Indian Peace Medals

The Jefferson Indian peace medal[1] was designed and engraved by John Reich[2] and it was the first to bear the image of an American president. Thomas Jefferson was depicted in profile on the obverse of the medal, with the inscription: "TH. JEFFERSON PRESIDENT OF THE U.S. A.D. 1801." The inscription on the reverse, "PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP," was symbolized by the image of clasped hands and a crossed tomahawk and peace pipe.

Prior to the American Revolution, the British, French, and Spanish had presented American Indian leaders with silver medals, as tokens of distinction and allegiance. Because of the symbolic importance of these medals in maintaining peaceful relations with Indian tribes, the new United States government continued the practice. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, described the policy in 1793 as "an antient Custom from time immemorial." "The medals," he wrote,"considered as complimentary things, as marks of friendship to those who come to see us, or who do us good offices, conciliatory of their good will towards us, and not designed to produce a contrary disposition towards others. They confer no power, and seem to have taken their origin in the European practice of giving medals or other marks of friendship to the negotiators of treaties, and other diplomatic Characters, or visitors of distinction."[3] Medals were presented to Indian chiefs on their visits to the national capital and on important occasions such as the signing of a treaty. Federal officials distributed medals when traveling through Indian territories. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried a large supply of the Jefferson Indian peace medals on their expedition to the Pacific Ocean from 1804 to 1806. Lewis and Clark called upon the Missouri chiefs to send back "all the flags and medals which you may have received from your old fathers the French and Spaniards. . . . It is not proper since you have become the children of the great chief of the Seventeen great nations of America, that you should wear or keep those emblems of attachment to any other great father but himself..."[4] Missouri chiefs who visited the city of Washington in the winter of 1805-1806 wore their Jefferson peace medals on their chests, and were given silver chains to suspend them by the governor of Massachusetts.

The Jefferson medal was struck in three sizes, from two to four inches in diameter. The two sides of the medal were struck separately, on thin sheets of silver, and then united by a silver band. The peace medals of succeeding administrations were struck from solid silver.

Footnotes

  1. This article is based on Lucia Stanton, Monticello Research Report, September 1993.
  2. Experts disagree on Reich's exact role in the creation of the Indian peace medal. See Noble Cunningham, Popular Images of the Presidency from Washington to Lincoln (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 73-75; R.W. Julian, Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century (El Cajon, Cal.: The Token and Medal Society, Inc., 1977), 33; and Francis Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 95.
  3. Jefferson to William Carmichael and William Short, 30 June 1793, in PTJ, 26:410.
  4. Lewis and Clark to the Oto Indians, 4 August 1804, in Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:208.

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