American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society



Drachmas Doubloons and Dollars: The History of Money

The Art of the Medal

Indian Peace Medals

Peace medals played a significant role in relation between the U.S. government and the Native American population. Following the British and French practice of handing out silver medals to tribal chiefs, Washington—and all presidents until the 1880s—presented medals to important Native American dignitaries when treaties were signed or on other important occasions. The medals were often produced in different sizes according to the rank of the recipients.

This large Washington medal of 1793 shows the president shaking hands with a tribal chief. In the background is a common motif—a man ploughing, supposedly signifying the "civilized" way of life that contact with Western Europeans provided.

This 1801 Jefferson medal shows two hands, with a tomahawk and a pipe, and the legend "Peace and Friendship." Lewis and Clark took many Jefferson medals, issued in three sizes, on their famous expedition in 1804. They documented many of the formal ceremonies at which these medals were presented to the tribes they encountered.

This unique medal shows the extraordinary scene of the rescue of a young woman from ritual sacrifice. In the spring of 1817, Pitalesharu, one of the chiefs of the Pawnee, rescued a Comanche girl. Opposed to the ritual practice himself, he secretly cut the girl loose and fled with her to her own tribe. Pitalesharu's deed became the talk of Washington, and inspired the young ladies of Miss White's Seminary to present a medal to the chief.

The Abraham Lincoln Peace Medal contrasts what was perceived as the Native American way of life with that of the settlers. A rural scene shows a man ploughing. The background depicts people playing baseball in front of a house and a church with a graveyard. Baseball had become popular in the 1850s and 1860s, but it is surprising to find it on a U.S. government medal.

Some Native American chiefs regarded peace medals as charms with supernatural powers. This medal was worn in 1873 by a Ute chief in Colorado. He was hit by a bullet in a fight with another tribe. The bullet hit the medal, where it is still lodged today, and thus saved his life. Because the medal had not kept the bullet from striking him, he disposed of it.