By David McCormick
Peace medals were important tokens that symbolized a peaceful alliance between North American Indians and America and European nations during the seventeenth century.
Their early roots are undetermined, but Thomas Jefferson once said that he saw their usage as “an ancient custom from time immemorial.”
The earliest peace medals in America can date to the 17th century and were issued by European nations. The British, French and Spanish distributed the medallions to North American Indians to foster alliances with various tribes. The medals denoted the prospect of peace between two entities and were handed out with pomp and ceremony with other gifts: knives, tobacco, and ceremonial proclamations. During hostile times, European nations issued more medals to draw Indians to their side in a conflict.
North American Indians looked on the medals as a token of reciprocity, wherein the Indians would barter for merchandise such as kettles, beads, ornaments, clothes, and weapons — offering in trade animal hides, furs, and feathers, materials in great demand in Europe. It was during excavations in Pennsylvania that a quantity of medals cast in silver were issued with the likenesses of Kings George the First and Second on their faces. The reverse displayed an Indian figure extending a peace pipe to a Quaker.
Early U.S. peace medals were not unlike those of European ones, and also included Indian personages on the medallions. Medals were a tangible token that expressed that the U.S. was extending an olive branch in the furtherance of peace with the Native American Indians, who had lived on the land for hundreds of years. Often when a treaty was agreed upon, a medal was struck signifying the said negotiation.
One of the first of these U.S. peace medals dates the Treaty of Hopewell. This signified the result of Colonel Joseph Martin’s successful pursuit in solidifying an accord to the Cherokee nation in 1785. Another early medal released by the U.S. government was dated 1789, the year of President Washington’s inauguration. The medal is inscribed, “G Washington President.” The medals present an Indian man wearing a headdress, draped in a blanket. With his right hand, he drops his tomahawk while simultaneously receiving a pipe of peace with his left from a figure of Minerva, symbolizing the young America. On the reverse is an eagle with wings extended and thirteen stars above its head, the arms of the United States. U.S. medals distributed between 1792 and 1795 are of a similar scene, but with George Washington replacing Minerva.
Early peace medals dispensed by European nations and the U.S. government, commonly combined representations of government leaders and Native Americans in cultural interchange. But those peace medals struck starting in 1801 and after Thomas Jefferson’s presidency are mostly displaying the bust of the President in office at the time they were released. Starting with Jefferson, a long continuum of medals was issued until the end of Benjamin Harrison’s presidency in 1893. The minting of Presidential medals also ushered in a new mode of creating the medals. The early practice of engraving individual medals gave way to coining in mass using engraved dies.
The 1801 Jefferson medal displayed on the face a bust of Thomas Jefferson and on the reverse an image of an Indian and a U.S. soldier, with their hands clasped in peace. The Indian has a metal wristband worn by Native American chiefs, while the American soldier displays the braided cuff of a U.S. Army officer. A tomahawk and pipe are overlaid above the clasped hands, with the legend, “Peace and Friendship.” Above the contour of Jefferson is his name, title, and date he took office, 1801. These medals are made of two thin silver rounds fused by a silver rim and a wooden core. They were issued in three sizes: 55mm, 75mm, to 105mm.
The growing popularity of peace medals among the Indians prompted regulations in 1829. These were never officially approved, but they did embody recognized guidelines for the allocation of the medallions including that they were to “be given to influential persons only. The largest medals were reserved for the chiefs, while mid-sized medals would be given to war chiefs. The smallest medals were given to less distinguished chiefs and warriors.”
To the Native Americans, the peace medals were prized possessions. The imagery displayed on the medals, of figures of great import, was understood by the Indians as offering admittance into the realm of the White man. These medallions were so dear, they were buried with the owner or handed down from one generation to another.
These presidential medals, in comparison to early peace medals that were awarded in high numbers at the negotiation of treaties, were awarded sparingly to select individuals. There were special exceptions, though. In 1908, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs endorsed legislation to award medals to a group of Indian policemen who arrested Sitting Bull near Fort Yates in 1890; and during Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition from 1803 to 1806, approximately eighty-seven Jefferson peace medals were issued to Indian leaders during the expedition across the United States. They were distributed as a sign of the benevolence of the United States government.
As time went on, the imagery on the peace medals changed with the U.S. government’s ever more assimilationist Indian policy.
Art historian Klaus Lubbers points out the varying configuration of the medal engravings. Wherein first peace medals show complete Indian individuals with little in the background, on later ones, the Indian figures take up less space on the medallion with more space allotted for “agricultural backdrops with a house, oxen, and farm land” — the images symbolizing Indian assimilation into the white man’s world.
By the time the Rutherford B. Hayes medal was issued in 1877, it corresponded with the efforts sanctioned by the Indian Removal Act. One can plainly see that the Hayes medal allows scant place for the Native American figure. The token’s backdrop presents the White man, leaning on an ax with a felled tree alongside him. A log cabin also appears along with a woman seated with an infant whilst a man plows.
During the 1840s, Indian peace medals became identified as a “presidential series.” The federal mint in Philadelphia initiated the tradition of striking bronze replicas of medallions for bestowal to government officials and historical organizations. Production of the bronze medals began with the Jefferson medal in 1842. The dies for the Washington and John Adams medals were unavailable for the initial production, but later the medals for the country’s first and second presidents were reproduced: Adams in 1878 and Washington in 1903. This completed the “presidential series.”
Authentic Indian peace medals carry high prices, ranging from hundreds of dollars to several thousand. It’s best to do your homework before buying because purchasing peace medals can be a chancy undertaking due to a large number of fakes. It is best to deal with reputable companies, such as Heritage Auctions, rather than roll the dice with unknown sellers.
Several entities have collections of Indian peace medals including The American Numismatic Society in New York, which maintains a collection of nearly every medal issued, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and the Henry Ford Museum. They are also prized by individual collectors.
Belden, Bauman L., Indian Peace Medals Issued in the United States, 1927.
DeLorey, Thomas K., “Counterfeit Indian Peace Medals,” Coinweek, February 7, 2014.
Prucha, Francis Paul, “Early Indian Peace Medals,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 45, No. 4 (Summer, 1962), pp. 279-289.
Prucha, Francis Paul, Indian Peace Medals in American History, 1995.
Roach, Steve, “Indian peace medals sale highlights of Baltimore Expo auction,” Coin World, April 8, 2016.
David McCormick holds a master’s degree in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts. He was employed by the City of Springfield, Mass., for several years. Now retired, McCormick works as a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Naval History, Elks Magazine and Wild West Magazine.