Spanish Peace Medals

Spanish Peace Medal1

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

Courtesy of Stack's Bowers Galleries,

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 sparingly, 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.2

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.3


In 1793, when he was Secretary of State under President Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the American commissioners to Spain in Madrid:

Giving medals and marks of distinction to the Indian chiefs . . . has been an ancient custom from time immemorial. The medals are 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. The British government, while it prevailed here, practiced the giving medals, gorgets, and bracelets to the savages, invariable. We have continued it, and we did imagine, without pretending to know, that Spain also did it.4

On August 17, 1805, among Sacagawea's people, the Shoshone Indians, Meriwether Lewis recorded giving two type of medals—The Jefferson Peace Medal and Washington Season Medals:

We next inquired who were chiefs among them. Cameahwait pointed out two others whom he said were Chiefs. We gave him a medal of the small size with the likeness of Mr. Jefferson, the President of the U' States, in relief on one side and clasped hands with a pipe and tomahawk on the other. To the other Chiefs we gave each a small medal . . . which were struck in the Presidency of George Washington, Esqr. We also gave small medals of the last description to two young men whom the 1st Chief informed us were good young men and much respected among them.

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

  • 1. Robert B. Pickering, Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum, 2011).
  • 2. 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.
  • 3. Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), 11-16.
  • 4. Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael and William Short, the U.S. Commissioners to Spain, June 30, 1793. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892-99), 6:336.