Thanksgiving Motifs on Classic Commemoratives

By Dan DuncanPinnacle 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.

1920 and 1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary – The Pilgrim displayed on the obverse of this early classic commem 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.

1936 Rhode Island – 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”.

1921 Missouri Centennial – 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.

1935-1939 Arkansas Centennial –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.

1934-1939 Daniel Boone Bicentennial – 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.

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