Peace Medal Wars

King George III Medal

George III medal

Courtesy Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

The George III medal features an 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?1 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.

Early Warnings

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."2 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.

War of 1812

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.

Clark's 1829 Policy

In 1829, while Clark was Indian Agent for Upper Louisiana, he and Lewis Cass, Governor of the Territory of Michigan, together recommended a policy for the distribution of medals and flags, to reaffirm traditional practice and avoid misuse by new government agents.

  1. They will be given to influential persons only.
  2. The largest medals will be given to the principal village chiefs, those of the second size will be given to the principal war chiefs, and those of the third size will be given to the less distinguished chiefs and warriors.
  3. They will be presented with the proper formalities, and with an appropriate speech, so as to produce a proper impression upon the Indians.
  4. It is not intended that chiefs should be appointed by any officer of the department, but that they should confer these badges of authority upon such as selected or recognized by the tribe, and as are worthy of them, in the manner heretofore practiced.
  5. Whenever a foreign medal is worn, it will be replaced by an American medal, if the Agent should consider the person entitled to a medal.3

Obviously, Clark had learned some lessons from his experience of twenty-five years before.

References

Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971).

Paul Russell Cutright, "Lewis and Clark Indian Peace Medals," Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, XXIV (January, 1968), 160-67.

Robert B. Pickering, ed. Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum, 2011).

An interesting history of the people Clark called a "Great Nation who the French has given the nickname of Sciouex," is Royal B. Hassrick's The Sioux: Life and Customs of a Warrior Society (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), 1964. That nickname represents the sound of the last syllable of their nation's name for themselves.

—This page made possible with generous assistance from Bob Moore, historian, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

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

  • 1. 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."
  • 2. May 10, 1806, at "Camp Chopunnish," also known as "Long Camp," near a Nez Perce village on the Clearwater River.
  • 3. Report of Cass and Clark, February 10, 1829, Senate Document No. 72, 20 Congress, 2 session, serial 181, pp. 77-78. Quoted in Prucha, Indian Peace Medals, xiii.