They’re immortalized in paintings and on display in museums around the world: Indian peace medals.
These historical items speak both to America’s ambitious policies of westward expansion and the ever-shifting relationships between the government and the nation’s native peoples.
As senior staff writer Paul Gilkes writes in this month’s feature, the tradition of U.S. Indian peace medals began during the presidency of George Washington.
They were presented as tokens of friendship, accepted as symbols of allegiance and were often regarded by the Native Americans as good luck charms.
The cherished medals feature prominently in contemporary portraits of Native Americans, and the symbols of power and influence were passed down the generations as treasured family heirlooms.
According to an 1829 protocol from William Clark, commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Lewis Cass, governor of Michigan Territory, rules had to be observed in the distribution of these medals.
They could be given to only influential persons. The largest medals would go to principal village chiefs, mid-sized medals would go to principal war chiefs and the smallest medals could go to less distinguished chiefs and warriors. They were to be presented with proper formalities including a speech, “so as to produce a proper impression upon the Indians.” Foreign medals were to be replaced by U.S. medals and officers were forbidden from unilaterally recognizing someone as a “chief”; rather, medals were to go to individuals identified by the tribes as chiefs.
As Thomas L. McKenney, head of the Indian Office, said to Little Prince, a Creek chief in 1827, “Brother — This will show you what you are — and what the great men at Washington think of you. You will consider these things as fastening one of your hands in the hand of your Great Father, and the hand of the Secretary of War.”
To think that these medals exist today as evidence of this tumultuous period in American history is alone exciting. One of the wonders of our hobby is that there is always something new to learn!
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