Early Peace Medals

First the French

1693 Family Medal of Louis XIV

silver medal described below

Courtesy of Stack's Bowers Galleries, stacksbowers.com)

Silver, 41.2mm diameter

The obverse displays the bust of King Louis XIV with the words "LUDOVICUS MAGNUS REX CHRISTIANISSIMUS" (Christian King Louis the Great). On the reverse, is the bust of the King's eldest son and his three children. The text "FELICITAS DOMUS AUGUSTAE" roughly translates to Fortune House Augustae.

Happy While United (1764)

British, made in New York

Medal with

Silver, 54 mm, made in New York, New York

Yale University Art Gallery, http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/5557, accessed on January 30, 2017.

Happy While United (1780)

Virginia, United States

medal with

This image is in the public domain. Acquired from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Happy_While_United_colonial_meda... on January 30, 2017.

Spanish Peace Medal

Tomàs Prieto's (1716–1782) AL MÉRITO

Medal front and back with King of Spain, Charles the III

Courtesy of Stack's Bowers Galleries, stacksbowers.com)

Silver, 55.5mm diameter

The silver Al Mérito medal, both large and small, was gifted to the American Indian by the Spanish. They were widely dispersed through most of the present United States including the Louisiana Territory and Pacific Northwest regions explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.1

The obverse is a portrait of the Spanish king with the text: CARLOS III • REY DE ESP • EMP • DE LAS INDIAS (Charles III, King of Spain, Emperor of the Indies). The reverse is the text AL MERITO (Merit).

French peace medals were introduced to the American Indians by French fur traders working mainly in present Canada. Two early known examples were the 1693 Family Medal of Louis XIV and the gift of a 1722 Louis XV Coronation medal to a Huron chief. The Louis XIV medal was the typical gift in the beginning of Louis XIV's reign. Medals of the Louis XV Honos et Virtu design were actively distributed in the first half of the 18th-century—up to the time Canada fell to the British in 1760.2

For the Indians, the transition from gorgets to peace medals was rational. Reilly explains:

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. For the Native American wearers, the peace medal, with its royal and later republican American imagery, served to guarantee access to the technological wonders of the rifle, as well as other types of European and later American trade goods.3

Second the British

After the French and Indian war ended in 1763, Indian leaders in the Great Lakes area began asking the British to replace their now obsolete French flags, certificates, and medals. To meet demand, early medals, of the "Happy While United" medals were made in colonial New York City and widely distributed.4

Shortly after the United States gained independence from Great Britain, the Happy While United design was modified. Thomas Jefferson and others planned to establish treaties with Indians in the new State of Virginia. The 1780 medal was clearly a peace medal, but no treaties are known to have been created.5 The reverse on both the British and United States versions picture a white person smoking a peace pipe with a Native American under the text HAPPY WHILE UNITED. On the obverse, the figure of the King George III, considered a tyrant by most American colonists, was replaced with a soldier standing triumphantly over a slain enemy. The text was changed to REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD. Below that, in small letters, is Virginia. A variation of this image is still used in Virginia's state seal.

Third the Spanish

After France ceded Louisiana to Spain in 1762, the Spanish government began using medals to consolidate their interests among Indians throughout the territory. They made their medals especially meaningful by distributing them purposely through their official agents, who were licensed traders. The distribution of medals was not without risks, even with the best of intentions. For instance, the Lieutenant Governor of Spanish Illinois wrote to the Governor at New Orleans in 1776 that he had incurred the displeasure of some Little Osage Indians, who had expected to be given medals:

According to the custom already established, it is more usual to give the medal to the first in rank and there is really no reason why he should be denied it. In giving it to both of them there would arise the inconvenience of the second chiefs of the other nations having reason to expect the same. Depriving the second of the medal and giving it only to the first, I would have as a result of his displeasure, censure, and jealousy, the stealing of horses from the inhabitants of the neighboring towns, and the insulting of the traders. That is why I have refrained from offending either of them.6

As a step toward combatting the inroads made with the Indians in the northern part of Upper Louisiana, the Spanish established the Company of Explorers of the Upper Missouri, known as the Missouri Company, in 1794-95. But whereas Lewis and Clark were at liberty to hand out peace medals at their own discretion, and were not obliged to account for them, only a territorial governor had the power to authorize the awarding of a medal to any Indian, and even Lieutenant Governor Zenon Trudeau, in St. Louis, had difficulty getting enough medals from Governor Carondelet for the agents of the Missouri Company such as Jean Baptiste Truteau, James Mackay (a Scotsman who took up Spanish citizenship), and the Welshman John Evans. They would have distributed Charles III medals, of course.7

Related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, one of the few surviving Al Mérito medals is in the Missouri Historical Society collections. That medal was owned by Charles Dehault Delassus, the Spanish governor who, with Meriwether Lewis as chief official witness, transferred the upper Louisiana to the United States on 9 March 1804 at St. Louis.8 9

Fourth, the United States

Given that existing loyalties between American Indian and European nations included treaties, peace medals, gorgets, and commissions, it is only natural that the newest country—the United States of America, especially in its newly acquired Louisiana Territory—needed to replace the earlier—and now foreign—diplomatic gifts with their own. As discussed in the following pages, the young United States, represented by Captains Lewis and Clark, did indeed actively pursue this goal.


—This page made possible with generous assistance from Bob Moore, historian,
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; Bonnie Bowler, and Barry D. Tayman.

These pages funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. Barry D. Tayman, et al., "Tomás Prieto's Al Mérito Spanish Indian Peace Medals" in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum), 19.
  • 2. John W. Adams, "The Indian Peace Medals of Louis XV" in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum), 33–35.
  • 3. F. Kent Reilly III, "Displaying the Source of the Sacred, Shell Gorgets, Peace Medals, and the Accessing of Supernatural Powers," in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum, 17).
  • 4. Duane H. King, "British Medals Depicted in Cherokee Portraits of 1762," in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum), 48.
  • 5. Adams, The Virginia Happy While United Medal, American Journal of Numismatics, (3/4 1992 http://www.jstor.org/stable/43580426 accessed on 13 February 2017), 123.
  • 6. Joseph Kinard, ed., Spain in the Mississippi Valley, 1765-1794. Annual Report of the American Historical Association (Washington, D.C., 1945), I, 229-230. Cited in Prucha, Indian Peace Medals, p. 13.
  • 7. Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 11-16.
  • 8. Tayman, 28.
  • 9. See also Discovery Path Louisiana Purchase, Territory Timeline.