HomeUS CoinsThanksgiving Motifs on Classic Commemorative Coins

Thanksgiving Motifs on Classic Commemorative Coins

The 1921 Missouri half dollar draws from the classic American Thanksgiving motif of settler and native cooperation. Image: CoinWeek / Stack's Bowers.
The 1921 Missouri half dollar draws from the classic American motif of settler and native cooperation. Image: CoinWeek / Stack’s Bowers.

By Dan DuncanRetired, Pinnacle Rarities ……

The Thanksgiving celebration cues up the holiday season and begins the winding down of another year. The concept of a Thanksgiving predates the English colonies in America, but the ideas and themes we attribute to the celebration are rooted in several of our early settlements. Our version of the holiday dates back to the 17th century and can be traced back to two celebrations: one from 1619 in Charles City, Virginia, and one from 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Three hundred years ago the celebration was a religious one that featured praise to God, some fasting, and an appreciation for the year’s harvest and the bounty produced.

As a society, we’ve moved away from being mainly agricultural, and our nation has moved along those lines. Modern festivities generally feature a feast with a gathering of family and friends.

Thanksgiving is not uniquely American, and similar holidays are observed in a number of other countries; Canada, for example, celebrates Thanksgiving on the second Monday in October. But our version became a national holiday with a fixed date declared by Congress in 1941. Today, the popularized story is one where the Pilgrims (or Puritans) came together with the local Native Americans. This exchange is a glamorized account of a real event, of which there are several accounts and records. One is that it stems from the Wampanoag making an offer to the settlers in exchange for defense from their rivals the Narragansett. The settlers pledged their aid and accepted food and supplies. The two groups then celebrated the collaboration with a feast. Another comes from the Narragansett’s aid given to Roger Williams after his forced departure from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and in defense from attack that their settlements came under during King Phillip’s War (1675-1678). The series of battles and the results of encounters speak in contrast to this peaceful exchange.

The true lines of historical events are extremely blurred here. And the story of the first Thanksgiving feast is an obviously romanticized version of certain factual events. The relationship between the European settlers and the Native Americans was not a pretty one, yet it wasn’t all oppression and disease.

So on a lighter note, as we settle in to give thanks for our blessings, here are a few classic commemoratives that portray the colorful relationships in a pleasing light. The following coins depict motifs that are “Thanksgiving-centric” and show early meetings of the settlers and frontiersmen with the Native Americans.

The 1920 and 1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary Half Dollar

1920 and 1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary Commemorative Silver Half Dollars - Thanksgiving-themed coins

The Pilgrim displayed on the obverse of this early classic commemorative half dollar is the quintessential Thanksgiving motif. This coin commemorates the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock and coincides with one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in 1620 in Plymouth, MA.

The 1936 Rhode Island Commemorative Half Dollar

The obverse depicts an image of a Pilgrim (namely Roger Williams) arriving in the New England colonies being greeted by a native. The Williams Landing is portrayed in various artworks and accounts. The tribe that received Roger Williams was the Narragansett. This is the tribe from which verbal history says settlers swore to protect the Wampanoag. The Narragansett eventually helped Williams after his banishment from the colony. The images pictured on this coin are arguably the most “Thanksgiving-like”.

The 1921 Missouri Centennial Commemorative Half Dollar

The reverse features a frontiersman (presumably Daniel Boone) and native chief holding a peace pipe gazing westward. Designed by Robert Aitken and chosen from various sketches, the reverse portrays a fictitious event that was more than a century after the original Thanksgiving celebrations. It illustrates the ongoing relationship between the Indians and the early English settlers.

The 1935-1939 Arkansas Centennial Half Dollar

There are several examples of Native Americans on coinage from the mid-1930s. The Arkansas Centennial half dollar portrays both an Indian chief and Lady Liberty. The narrative behind this and other depictions of the relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers is a debate for another place. For our purposes here, the coin shows both a Quapaw chief and an allegorical Liberty side by side in unity.

The 1934-1939 Daniel Boone Bicentennial Half Dollar

1937 Daniel Boone Commemorative Matte Proof - Thanksgiving themes on U.S. coins

Daniel Boone is the epitome of a frontiersman. Captured a couple of times by the Indians, Boone was known as a fierce enemy to the warring tribes he faced. Most famously was the Battle of Blue Licks where Boone’s Kentucky militia fought both native and British forces in 1782. However, the coin shows Boone in peaceful conversation with Blackfish, the chief of the Chillicothe of the Shawnee tribes. While again not truly an early Thanksgiving scene, the coin portrays the relationship as friendly and peaceful.

Other classic commemoratives show frontiersmen or Native Americans in various forms, of course, but I’ll save those for a later date. Many of these coins don’t purposely tackle the Thanksgiving theme, but the concept of cooperative work between the Indians and the early settlers is documented, and the folklore that developed is portrayed in various works of 20th-century numismatics.

* * *

Pinnacle Rarities
Pinnacle Rarities
Kathleen Duncan co-founded Pinnacle Rarities in 1992. Based in Olympia, Washington, Pinnacle sought to provide continuing professional service to a clientele composed of collectors, investors and dealers from all 50states and several foreign countries. They tried to specialize in handling the rarest, most desirable coins the industry has to offer. Pinnacle closed in 2022.

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

PCGS Set Registry

L and C COIN Shop Now

NGCX Holders and Grading