Jefferson Peace Medals

Jefferson Peace Medal

Jefferson peace medal

Courtesy Jefferson National Expansion Memorial

Medals were manufactured in several different ways, but most were stamped or "struck" in a soft metal such as silver, using an engraving or "die" cast or carved from a harder metal. Because of limitations in American technology at the turn of the 19th century, all the Jefferson medals were stamped in sheet silver, and the two parts—front and back (obverse and reverse)—were held together by a silver band. The artisan who created the Jefferson medals was an immigrant German "die sinker" named John Reich, who was employed at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, where the work had to be done during noon hours and at night so as not to interfere with the minting of coins. The average cost per medal was $7.60, a considerable sum for that time. Beginning with the administration of Jefferson's successor, President James Madison, medals were made of solid silver, but 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.

Henry's report from Mandans, 1806

Alexander Henry the Younger, a fur trader with the Northwest Company, visited the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in late July of 1806, a few weeks before Lewis and Clark passed through on their way home, and recorded the Hidatsas' impressions of the Americans' diplomacy.

"In 1804–05, when Captains Lewis and Clark wintered near this place, they presented the people with silver medals and flags, the same as they gave to the Mandanes; but the Big Bellies [Hidatsas] pretended to say that these ornaments conveyed bad medicine to them and their children. They are exceedingly superstitious, and, therefore, supposed they could not better dispose of those articles than by giving them to the natives with whom they frequently warred, in hope the ill-luck would be conveyed to them. They were disgusted at the high-sounding language the American captains bestowed upon themselves and their own nation, wishing to impress the Indians with an idea that they were great warriors, and a powerful people who, if exasperated, could crush all the nations of the earth, etc."1

The Expedition Inventory

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.

Lewis and Clark carried a total of at least eighty-nine peace medals in five different sizes:

  • 3 large Jefferson medals about 105 mm (4.13 in.) in diameter
  • 13 Jefferson medals about 76 mm (2.95 in.) in diameter
  • 16 Jefferson medals about 55 mm (2.17 in.) in diameter
  • 55 "season" medals, 45 mm (1.77 in.) in diameter
  • 2 (or 4?) "medals of the fifth size," of unknown size

Expedition Gifts

All but one were more or less formally presented to Indians they met along the way, mainly to individuals who were apparently tribal leaders. When in doubt, the captains arbitrarily "made" chiefs, a practice that backfired when misjudgment resulted in intratribal jealousy, and once when they gave a medal to the Teton Sioux chief, Torto-hongar (the "Partisan") before they realized he was "a great scoundrel."2 A Cheyenne chief so honored by Clark on August 21, 1806, returned his medal with the explanation that "he was afraid of the midal or any thing that white people gave to them." Clark successfully prevailed, however, informing the reluctant Cheyenne that "this was the medecene which is Great father directed me to deliver to all the great Chiefs who listened to his word and followed his councils."3 Hidatsas were known to have given their medals to their enemies in the expectation that the bad medicine would fall upon them instead (see sidebar).

The first medals were given to Oto and Missouri leaders on August 3, 1804, including "a package with a meadile to accompany a Speech for the Grand Chief" who was absent. The speech possibly was delivered in person, in behalf of the captains, by the Frenchman known only as "Faufong the interpeter," who lived with the Otoes.4 One wonders whether it mightn't have lost something in a translation by a disinterested third party.

Among the last to be given were two that went to Nez Perce leaders. One of them, "a medal of the small kind with the likeness of Mr. Jefferson," went to a leader named Tunnachemootoolt, known to the Americans as "Broken Arm." On the same day, May 10, 1806, "a Chief of great note"–Hohots Ilppilp–of the Nez Perce (Ni-mee-poo) nation, received "one of the sewing [i.e., "season"] medals struck in the presidency of Washington." Lewis explained to them "the desighn and the importance of medals in the estimation of the whites as well as the red men who had been taught their value." It is likely that the captains learned quite a bit during the 31 months since August of 1804 about how to talk to native leaders about allegiances and other, less militant concepts such as civilized democratic government, and agriculture. Unfortunately for us, the captains' record-keeping on this matter was generally haphazard and incomplete, and they provided no comprehensive report to the Secretary of War enumerating the chiefs they had "made."

Ironically, Lewis left a peace medal around the neck of the Piegan Indian whom Reuben Field killed in self defense beside the Two Medicine River in northwest Montana on July 17, 1806, so that the victim's tribesmen would know who was responsible.

All of the Jefferson medals had been given away by the time the Corps returned to the Nez Perces in May of 1806. The captains had reserved a Jefferson medal of the largest size (105 mm) for "some great Chief of the Yellow rock river," but Clark did not encounter any Indians along the Yellowstone, so it was taken back to St. Louis. No one knows what became of it then. At least seven Jefferson medals and two Season medals of the type given away by Lewis and Clark have been found, and are in various museums and private collections throughout the U.S., although several of those are now missing. Also, it is possible that one or more of the Jefferson medals may be restrikes that found their way to Indian hands years after the expedition.


—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. Elliott Coues, ed., New Light on the Early History of the Greater Northwest (1987; reprint, 3 vols., New York: Harper, 1897), I, 349–50. See also Elliott Coues, ed., The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (4 vols., 1893; reprint, 3 vols., New York: Dover, n.d.), III:1191–92n.
  • 2. "Partisan" was a nickname given the fractious Brulé Sioux leader by white traders. Another Sioux chief called him "a Double Spoken man" (Journals, September 28, 1804).
  • 3. On that date Sergeant Patrick Gass recorded: "Captain Clarke gave one of their chiefs a medal, which he gave back with a buffaloe robe, and said he was afraid of white people, and did not like to take anything from them: but after some persuasion he accepted the meadal, and we left them."
  • 4. The variety of spellings in which Clark strove to capture this man's name–Far fonge, Fairfong, Faufong, Faufon, and Fauforn–may have reflected Clark's own confused impressions from one source, but one suspects they really represent his auditory impressions of several other speakers who attempted to help him out. The captains first met him at their Council Bluff camp on 2 August 1804. Evidently he stayed with them for some 200 miles upriver, when they paid him for his services and left him behind on the 20th, a few hours before Private Floyd died. Whatever his name was, he gave them some important geographical information about travel time (25 days) from Council Bluff to Santa Fe. Moulton, Journals, 2:439, 442 note 5.