Consider the task ahead of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark as they set off up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804. In addition to incredible dangers and challenges of penetrating an unknown continent, and the mental rigor of conducting scientific research, they were tasked with delicate diplomacy. Dozens of Indian tribes lived along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers; many of the people had never before made contact with a white person. Lewis and Clark were supposed to meet the leaders of these people, make friends with them, and convince them that the Americans were “all that”; unlike, say, the British and Spanish.
Fortunately for Lewis and Clark, there were a few established tricks of the diplomacy trade. The Americans generally exchanged gifts with the tribal leaders. William Clark, who later earned his living as an Indian diplomat, eventually received so many pipes, robes, and other memorabilia that he opened his own museum. In return, Lewis and Clark had gifts for the Indians, including beads, American flags, woven clothing (much preferred over animal skins), and a special token of recognition known as a peace medal.
Peace medals dated back to the days of the British crown, when representatives of the king would hand out large silver medals bearing the king’s likeness in order to cement friendships with tribal leaders. When the Americans won their independence, peace medals had become a well-established tradition, and new editions were created bearing the likeness of George Washington, John Adams, and, by 1804, Thomas Jefferson.
The Jefferson peace medal, made of hollow silver, had a new design which was so simple and striking that it remained the standard for the medals until 1849. On one side was a bust of the president’s likeness. On the other, a pair of clasped hands and the words “Peace and Friendship.” While tinged with bitter irony today, the words and image fit the conception Jefferson had of the Indians he expected Lewis & Clark to meet. With no awareness of the technological revolution in steamboats and railroads that would supercharge westward expansion, Jefferson believed the Indians would be part of the power equation of the west for decades or even centuries to come. They were equals, or at least had to be treated as such.
Lewis and Clark gave out three sizes of Jefferson medals, along with several of an older design, all along the trail. On October 29, 1804, Clark wrote a detailed description of a medal ceremony in which the captains cemented relations with seven chiefs of the villages of the Mandans and Hidatsas:
at 10 oClock the S W. wind rose verry high, we Collected the Chiefs and Commened a Council ounder a Orning and our Sales Stretched around to Keep out as much wind as possible, we delivered a long Speech the Substance of which Similer to what we had Delivered to the nations below. the old Chief of the Grossanters was verry restless before the Speech was half ended observed that he Could not wait long that his Camp was exposed to the hostile Indians, &c. &. he was rebuked by one of the Chiefs for his uneasiness at Such a time as the present, we at the end of the Speech mentioned the Ricare who Accompanied us to make a firm peace, they all Smoked with him (I gave this Cheaf a Dollar of the American Coin as a Meadel with which he was much pleased)
In Councel we prosented him with a Certificate of his Sincrrity and good Conduct &c. we also Spoke about the fur which was taken from 2 french men by a Mandan, and informd of our intentions of Sending back the french hands— after the Coun[c]i[l] we gave the presents with much Sere-money, and put the Meadels on the Cheifs we intended to make viz. one for each Town to whome we gave Coats hats & flags, one Grand Cheif to each nation to whome we gave meadels with the presidents likeness in Councel we requested them to give us an answer tomorrow or as Soon as possible to Some points which required their Deliberation— after the Council was over we Shot the Air gun which appeared to assonish the nativs much, the greater part them retired Soon after—
With one exception, Lewis and Clark exemplified the message of “Peace and Friendship” when they handed out the medals. Unfortunately, one medal was distributed as a raised middle finger to the Blackfeet Indians. In July 1806, Lewis and a small party of men got into a gunfight with a group of Blackfeet youths. Before they made a run for it, Lewis hung a Jefferson peace medal about the neck of a dead Blackfeet warrior, noting in his journal that he wanted the Indians to “know who we were.”
The government continued to strike and hand out peace medals through the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in the 1890s. A wonderful display of peace medals can be seen at the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.
More reading: “A Jefferson Peace Medal” – great article about the 89 peace medals distributed by Lewis & Clark