British Peace Medals

King George III Medal

George III medal

Courtesy Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Lewis and Clark often took pains to explain to Indian recipients "the design and the importance of medals in the estimation of the whites as well as the red men who had been taught their value."1 Among the tribes along the lower Missouri River they also advised chiefs "to impress it on the minds of their nations" that medals and flags were not to be accepted from British representatives, "without they wished to incur the displeasure of their Great American Father." They even warned young François Larocque, a clerk for the North West Company who they met during the winter at Fort Mandan, not to give British medals and flags to Indians in U.S. territory, but Larocque said he had no such intention.

During the War of 1812 British authorities in Canada mounted a vigorous campaign, through their licensed traders in upper Louisiana, to restore their own medals to the hands of the Indians, and take away the American models Lewis and Clark, Zebulon Pike and others had so freely given. So effective were the British efforts that American authorities were still trying to restore the right medals to Indian hands twenty years after winning the war.

At issue was the George III medal pictured above, with its august image of the American colonists' nemesis, George William Frederic, of the German house of Hanover, who was king of England, Scotland, Ireland, and the far-flung British Empire, from 1760 until 1814. The obverse (left) of the 76-millimeter disc reads "Georgius III, Dei Gratia"—"George the Third, By the Grace of God."

On the reverse (right) is the elaborate royal coat of arms. One wonders just how, or even whether, the ancient and arcane principles of heraldry managed to clamber over the linguistic and cultural barriers that separated Briton from Indian. Would the power and might of the symbolically-crowned lion, representing the medieval house of Plantaganet, be recognized as a counterpart of the Indians' grizzly bear? What did the Indians think of the unicorn depicted on the right side of the reverse, or the principle of "purity" it was supposed to represent?2 How would the 14th-century origins of the Order of the Garter be explained, or that chivalric admonition, Honi soit qui mal y pense—"Shamed be he who thinks evil of this." And how many different interpretations might a British trader have invented from that abbreviated French motto, Dieu et Mon Droit—"God, and My Right"? Would he have tried to defend the king's "divine right" to rule?

Verily, there was enough content in King George's shiny little gift, chock full of history and symbolism, to fill a whole evening's harangue with stories and explanations. By comparison, the messages inherent in the frankly didactic Jefferson and Season medals certainly must have sounded simpler, if perhaps less wondrous.

1. May 10, 1806, at "Camp Chopunnish," also known as "Long Camp," near a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater River.

2. Many Euro-Americans still expected to find unicorns somewhere in the West. In 1804, William Dunbar, a Scottish scientist who had settled in Natchez, Mississippi, encouraged Thomas Jefferson to send an exploratory expedition up the Red River of the South with promises of "wonderful productions," including unicorns, whose existence had reportedly been observed in today's central Oklahoma early in the eighteenth century. See Dan Flores, Jefferson & Southwestern Exploration (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), pp. 14, 15, 17 n., 19, 277, 277 n. 279. The quixotic General James Wilkinson also passed along to Jefferson the old rumors of unicorns' existence in the Southwest. See Dan Flores, The Grand Excursion, Part X, "Spanish Misgivings."

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