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James Buchanan peace medal, 2nd size / United States


A James Buchanan silver medal. Front has a bust of the president with the words, “James Buchanan, President of the United States. 1857.” The back features two Native American men fighting around a smaller picture of a farming scene.

Salathiel Ellis and Joseph Wilson designed the earlier Millard Fillmore and Franklin Piece medals and won the contract to create the Buchanan medal. They designed a totally new and rather peculiar reverse for the medal; very different from the traditional “peace and friendship” imagery. A plowing scene similar to that of the much earlier Washington Seasons medals is surrounded by the image of one Indian grasping the hair of a rival, presumable to scalp him. A pipe, usually used to represent peace, is covered over by a bow and balanced for design by a quiver of arrows.
For a medal that supposedly encourages and rewards peaceful intentions, the symbolism of this medal seems out of step.

Restrikes in bronze of this medal have a totally different scene on the reverse. In this image an American seems to be instructing an Indian on the meaning of the flag.

Silver peace medals were given to influential Native Americans as a symbol of friendship and allegiance with the United States government or foreign power. 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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James Buchanan peace medal, 2nd size
United States
circa 1857
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
6526.47; 65.47
Not On View

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