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George Washington engraved peace medal / United States

Essay/Description

When George Washington became President, the technology to produce large, solid silver medals did not exist in the United States. However, there were many fine silversmiths who could make medals by hand.

It isn’t known who suggested the creation of large oval, hand-engraved medals or who designed them. At least three different silversmiths actually created the medals as three different hallmarks are known. One hallmark reads as “JR” or “IR” and is attributed to Joseph Richardson, Jr. of Philadelphia. A second hallmark, “JL” is either silversmith Joseph Loring of Boston or John Lynch of Baltimore. A third hallmark was identified in 2011 on a 1792 medal at the Woolaroc Museum in Bartlesville, OK. It is marked “JW” which is attributed to silversmith Joseph Wyatt of Philadelphia.

The front features a portrait of the President offering a pipe to a Native American. The inscription reads, “George Washington President 1792.” The back has a eagle holding a ribbon with the words, “E Pluribus Unum.”

Silver peace medals were given to influential Native Americans as a symbol of friendship and allegiance with the United States government. Medals were given on important occasions, like the signing of a treaty, and then only to very influential members of the tribe. The medals held even greater importance than normal during times of war or tension, particularly between the US and Great Britain. The countries would compete for the loyalty and friendship of the tribes, and a chief trading in British medal for a US one signified a change in loyalty (Prucha 2000, xiv). Gradually, the medals original meaning diminished, and they were given as rewards for good behavior. The practice was discontinued in the late 1800s.

Native Americans placed great significance on the peace medals and viewed them not only as a sign of friendship, but of power. A suggested reason for this is the connection they saw between these medals and the shell gorgets worn and decorated to represent power. The gorgets, which typically only chiefs and the elite would wear, held a supernatural power source. Images on a gorget gave the wearer the power of what the image represented. Similarly, to the Native Americans, the image displayed on the medal, the head of the president or king, gave the wearer the leader’s power (Reilly III 2011).

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Title(s): 
George Washington engraved peace medal
Culture: 
United States
Date: 
circa 1792
Period: 
Historic
Materials/Techniques: 
silver
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
65.21
Department: 
Not On View

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