US Coins

U.S. coins capturing history: Christopher Columbus's arrival

Editor's note: The following is the first in a series of posts on the historical record that can be tracked through U.S. coins. The subject is the cover story of our July monthly issue.

To read other stories in the series, click here.

Coins not only serve as a medium of exchange, but as a record of a nation’s growth, and American coinage, when viewed in the proper context, can tell a fascinating story of the moments, milestones and turning points that help define this nation.

In this sense, coins can serve as a lens to focus on American history

Collectors by their nature often focus on building series, filling in holes, and chasing down key dates, to notch a victory on the belt. But, at their best, coins can serve as a public centerpiece of a museum exhibit about American history. A collector can create a private “exhibit” for personal enjoyment, recording the history of the United States of America. 

In 1492, Columbus ...

The story of America began long before Christopher Columbus set sail on the ocean blue in 1492. 

Leif Ericson is credited with traveling to North America some 500 years before the Italian explorer, an event celebrated on a 2000 silver dollar from the U.S. Mint.

Though Ericson’s voyage was long thought to be legend, recent archaeological evidence seems to confirm the story of his travels to the North American coast, predating Columbus (others’ visits by land, through the Bering Strait land bridge, though even earlier, seem not to have involved the risk of sailing the seas). 

The Leif Ericson Millennium silver dollar was part of a joint program between Iceland and the United States, the last time a foreign coin was struck at a U.S. Mint.

The American silver dollar showcases the explorer on the obverse and a typical Viking ship on the reverse. 

A surcharge that was added to the price of the coin helped fund exchange program trips for students in both countries.

In 1492, Columbus, of course, famously led the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria on a journey from Spain to the Caribbean, claiming the new world for Spain. In recent years his legacy has been modified to reflect the fact that he murdered thousands of natives, both directly and through disease. 

In 1892, however, he was still celebrated and became a subject of the first American commemorative coin program. The program made history in three ways — the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar was the first U.S. coin to depict a real person, Columbus, and was the first to depict a foreign-born person; and the 1893 Queen Isabella quarter dollar, struck for the same expo, was the first U.S. coin to depict a woman that was not a personification of Liberty.

The half dollar can’t be said to show Columbus accurately, since no true portrait of the man from life is known. 

A caravel representing the Santa Maria appears on the reverse of the half dollar. 

The program raised funds for the wildly successful Columbian Exposition, but many of the 1892 coins entered circulation, meaning those are often found with wear from use, but they are the most affordable.

One hundred years later, the U.S. Mint commemorated the 500th anniversary of the 1492 voyages with a three-coin program. 

This program gives collectors one of the most curious designs in all of coin collecting, the hybrid space shuttle/sailing vessel on the reverse of the silver dollar. David T. Alexander, in the second edition of Cornelius Vermeule’s Numismatic Art in America, called the design “a jarring juxtaposition.” 

The obverse of the half dollar in the program places the explorer, again, at center stage, with the Santa Maria in the background. All three ships fill the reverse.

Columbus gazes across the obverse of the gold $5 coin seemingly looking at a map recording the partial coastline of North, Central and South America. 

The anniversary was a humongous milestone, and numerous coins celebrated it around the world, but the American program suffered from collector disinterest.

According to Anthony Swiatek, in his Commemorative Coins of the United States, the Columbus coins “should have been a monster,” but too many commemorative U.S. coins and “a wave of politically correct thinking” affected sales negatively.

Though Columbus’ legacy is tarnished, his impact on American history cannot be denied. 

Any of the aforementioned coins would be a valid entry in an album of American history. 

Visit later for more posts in this series.

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