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Indian Peace Medals: Relics of Our Nation’s Westward Expansion

A fascinating area of numismatics, Indian Peace medals hold strong appeal for both collectors and historians. The tradition of bestowing Peace Medals began with the British, French and Spanish governments, which utilized them in their efforts to bring about peace and friendship with Native Americans. However, few of these foreign medals remain. Most were exchanged for American medals in ceremonies with representatives of the United States symbolizing the transfer of allegiance to the fledgling country.

United States Indian Peace Medals were minted for over one hundred years, from 1789 to 1889, with earlier issues of George Washington and John Adams hand-engraved by notable silversmiths of the era. In 1801, the United States Mint commenced the production of the Jefferson medals through the Grant issues of 1871, which were struck in a round format. In later years, the Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland and Harrison medals reverted back to the oval shape of the original issues. Larger silver medals were presented to the more important chiefs as a symbol of their position within the tribe or in the case of a prominent event, such as the signing of a treaty. Medals struck in bronze were given to chieftains or warriors of lesser standing, which were also reproduced for collectors.

Peace Medals bore the image of the President on the obverse with the different reverses. The Jefferson through Taylor medals show two hands clasping in friendship, and the Fillmore through Pierce strikes depict a settler speaking with a Native American in front of a large American Flag. The Buchanan and Lincoln issues show an agricultural scene and a scalping on the outer rim with a female head centrally placed at the bottom. The last of the rounds issued for President Grant depict a globe with farm tools and the words, On Earth Peace Good Will Toward Men. Due to production challenges, Grant’s name was not included on his medal. Later issues saw further changes: a return to the oval shape, private issues, restrikes and facsimiles.

While the records of the medals presented is not complete, the list of known recipients is impressive. They include the Seneca Chief Red Jacket, Wicked Chief of the Grand Pawnee, Lakota Sioux Chief Ogilasa and Chief Wolf Robe of the Southern Cheyenne. The medals were considered badges of honor. Photographic records in the Smithsonian include a wonderful portrait of the Ponca delegation that visited Washington in 1877, with nine of the twelve delegates wearing their Peace Medals.

In 1804, famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis on their westerly expedition to explore and open new trade routes to the Pacific Ocean. Eighty-seven Peace Medals were taken to present to the Native Americans they might encounter with the goal of encouraging peaceful relations and keeping the new trade routes safe. It is also recorded that Lewis and Clark carried fifty-five pieces of the ‘Seasons’ medals, which depicted scenes of agriculture and animal husbandry.

Of the approximately 3,500 Indian Peace Medals minted, only 500 are known to remain. The Abraham Lincoln medal and the Ulysses Grant medal in Doyle’s auction of April 25, 2016 may increase this number by two, since it appears that these examples are recent discoveries not previously included in any census.

Suggested Reading:
Bauman L. Belden, Indian Peace Medals Issued in the United States, 1789-1889, (N. Flayderman & Co, 1966)
Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History, (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995)
R.W. Julian, Medals of the United States: The First Century 1792-1892, (Token and Medal Society, 1977)
Paul Gilkes, Coin World, September 2013

Portrait of specialist Norman R.  Scrivener
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