Many are familiar with the works of the infamous Naturalist and Biologist, Charles Darwin, who at the young age of 22 departed from England in 1831 aboard the HMS Beagle to survey the lands of South America. Few know, however, that this was the hardy little ships second voyage to the treacherous capes of South America. The HMS Beagle, which launched in 1820, was intended to be a naval ten-gun brig under the royal fleet that could not withstand to sail longer than three months without frequent stops. For the beginning of its life, the ship sat dormant because there was no need for its naval services during peacetime. Eventually the ship was converted to a bark, though still relatively small, and sent along with a “mother ship” to survey the coasts in 1826. It was not uncommon to have dormant naval ships converted to survey ships during this time as militant power was less important than land discovery. However, these ships intended to be brigs were relatively small and could not store as much as a large bark or ship rigged vessel. This too was the case for the HMS Beagle which is why she was followed by a fleet of other vessels on her first voyage. Throughout the excursion of 1826, the Beagle surveyed unexplored coasts in hopes of gathering enough information to someday anchor and explore. This was no fun-in-the-sun cruise however as the ship crew and captain battled “Earth’s worst weather conditions” infamous to the South American Cape. As a result of poor supply, sweeping sickness, and horrific seas this voyage nearly saw its demise especially when the captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide just before reaching Tierra del Fuego. Fortunately, the second in command Robert Fitzroy took control and continued the expedition with high hopes and positive results. Upon its return in 1830, the crew members had an elevated sense of knowledge regarding the mysterious land and the next voyage was planned immediately- this time with Mr. Darwin in tow.
A major characteristic of early U.S. coinage was frequent design change that often ran congruent with leadership turnover. The fifty-cent coin was no exception when Robert Patterson stepped in as Director of Mint and enforced change across the board. As part of the change, Patterson also hired a new engraver whom he thought could add European elegance and culture to the coin. His new engraver, John Reich did indeed bring Patterson desire’s to life. Reich’s design featured a more robust, European-looking Lady Liberty that now faced left suited with a mobcap over flowing hair and was surrounded by thirteen stars on the obverse. The reverse featured the required eagle, which bore a shield on its chest and the denomination below. As a member of the “bust half” series, this coin is considered part of the “true heart of United States coinage” from the “peak” era of silver coinage. Like many of the earliest coins, the capped bust halves were struck with screw presses that often required manual input which in turn created a veritable plethora of unique strikes. As with almost all United States coinage, this too went through a few modifications throughout production that resulted in subtypes. Type one had a lettered edge with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM around the coin to save space on the face, the second had a reeded edge as a result of more advanced technology, and the third kept the reeded edge but changed the denomination to HALF DOL. Part of the intrigue this coin holds, beside the subtypes, are its various die varieties that keep collectors on their toes and truly demonstrates the diversity of the earliest American coins.