The Presidential Medals series began as the Peace Medals series, and a medal is created for each president even today. These medals have a long and fascinating history as a symbol of goodwill in America.
The nations that set up colonies in North America had been giving medals to Native American chiefs for many years. By the time George Washington became the first president of the new United States of America, the giving of medals was an important part of peaceful relations between the Indian nations and the colonizing nations.
The chiefs proudly wore those medals as signs of their being leaders and of their friendship with the nations that gave the medals. The medals were given when peace treaties were signed and at other events.
Jefferson’s Peace Medal
When Lewis and Clark went on their voyage of discovery in 1804, Thomas Jefferson was president. The explorers brought Jefferson’s Peace Medal in three different sizes as well as many of the medals made during George Washington’s second term as president. (He used a different design during his first term.)
Making friends with the Native American nations was important for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Not only was it part of their mission as given by the President, but the expedition could hardly hope to make it through the dangerous, uncharted lands they were exploring without help from those who lived there. The Native Americans taught the explorers about plants for food and medicine, drew maps and served as guides, and provided horses and hides for clothing. And peace medals paved the way to this friendship and cooperation.
On the front of Jefferson’s medal, a side view of the president’s head and shoulders is surrounded by his name, his title as President, and the year he became president.
The handshake on the back stands for friendship between the American government and the Indian nations. Above the hands are a crossed pipe and tomahawk. Written among the images is the message “Peace and Friendship.”
Peace Medals were made for every president through Benjamin Harrison (who took office in 1889) except for two. John Adams used the medals that were made during Washington’s second term. Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison, had too short a term to have medals made. He died after being in office for only one month.
After Benjamin Harrison’s presidency, medals were no longer made as gifts for Indian nations, but they were still made for each president. The Peace Medals series became the Presidential Medals series, which continues to this day.