It seems like the stuff of dreams – to actually receive a silver medal from a U.S. President or even a foreign King. In the 1700s and early 1800s, there were many Native American Chiefs who had that experience. For most, that medal became part of their ceremonial garb, a personal treasure that they would be buried with.
In current times these peace medals provide that rare tangible link back to the first Native American -white contact so long ago. Prior to the American Revolution, the British, French, and Spanish had presented American Indian leaders with silver medals, as tokens of distinction and allegiance, the King George III medals even promising “Happy While United.” The medals were highly valued among the Indian leaders. As one historian explained, “The peace medals, like the earlier shell gorgets, directly associated the wearer with the real power of the individual whose image was impressed on the medal’s surface.”
See examples of these early peace medals HERE.
I found mention of the Choctaw receiving silver medals from the French (although I can not confirm this information – probably buried in correspondence from that era):
In 1702, the French established their first town site near the Gulf Coast at Old Mobile. English colonists out of South Carolina had already begun arming the tribes neighboring the Choctaw. The colonial French Governor Iberville at New Orleans requested Henri de Tonti to conduct peace talks with the Choctaws and Chickasaws and ally them to the French. But the French found it difficult to deal with the Choctaw because of their lack of a centralized government. They attempted to impose a hierarchical structure on a native political system that they did not fully comprehend. The French selected existing pro-French okla leaders as recipients of large silver medals….
The leadership status of these individuals was further reinforced by the French practice of awarding them trade goods and presents for redistribution. This practice of co-opting native leaders was initiated in lieu of an attempt to subjugate the Choctaw political system entirely, for the French were not capable of doing this… the French were generally unsuccessful in forcing the Choctaw to act in unison. The French failed to consistently provide the Choctaw with adequate trade goods and to check the influence of the English, but their inability to understand the autonomous and decentralized nature of the okla system was perhaps their greatest weakness. ~~Blitz, John H., An Archaeological Study of the Mississippi Choctaw Indians, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Archaeological Report No. 16. (1985) Jackson, Mississippi, pages 15-16
An early English oil painting of the Cherokee Chief Cunne Shote shows the chief attired with two peace medals around his neck: a Proclamation Medal of King George III & the Wedding Medallion of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Below the medals is a gorget inscribed “GR III.” All three items were of British origin and likely gifts received during a visit of three Cherokee diplomats in England in 1762. The painting is currently part of the Gilcrease Museum (Tulsa, Okla.) art collection.
Because of the symbolic importance of these medals in maintaining peaceful relations with Indian tribes, the new United States government continued the practice. The design of the medal created for George Washington had the simple statement “Peace and Friendship” on the back of the coin, with two hands clasped together. The hand on the left with the elaborate cuff represented the Native American. This design endured for many decades through many presidencies.
The year 1786 saw the first Treaty between the U.S. government and the Choctaw people. The Choctaw had already adopted the expression “great medal chief or mingo” for their most distinguished leaders. The four Choctaw Chiefs identified in the 1786 Treaty of Hopewell included two great medal chiefs: Yockonahoma, great Medal Chief of Soonacoha and Tobocoh great Medal Chief of Congetoo (also known as Taboca). The two other chiefs were Yockehoopoie, leading Chief of Bugtoogoloo and Mingohoopoie, leading Chief of Hashooqua.
In 1793 Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State, described the medals 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.” [from the papers of Thomas Jefferson.] For his presidential peace medal, Jefferson added the spread eagle symbol on the right cuff representing the U.S. government.
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. They carried a total of at least 89 peace medals in five different sizes, the largest medal being about 4 inches; the smallest being about an inch.
Technology at the turn of the 19th century made use of dies. Most medals were stamped or “struck” in a soft metal such as silver, using an engraving or “die” cast or carved from a harder metal. All of the Jefferson medals were stamped in sheet silver, and the two parts were held together by a silver band.
In 1899 a remarkable discovery was made near Independence, Missouri as a new road was being built:
The Jefferson Peace Medal
Louisville Courier-Journal: There are few relics that possess more of peace-making history than the Peace Medal. Belonging, as it does, to the early history of our country, it tends to show that the policy of the history-making men, who laid and ruled the nation by their predominance of intellect, was in favor of peace, harmony, and tranquility—not only between great nations, but between a stronger and a weaker nation. Justice, the great balancing principle in all truly civilized nations as well as the humane interest in the general welfare of its citizens, is shown by the courtesy and good will of our government in encouraging a friendly spirit with the Indians.
This medal was found about ten or twelve years ago [1887-1889] at a place about six miles from Independence, Missouri. A number of laborers were making a public road when one of the men, an Irishman, discovered an Indian grave, presumably that of a chief. In the grave they found this medal, together with a great number of beads, a pipe, and a tomahawk.
The man who found it gave it to a brother of the present owner of the medal in exchange for a revolver, who, after keeping it for a number of years, sent it to Mr. G.W. B. McKnight of Columbus, Georgia, who has one of the finest private collections of Indian relics in the South.
This medal was presented by Thomas Jefferson, through his representatives, Benjamin Hawkins and others, to the “Mingos” or principal warriors of the Choctaw Indians, in the treaty of peace made at Fort Adams, on the 17th day of December, 1801.
This was in reality only a ratification or acknowledgment of the treaty made with Congress on the 30th day of January, 1796, and the renewal of friendship with the Choctaw nation. The Choctaws thereby ceded all their rights to lands formally granted by them to the British government, namely, that land east of the Mississippi and south of the Yazoo River, and in return for this grant, the United States allowed them $2,000 in gold and three sets of blacksmith tools.
The medal is composed of silver and the die of the reverse side was used for all of the peace medals issued by the government from Thomas Jefferson down to the administration of James K. Polk, when a new one had to be made [about 1845]. The engraver who prepared the dies for the Jefferson medals was John Reich, a native of Germany, who came to this country at the suggestion of Henry Voight, at that time chief coiner of the United States mint, and was employed by him to make scales and do other fine work. Later he was employed to make dies for the medals. The dies for the Indian medals, used down to President Tyler’s administration, cost $1,160 each, but were made later at a cost of about $500.
The late R. W. Mercer, archaeologist, of Cincinnati, Ohio, a few years ago valued this medal at $1,000. It is probable, however, that this relic will remain in Mr. McKnight’s private collection as long as he lives, as he pursues his work of collecting relics and curios for his own pleasure and never sells any of them.
~~St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette (St. Joseph, MO), Thurs, July 6, 1899, Page 4
Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the third President of the United States on March 4, 1801. Fort Adams was located about 38 miles below the port of Natchez on the Mississippi River, at a place called Loftus Heights overlooking the Mississippi. The fort served as the port of entry from Spanish Louisiana into the United States until 1803 and the U.S. acquisition of Spanish lands as part of the Louisiana Purchase.. Historian James P. Pate offers a vivid description of the negotiations at Fort Adams:
“On 12 December 1801 Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson, Benjamin Hawkins, and Andrew Pickens welcomed the Choctaw to Fort Adams on behalf of their “new father,” Pres. Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s administration continued to emphasize pacification, it cloaked expansion and pressure for more roads and land in a policy of “civilizing” Native Americans. After a successful conference with the Chickasaw in October, the commissioners anticipated no problems in extending a road across Choctaw country from Nashville to Natchez. In his opening remarks, Wilkinson told the Choctaw delegates of Jefferson’s concern for “his red children” and his desire “to lead and protect you in the paths of peace & prosperity.
[…] Except for the pipe ceremony on the first day, only four of the twelve Choctaw speakers used the traditional symbolism and speech followed at Hopewell and Nashville. Tuskonahopoie, Tootehoomuh, and Oak-chume offered to take the commissioners “by the hand and hold fast.” Oak-chume covered his hands if not his entire body with white clay as a gesture of peace and friendship. Elautaulau Hoomah invoked the power of the sun to bring honest talks by acknowledging that the clouds had cleared when he began to speak. Tuskonahopoie, a chief of the Lower Towns, opened the second day and told the commissioners that seven chiefs would speak for their towns and then the young warriors should be heard. Like those who followed him, he granted permission to cut the road and agreed to redraw the boundary line, but he denied receiving annual gifts or pay for the lands occupied by “white peoples.”
[…] Apukshunnubbee, chief of the Western District, asked for an interpreter, a blacksmith, and spinning wheels for his towns. Homastubbee, chief of the Northeastern District, asked for a wheelwright and for women to teach his women to spin and weave, and he asked that farm implements and blacksmith tools be sent to his people. The mixed-blood Robert McClure asked for a cotton gin and a blacksmith for the Lower Towns District. Wishing to conduct their business “sober,” Homastubbee asked the commissioners not to distribute the whiskey they had brought to the conference. Buc-shun-abbe asked that traders be prevented from introducing liquor to his people.
~~From the online article “Treaty of Fort Adams”, written by James P. Pate, for Mississippi Encyclopedia
The next treaty with the Choctaw people, the 1805 Treaty of Mount Dexter, named the three great Medal Mingoes engaged in the negotiations: Pukshunubbee-Mingo, Hoomastubbee, and Pooshamattaha (the great Choctaw Chief we know today as Pushmataha.) It is unknown when these Chiefs acquired their medals.
In 1815, Andrew Jackson got his own medal. Congress awarded an ornate gold medal to Major-General Jackson for his extraordinary victory over the British troops in the War of 1812. The medal was given to the American Numismatic Society by a collector who had acquired it in a pawnshop. On the image of Jackson you can see the fancy gold epaulets on his shoulders, just like the ones he gave to Chief Pushmataha for his invaluable help in the War of 1812.
The 1820 Treaty of Doaks’s Stand named these medal recipients: Medal Mingoes Puckshenubbe, Paoshamattaha (Pushmataha), and Mushulatubbee (the son of Chief Homastubbee). Below are their names as they appeared on page 1 of the Mississippi State Gazette (Natchez, MS), Saturday, Feb 17, 1821.
As the empty countryside of Oklahoma became more settled, another thrilling discovery revealed the past to amazed observers.
UNIQUE PEACE MEDAL FOUND in 1935
Much history could be written about a silver medal which was plowed up recently by a farmer on his farm about two and a half miles from Anadarko, Oklahoma. The medal is a presidential medal bearing the date 1817. That such a system of bestowing medals existed is of historical significance.
The United States had accepted the European English, French and Spanish method of dealing with the Indians, that of giving them some token as a reward for service rendered. From time immemorial, loyalty had been rewarded by the conferring of land and titles of nobility and the presenting of a medal as an insignia of such. This badge of distinction was usually worn around the neck of the recipient.
The earliest known medal made by the U. S. and presented to an Indian was in 1780. This medal had the legend ‘‘Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” On the reverse side was an Indian seated under a tree, holding a calumet in his hand; in the background a sea on which were three ships with this legend, “Happy While United.”
Then during the administration of President Washington, there were several different types of peace medals made. But by 1800 the granting of medals was becoming more numerous, due to the increased treaty-making brought on by Westward expansion. The medal of this period was known as the Jefferson medal. There were three sizes: the four inch, two and a half inches, and the two inch, and they were made of silver or bronze.
On one side was a bust of the President, with the date issued; on the reverse side were two hands clasped. On the cuff of one hand were three stripes and as many buttons with the displayed eagle. A spread eagle ornamented the second cuff but there was also a crossed tomahawk and calumet with the legend “Peace and Friendship.” All medals followed this design until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Last spring while plowing in a field that had been under cultivation for over forty years, a farmer came upon what was probably the grave of an Indian Chief. There was found on the skeleton a silver peace medal which had the bust of President Monroe and the date of 1817. This medal followed the President Jefferson model. It is two and a half inches across. There is a hole in the top showing that it had been worn a long time and no doubt with pride.
In a search for peace treaties signed in 1817, in an effort to find at least to what tribe the medal was given, the following conclusion or opinion has been reached. The medal belonged either to a Western Cherokee or to a Ponca Chief. In 1817 the government made a peace treaty with both of these tribes. The treaty with the Cherokees was made at the Cherokee Agency, within the Cherokee Nation, and was signed by forty-six headmen or chiefs, and to each signer a medal was given. Of these signers fifteen were representatives of the Western Cherokees. This group of Cherokees had migrated to the west and was living at this time on the White River in Arkansas.
The Ponca treaty was signed at St. Louis in June of the same year. William Clark and August Choteau represented the government. The Poncas were represented by eight headmen or chiefs.
Around the wrists of the skeleton were many rounds of copper wire used as bracelets, and since the Poncas were more given to personal adornment at this time than were the Cherokees, it is the more probable that the skeleton was that of a Ponca rather than that of a Cherokee.
The medal indicates much wear as the hole, through which the cord passed, is worn. The spread eagle on the wrist of one hand is not clearly distinguished. All other inscriptions are plainly seen.
The farm upon which the medal was found is about two and a half miles east of Anadarko on the lower river road. The road, of course, follows the Washita River. Along the river road many adventurers and hunters went long before the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes into Oklahoma. It might have been that the wearer of the medal was out on a hunting expedition, or better still, on a visit to some of the Plains Indians when he died or was killed. Anyway, much of the history of the past is revealed in the finding of this medal.
This medal is now in the possession of Dr. Anna Lewis, Professor of History in the Oklahoma College for Women, Chickasha, Oklahoma.
~~Tushkahomman, the Red Warrior (Stroud, Okla.), Tues, July 2, 1935, Page 1
Statement from the Discovering Lewis and Clark website: “[Since Jefferson] the basic design, as well as the wording, remained essentially the same until peace medals became irrelevant in the early 1880s owing to the failure of the givers to hold up their end of the bargain.” As Native American became increasingly bitter over relations with their white “father”, it is easy to imagine their descendants tossing the medals into the rubbish pile or the nearby river.
However the peace medals are still treasured by most as a vital link to the distant past and a reminder of our vibrant history. Most tribal authorities want to reclaim this important piece of their heritage:
- 1990 – Leaders of the Chickasaw Tribe fight to reclaim a prized Peace Medal given by President George Washington to a Chickasaw Chief over 200 years ago. The medal was stolen in 1955 from Chief Piomingo’s grave in Tupelo, Miss. A New York City art dealer obtained the medal for $50,000 and offers it to the highest bidder. ~~ The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, Jan 14, 1990, Page 16.
- 1991 – After years of contentious talks, the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma succeeds in persuading the Nebraska State Historical Society to relinquish at least 300 skeletons removed from their graves. Highly contested is a peace medal found by archeologist A. T. Hill at a Pawnee grave site, which by law should be returned with other burial remains to the Pawnee tribe. ~~The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Okla,), Tuesday, Sep 10, 1991, Page 43.
- 2001 – Hundreds of donations are part of the American Indian collection at the Oklahoma Historical Society, including a Cheyenne child’s dress, bois d’arc baskets, several beaded cradleboard covers, and Choctaw dolls from the 1880s. Protective storage cabinets hold children’s leggings and moccasins from Fort Yukon. Warehouse storage racks hold the contents of an entire house from southeastern Oklahoma which belonged to Judge Henry C. Harris (1837-1899), who was a Supreme Court judge of the Choctaw Nation. Among his possessions were documents spanning 150 years, including birth certificates and Choctaw land assignments. Furniture items include a trunk that had been given to a slave family, and then returned to the Harris family after 100 years.
But one of the most historically significant donations is a Peace Medal featuring the image of President James Buchanan, who served as President immediately prior to the Civil War. Originally the medal was given to the Delaware Indian tribe for loyalty to the United States. The donation came from a relative of Chief Charles Journeycake, the final Delaware chief before removal to Indian Territory.~~The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, July 8, 2001, Page 9.
- 2005 – One school day in late September, three Cheyenne Chiefs shared their heritage with Edmond middle schoolers through stories, music, and demonstrations. One of the chiefs, Lawrence Hart, who worked as a forensic sculptor, showed his treasured Jefferson Peace Medal from 1801, carried into the West by the Lewis and Clark expedition. ~~The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Wednesday, Sep 28, 2005, page 68.
- 2005 – Bob Blackburn, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, points out that more languages were once spoken in Oklahoma than in all of Europe, but we have many common links if not common origins. The Indian Peace Medal in the Society’s American Indian collection is one of those powerful links. ~~The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, Nov 27, 2005, page 3.
I would add that the medals remind us of the vision of peace and friendship between nations, an opportunity that is not yet lost, and that we can still strive for, this time around, as equal partners.
PS – A shoutout to the Gilcrease Museum for their devotion to creating online collections at https://collections.gilcrease.org/. The museum houses the world’s largest collection of art from the American West. Members receive a weekly e-newsletter and a quarterly magazine.
And to the National Park Service, Challenge Cost-Share Program for funding in part the Discovering Lewis and Clark educational website.
***YAHOKE, ikana! Thank you, friends. Much GRATITUDE for spending time on a Choctaw Journey with me.***
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Oil painting of Cherokee Chief Cunne Shote, dated 1762, Gilcrease Museum, Accession No. 0176.1015
“Indian Peace Medals”, online Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia
Stack and Bowers Galleries, Coin Auction House, archived Peace Medal Collection
Text of the Pre-Removal government treaties, including the 1786 Treaty of Hopewell, and 1805 Treaty of Mount Dexter, is available online at the Choctaw Nation website.
Thomas Jefferson peace medal, circa 1801, Gilcrease Museum, Accession No. 65.17, approximately 3 inches
Andrew Jackson peace medal, circa 1829, Gilcrease Museum, Accession No. 65.38, approximately 7.2 cm/ 2.9 inches [dimension on website is in error]
Andrew Jackson peace medal on beaded necklace, Smithsonian Museum (National Museum of American Indian) holdings, catalog number 15/8354; attributed to Pikuni (Piegan) [Blackfeet Nation, Browning, Montana
- St. Joseph News-Press/Gazette (St. Joseph, Missouri), Thursday, July 6, 1899, Page 4
- Mississippi State Gazette (Natchez, MS), Saturday, Feb 17, 1821, Page 1
- Tushkahomman, the Red Warrior (Stroud, Oklahoma), Tuesday, July 2, 1935, Page 1
- The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, Jan 14, 1990, Page 16
- The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Tuesday, Sep 10, 1991, Page 43
- The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, July 8, 2001, Page 9
- The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Wednesday, Sep 28, 2005, page 68
- The Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), Sunday, Nov 27, 2005, page 3
Further reading suggested by the Mississippi Encyclopedia site:
- Benjamin Hawkins, A Combination of a Sketch of the Creek Country, in the Years 1798 and 1799, and Letters of Benjamin Hawkins 1796–1806 (1982) – out-of-print but available through the Inter-Library Loan program
- Florette Henri, The Southern Indians and Benjamin Hawkins, 1796–1816 (1986)
- Greg O’Brien, Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750–1830 (2002), as told through the lives of two remarkable Choctaw leaders, Taboca and Franchimastabé.
Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 11-16.
Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum)