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The Great Ships of American Coinage

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ….

Dedicated to the memory of Chief Petty Officer Virgil Pattin, USN (retired)


Outside of the eagle, Lady Liberty and allegorical Native American motifs, no symbol is used on American coins as prolifically as ships. The story of this country – indeed, the story of the New World – is full of great voyages, larger-than-life personalities, and the mighty ships that made it all possible. The following is a short history of some of the more significant vessels and their corresponding coins.

The Halve Maen (Half Moon) – The Netherlands – 1608-1618

boat_hudson_50cIn late summer 1609, the newly-built Dutch flyboat the Halve Maen entered New York harbor after sailing up and down the mid-Atlantic coast of North America. The ship’s captain was Henry Hudson, an Englishman hired by the Dutch officials of the United East India Company to covertly discover a shortened eastern trade route.

Hudson had attempted to find such a route twice before, and believed he was heading towards Cathay (China) when he arrived at North America’s northeastern shores. Hudson and Halve Maen made it all the way to present-day Albany along the “Hudson” River before deciding his ship could no longer proceed up the shallow waters. So he turned back, finding no route to the Orient.

Amazingly, Halve Maen was in service for only eleven years. The ship was attacked and destroyed during an English attack on Jakarta, Indonesia in 1618. Replicas have been built over the years, including one commissioned by the Netherlands in 1909 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Hudson’s voyage. That ship outlasted the original by fourteen years, before a fire consumed it in 1934. Today, another replica (built in 2005) sails along the Hudson River, owned and operated by a non-profit organization.

Halve Maen appears on the 1935 Hudson Sesquicentennial half dollar, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the city of Hudson, New York. It was designed by Chester Beach from a medal he’d previously designed to mark the 1909 Hudson-Fulton Celebration.

The Kalmar Nyckel (Key of Kalmar) – Sweden – 1625 – Late 17th century

America’s first Scandinavian immigrants have the Kalmar Nyckel to thank for their passage to the New World. The nimble three-masted square-rigger was accompanied by the Fogel Grip on its first transatlantic journey in 1637. The Kingdom of Sweden intended to establish a toe-hold in North America by establishing Nya Sverige (New Sweden). The expeditions to the New World were undertaken at a time of relentless competition between the European powers, as each of them sought to translate sea-fairing might into global domination. Sweden was at the height of its empire when it undertook this historic expedition, with Swedish territory including parts of modern Russia, Poland, Latvia, and northern Germany.

boat_delewareSwedish Admiral Clas Fleming (1592-1644), an aristocrat and able naval commander, organized the expedition and hired the Walloon Peter Minuit (1580-1638) to undertake the journey. If the name Peter Minuit sounds familiar, that’s because he was governor of the New Netherlands colony when they “bought” the island of Manhattan from the natives for a small amount of trade goods. He was finally relieved of his duties by the Dutch West India Company in 1631/32.

Minuit later teamed up with the Swedes to carve a niche out of some as yet uncolonized North American coastline. Where Minuit and the crew of Kalmar Nyckel disembarked is now known as Wilmington, Delaware. The colony was established in the spring of 1638.

Unfortunately, a long and prosperous future did not await Minuit after this accomplishment. While preparing for a return trip from the Caribbean, Minuit was lost at sea while negotiating the purchase of a shipment of tobacco aboard another vessel. A hurricane unexpectedly hit the region. Kalmar Nyckel survived, however, and returned to Sweden without him to continue its service as a transatlantic ship.

None of the sources we read had an exact account of the ship’s demise. She ship made three more trips to the colony between the years 1640-1644. Upon returning to Europe from her fourth trip, Kalmar Nyckel was called into duty as a warship in the later part of the Thirty Years’ War. She was decommissioned in 1651 and sold to a private citizen.

Kalmar Nyckel takes its bow on the Delaware Tercentenary half dollar of 1936. While the coin bears that date, the Mint didn’t receive the models until November, and the coins weren’t actually struck until March of 1937. The Philadelphia Mint produced 25,015 half dollars bearing designs created by the German-borne, New York-based sculptor Carl Ludwig Schmitz (1900-1967)[1]. Schmitz modeled the coin’s obverse – which features the Old Swedes Church (built 1698-1699) – from a photograph, and also used a photograph of a model of Kalmar Nyckel provided by the government of Sweden[2]. His depiction shows her facing westward, the wind propelling the ship towards the New World. Art Deco fonts carry the coin’s inscriptions. The dual date 1638 – 1938 is presented on the coin’s reverse.

The Mayflower – England – c. 1609 – c. 1624

Perhaps no ship in history has captured the American imagination quite like the 110-foot-long Mayflower. The ship carried 102 English pilgrims across the Atlantic and eventually landed at Plymouth, a town located on the shores of Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts. Upon settlement, the Pilgrims had to conquer the elements, survive the outbreak of disease, and manage relations with indigenous tribes. In short, they had to persevere.

boat_pilgramAfter her return to England from the New World, Mayflower captain Christopher Jones resumed his business of moving trade goods up and down the coasts of Europe. Unfortunately, it turned out that the hardships of his transatlantic voyage had taken a toll on Jones’ health, and he died in March 1621/22.[3]

What Mayflower did from that point on remains a mystery. On May 26, 1624, the ship resurfaces in the historical record, as it was appraised for probate. The ship’s “hull, maste, yards, capstan, and parts” were valued at fifty pounds. [There’s a direct quote – cite it!!] Mayflower’s five anchors were said to be worth 25 pounds. Its worn-out sails brought 15. All told, the ship and all its parts, furnishings, and equipment brought little more than 128 pounds.

Sold for scrap. Thus ends the service life of one of the world’s most iconic ships.

The 300th anniversary of Mayflower’s voyage to America was celebrated with the issue of the 1920-1921 Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar. The coin is notable for a couple of reasons, not the least of which are the attractive designs of American master-sculptor Cyrus Dallin (1861-1944). Dallin’s work was admired and respected by another towering giant of American sculpture, August Saint Gaudens.[4]

It’s also significant because it’s the first of two* federal coins to depict the Bible. In this case, the bible depicted is being held by William Bradford, the unanimously elected second governor of Plymouth Colony.

Mayflower is depicted on the reverse from a slight angle, showing the vessel’s port side. Anthony Swiatek notes that the design met with some criticism from nautical purists, who thought it was anachronistic[5]. Putting this aside, Dallin’s interpretation of the ship handsomely fills the canvas and the ocean’s choppy waves give the coin a sense of painterly texture.

The Pilgrim Tercentenary is found in numerous grades with variable amounts of tarnish. Clashed image coins are known to exist, and PCGS attributes a 1920 variety that features a reverse die break (FS-901 in the Cherry Picker’s Guide).[6] The crack on the reverse forms behind the ship’s main mast and grows in size depending on die state.

* Roger Williams is also holding a bible on the obverse of the 1936 Providence Tercentenary commemorative half dollar.

The Santa María – Spain – 1460-1492

It’s astonishing to think that the Santa María, also known as La Santa María de la Inmaculada Concepción was the largest of the three ships that made the transatlantic journey – she was only 62 feet long! The Pinta and the Niña are described by some historians as being a bit ragtag and certainly not up for exploring. Nevertheless, her epoch-making journey began on August 3, 1492.

boat_columbianColumbus’ expeditionary group spotted land a few months later on October 12. Where he first landed is still an open question. Columbus’ journal states that the locals called the island Guanahani; modern historians argue over which island in the Lucayan Archipelago this was. We may never know for sure.

From there, Columbus took Santa María north, exploring the coast of Cuba, before running aground on Christmas, 1492, on the island of Hispaniola (today home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Columbus then commandeered Niña, leaving 39 crew members behind while taking dozens of native prisoners to show to the Spanish court. Only a handful of the natives survived, and the sailors left behind founded the settlement of La Navidad. Columbus won for himself new titles, a lifetime pension, and an immortal if contentious place in the history books.

Santa María – barely the length of a modern luxury yacht – remains one of the most significant of the great ships in American history, even if it only made half the trip.

She appears (accurately depicted or not) on three coins: the World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar (1892-1893), the Columbus dollar (1992), and the Columbus half dollar (also 1992).

The World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar launched the U.S. Commemorative coin program. The reverse features Santa María astride the eastern and western hemispheres. The inscription WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION wraps around the denticled rim, the date 1492 marks the date of the voyage, and the dates 1892 or 1893 mark the year of production for the coin. A 3/2 overdate exists and is a worthwhile coin for specialists, as are a small population of proof and prooflike specimens.

The 1992 half dollar, designed by T. James Ferrell, commemorates the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage. Santa María is on both obverse and reverse, where she shares space with her sister ships.

On the 1992 dollar, John Mercanti’s design shows Santa María, Pinta, and Niña from a distance. The globe motif present on the reverse of the 1892-1893 half dollar returns as Mercanti places it atop a pedestal to the left of Christopher Columbus. Thomas D. Rogers, Sr.’s reverse bridges time by dividing the canvas starkly in half. The left half features a cross section of Santa María in a dead run, sailing toward the viewer. A cross section of the Space Shuttle Discovery orbiting the earth occupies the right half. The globe reappears, this time as seen from space. The “voyage of discovery” continues…

(The space shuttle also appears on the 2004 Florida state quarter. That shuttle is not named, nor is the Spanish galleon that accompanies it).

The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery – England. Discovery: c. 1602 – sometime after 1611; Godspeed: c. 1606 – unknown; Susan Constant: before 1606 – after 1615

The Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery are the most enigmatic ships on our list. Not because of their notable journey or any mystery surrounding the landing at Jamestown, but enigmatic because there’s no hard evidence that pinpoints what happened to them long after that. It’s as if these three British ships disappeared into the mist of history.

boat_jamestownSusan Constant was the largest of the three ships. She carried 105 male colonists to Jamestown. The ship was captained by Christopher Newport (1561-1617), a privateer who earned a living in his pre-expedition days by raiding Spanish ships in the Caribbean. According to legend, he captured and transported back to England two crocodiles for King James I.

The Jamestown trio makes their debut on the reverse of the Virginia state quarter of 2000. The concept was selected out of thousands of ideas submitted to Virginia Governor James Gilmore III. The design was executed by Edgar Z. Steever and honored the quadricentennial of the founding of Jamestown in 1607. To mark the coin’s release, replicas of Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery were on hand as throngs of people gathered in Jamestown on October 16, 2000.

Seven years later there was a return engagement as crowds, dignitaries and the replica ships marked the release of two more commemorative coins celebrating the same event: the 2007 Jamestown dollar and five dollar gold coins.

The Jamestown dollar was designed by Donna Weaver and rendered by Don Everhart. The coin features a trio of figures; central is a likeness of Captain John Smith adapted from Simon de Passe’s 18th century portrait. The other two represent a member of the Powhatan tribe and possibly an African woman. The first Africans did not arrive at Jamestown until 1619, when a Dutch ship brought them to trade as servants for supplies[7]. The coin’s inscription, rendered in incuse lettering, reads FOUNDING JAMESTOWN.

The reverse features the best interpretation of the ships on U.S. coinage. This design was drawn by Susan Gamble and sculpted by Charles Vickers. The ships are to scale and realistically detailed.

On John Mercanti’s gold five dollar obverse, a ship (most likely Susan Constant) is seen in the distance, filling the space between John Smith and a Powhatan Indian.

Washington’s Row Boat – Colonial America – c. 1770s

The last of the great ships we’re discussing here is not great in size or name, but it is rich in allegory and steeped in American mythology. This ship is the boat that George Washington and his men used to cross the icy Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776. The event was famously – albeit inaccurately – commemorated in German painter Emanuel Leutze’s iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), which was later adapted as the design for the 1999 New Jersey state quarter.

The event of Washington’s crossing is significant because it gave the beleaguered Continental Army a much-needed victory when Washington’s men attacked and seized Hessian-controlled Trenton, New Jersey.  Washington’s victory was one of the most lopsided in American history, with his forces losing only four men, as opposed to the approximately 900 Hessians killed, wounded, or captured. When the news spread along the colonies, foreign powers began to take the revolutionary movement seriously. The war was far from over, but strategically, the English knew they had a real fight on their hands and the Americans saw the real possibility that they could turn back the red coats.

As a side note, the New Jersey state quarter turns out to be significant for another reason. When we wrote our piece on African-American representation on U.S. coins, we didn’t know about Leutze’s painting. Specifically, we didn’t know that the third figure rowing at the front of the boat is an African immigrant, possibly meant to resemble a free black seaman from one of the northern states. This makes him the first symbolic figure of an African-American on a circulating U.S. coin. The first real, historic African-American personage to appear on a circulating U.S. coin was York, of Lewis and Clark fame, on the 2003 Missouri state quarter.

So for a generation who grew up collecting the ten-year run of state quarters, the 1999 New Jersey quarter continues the Mint’s long tradition of celebrating great ships, and for those who like to know the story behind the design, the New Jersey quarter is cooler now than ever.

Honorable Mentions

The roster of ships on American coins is a long one, and to do each coin justice would require more space than one article can reasonably provide. So while not every coin in the following list is as significant as the ones mentioned above, each ship is important, whether historically, culturally, or symbolically:

  • 1766 Pitt Tokens
  • 1778-79 Rhode Island Ship Medals – Admiral Howe’s flagship, plus others
  • 1791 Liverpool halfpenny
  • 1793 Getz halfpenny
  • 1794-95 Talbot, Allum & Lee cents – an unnamed sailing ship
  • ca. 1797 Theatre at New York Tokens – unnamed sailing ships
  • 1832–44 Hard Times tokens (including, but not limited to: L44, HT69; L59, HT17; L60, HT18; L65, HT23; and L66, HT24)
  • 1924 Huguenot-Walloon Tercentenary half dollar – the Nieuw Nederland
  • 1925 Norse American Medals – drakkars, or Viking longboats
  • 1935-36 California Pacific International Exposition half dollar – an unnamed clipper
  • 1936 Long Island half dollar – an unnamed Dutch sailing ship (a lot of Dutch ships on American coinage…)
  • 1936 Norfolk half dollar – an unnamed sailing vessel
  • 1936 Providence Tercentenary half dollar – a canoe
  • 1936 San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge half dollar – an unnamed steamship
  • 1937 Roanoke Island 350th Anniversary – vessels involved in the settlement of Roanoke Island, or possibly the original scouting expedition
  • 1981 Mark Twin American Arts Medal – an unnamed steamboat (presumably on the Mississippi River)
  • 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial half dollar – a steamer carrying immigrants into New York harbor
  • 1991 Korean War Memorial dollar – unnamed American warships
  • 1991-95 50th Anniversary of World War II – troop landers and a battleship
  • 1996 XXVI Olympiad, Rowing silver dollar – a rowing shell
  • 2000 Leif Ericson dollar – another Viking drakkar (interesting…)
  • 2001 Rhode Island state quarter – a sailboat
  • 2003 Maine state quarter – an unnamed schooner
  • 2003 Missouri state quarter – a canoe emblematic of the Corps of Engineers western journey (see our coverage of this controversial design here)
  • 2004 Florida state quarter – a Spanish galleon and unnamed space shuttle (though the motto GATEWAY TO DISCOVERY leads one to assume it is the Space Shuttle Discovery)
  • 2004 “Westward Journey” nickel – the keelboat (designed by Meriwether Lewis) used by Lewis and Clark
  • 2005 Minnesota state quarter – a recreational fishing boat
  • 2009 Guam quarter – a local sailing craft known as a flying proa
  • 2009 Northern Mariana Islands quarter – a native canoe (probably another kind of proa)
  • 2011 Vicksburg America the Beautiful quarter – the USS Cairo, an ironclad gunship

And lest we forget, the entire 1915-S Panama-Pacific Commemorative set was struck to honor the completion of the Panama canal, which most definitely has a great deal to do with ships!


Yeoman, R. S. A Guide Book of United States Coins 2013. Ed. Kenneth Bressett. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing, LLC., 2012. Print.



Monetary terms have always held some currency when it comes to business (wretched puns always intended). Once upon a time, American children used to buy penny whistles at the five and dime, or maybe spend the afternoon watching moving pictures at the nickelodeon. Yet over the years, inflation has rendered these terms obsolete. To see a movie today can cost upwards of twenty bucks, the five and dime shops are now dollar stores, and we can’t remember the last time we saw a penny whistle.

This month, the Red Book celebrates the launch of its 67th edition. The 1st edition came out during the last year of Weinman’s Walking Liberty half dollar. Since the book’s launch, the Mint has released two different half dollar series, changed the reverse of the cent six times, launched and discontinued two dollar coin series, and launched two more.

You often hear gold dealers and their cadre of spokespeople talking about Executive Order 6102, President Roosevelt’s 1933 order forbidding the “hoarding” of gold coins and bullion, as some kind of justification for buying collector quality gold coins instead of gold bullion. Of course, these older “numismatic” coins are offered for a premium over their intrinsic worth. We here at the Morgan/ Walker Institute, knowing that there was no prior precedent in U.S. law before EO 6102, wonder how that could possibly form the basis of a legal defense against any future hypothetical seizure.

© 2013 Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker

[1] Taxay, Don. An Illustrated History of American Coinage. ARCO. New York. 1967. Print

[2] Ibid.

[5] Swiatek, Anthony. Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States: History, Art, Investment & Collection of America’s Memorial Coinage. Chicago: KWS Publishers, 2012. Print.

[6] Fivaz, Bill and J. T. Stanton. Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of the United States: Fifth Edition, Volume II. Atlanta: Whitman Publishing Group, 2012. Print. 434.

Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker have been contributing authors on CoinWeek since 2012. They also wrote the monthly "Market Whimsy" column and various feature articles for The Numismatist and the book 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (2020) for Whitman Publishing.

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  1. I have always felt that ships look great on coins. France has its own series of great French ships which has three releases so far. The first one, an old ship, is especially nice.


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