse.
March 21, 1797: 874 pieces, thought to include 1796-dated examples of both the 15 Stars and 16 Stars varieties.
May 26, 1797: 2,984 coins, probably comprised of both 1796 16 Stars and 1797 examples.
Survivors of all three deliveries are exceedingly rare, and they enjoy strong demand from both type collectors and early Half Dollar specialists. Most are worn to one degree or another, but a handful of Uncirculated examples are known. Writing in 1988, Walter Breen asserts that most of the Mint State survivors trace their pedigree to Colonel E.H.R. Green, the eccentric son of Hetty Green, the infamous "Witch of Wall Street."