Indian Peace Medals and Monarchical Symbolism in Early US Diplomatic Culture

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Zachary Conn

With the Declaration of Independence, the first leaders of the United States of America called for a clean break from the British monarchy.  Just over a decade later, however, the Federal Constitution restored aspects of the Mother Country’s monarchical political culture. Though subject (after a fashion) to popular election, American presidents were endowed with some of the autonomous authority, and much of the symbolic potency, of Britain’s constitutional monarchs. The presidency’s semi-monarchical character was particularly visible in the early federal government’s dealings with foreign peoples in general, and American Indians in particular. When it came to the policy realm then known as “Indian affairs,” those who sat at the head of federal government were happy to borrow liberally from European precedents. This borrowing extended to the physical objects federal officials used to establish and instantiate relations with the North American continent’s numerous Indigenous polities.

Since the late seventeenth-century, European empires had given medals imprinted with the faces of kings to American Indian leaders. The French commenced this practice in 1693. Appearing on the obverse of France’s first Indian peace medal was Louis XIV, with a scowl on his face and shoulder-length locks streaming down his neck.[1] Beginning around 1714, British officials, too, gave monarchical medals to Indian leaders. One set, issued around 1770, showed the profile of a pony-tailed, chubby-cheeked young man decked out in a military dress uniform: George III, a decade into what would become a sixty-year reign. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh was known to wear a medal depicting an older version of the King when, decades later, he drew upon British support in building his Pan-Indian coalition.[2]

The creation and distribution of these objects drew upon Old World practices millennia in the making. Roman mints, for instance, produced images of emperors’ faces that spread far and wide. However, the actual use of Indian peace medals “on the ground” also reflected Native understandings of political life as built upon kinship, reciprocity, and the pursuit of consensus. Repeatedly Indigenous leaders explained to imperial officials that they wore the faces of kings not as markers of subservience but as affirmations of a mutually beneficial, sovereign-to-sovereign relationship.

The experimental new US federal government began minting its own Indian peace medals at the moment of its inception. By the summer of 1789, just a few months after the federal government became operational, President Washington and, especially, Secretary of War Henry Knox were ready to assert a commanding role for the new presidency in the Republic’s dealings with Indigenous peoples. Essential to these efforts would be Washington himself: the human being who had won fame as a self-sacrificing revolutionary general and the inchoate but obviously significant political office that human being now held. Both the president-as-person and the presidency-as-institution would have to do a lot of work in a diplomatic culture shaped by centuries of relations between Native and European polities.[3]

Washington’s visage would prove seminal in Republic’s efforts to adapt British, Spanish, and French diplomatic forms, symbols, and practices to American ends. “In the administration of the Indians,” Knox wrote:

[E]very proper expedient that can be devised to gain their affections, and attach them to the interest of the Union should be adopted. The British Government had the practice of making the Indians presents of silver medals and Gorget, uniform clothing, and a sort of Military commission. The possessors retained an exclusive property to these articles and the Southern Indians are exceedingly desirous of receiving similar gifts from the United States for which they would willingly resign those received from the British officers. The policy of gratifying them cannot be doubted. [4]

Sure enough, within a few years, the federal government had begun minting silver medals of three different sizes and distributing them to Native leaders. Presidentialism replaced (or appropriated) monarchism in these medals. On the obverse, Washington and an Indian in traditional dress shared the sacred calumet pipe. In the background of this diplomatic encounter, the bearer of the medal could see agricultural scenes: cattle, fields, plows, and a hint of distant mountaintops. The reverse showed the image of the Great Seal of the United States: an eagle holding an olive branch with one set of talons and a clump of arrows with the other.[5] By the early nineteenth-century it had become established routine for new presidential administrations, regardless of who held the White House, to create wearable artifacts documenting the new chief executive’s face and his allegedly peaceful attitudes toward Native Americans.[6]

Medals were diplomatic currency, capable of connecting Native peoples with powers near and far. Writing his memoirs as a man of seventy, Lawrence Taliaferro, the Ambassador (“Indian agent”) to the Dakota people of present-day Minnesota in the 1820s and ‘30s, would point proudly to his earlier success in persuading Native leaders to give up their signs of affiliation with the British. In 1820 and 1821, the retired diplomat remembered, it had been necessary “to secure as fast as possible a delivery up of all these foreign marks . . . . Success attended the efforts of the policy silently adopted, and the agent, in two years, received thirty-six medals of George III.”[7] An Italian traveler who visited Taliaferro’s embassy in the summer of 1822 found it “a great room built of trunks and trees. The flag of the United States waves in the centre, surrounded by English colours, and [British] medals hung to the walls.”[8]

Peace medals entered the historical record at moments when federal officials sought to increase their authority over Native polities. In November 1820, a Dakota community whose members were accused of killing two American settlers sent a large delegation to Lawrence Taliaferro’s embassy. The tribe was willing to offer up two men. But only one, they explained, had actually participated in the killings. The other would-be prisoner was the father of the second killer, “an old chief who came to offer himself a sacrifice in the place of his son.” At the head of the Indians’ procession into the fort “marched a [Dakota] bearing a British flag” to be surrendered along with the prisoners. One Native leader “wore a large British medal” imprinted with the King’s face “suspended to his neck.” It, too, was given up to the Americans.[9]

The monarchical material culture of Indian affairs also entered the picture at moments indicative of the limits of American power. In the summer of 1828, Henry Schoolcraft, the US Ambassador to the Ojibwes of what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, received a polite but frosty official visit from Shingwaukonce, “the leading chief on the British shore” of the narrow waterway dividing the Michigan Territory from the British province of Upper Canada. Shingwaukonce, Schoolcraft complained, had not used his influence “among the Chippewas  on the American shores of the straits” to advocate for the policies the American government preferred. But there was little the ambassador could do. Along with Shingwaukonce’s eminence among his own people, the George III medal the chief wore around his neck facilitated political activity that eluded American control—even when it took place, technically, within American borders.[10]

However republican the United States was as a domestic political project, in Indian Country, American presidents were direct rivals to, and thus analogues of, British kings. Indian peace medals did not just reflect or express the monarchical character of early US policy toward Native Americans. Rather, they gave this character tangible form, serving as a crucial technology of diplomacy. Half a century after 1776, the conduct of the American state on the edges of its jurisdiction continued to bear the imprint of centuries of encounters between Indians and empires.

Zachary Conn is a Ph.D. candidate in Early American History at Yale University. He is working on a dissertation on the connections between settler colonialism and international relations in the Great Lakes Region in the early nineteenth century. You can find him on Twitter at @ZachariasConn.

Title image: Indian Peace Medal, 1792. Obverse. Reverse

Further Readings:

Greg Ablavsky, “The Savage Constitution,” Duke Law Journal (February 2014)

Marcela Echeverri, Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780-1825 (2016)

Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (2015)

Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (2012).


[1] “The Art of the Medal,” American Numismatic Society Website,; “From Token to Ornament: Indian Medals and the McKinney-Hall Portraits,” National Portrait Gallery Exhibition Description, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Website,; Benjamin Weiss, Medallic History of the War of 1812: Catalyst for Destruction of the American Indian Nations (Etten-Lur, Netherlands: Kuntspedia Foundation). Francis Paul Prucha, Indian Peace Medals in American History (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971).

[2] Ibid.

[3] The key documents here are the following letters from Henry Knox to George Washington: May 23, 1789; June 15, 1780; July 6, 1789; July 7, 1789. The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.

[4] Knox to Washington, July 7, 1789.

[5] American Numismatic Society, “The Art of the Medal.”  National Portrait Gallery, “From Token to Ornament: Indian Medals and the McKinney-Hall Portraits.” Benjamin Weiss, Medallic History of the War of 1812.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lawrence Taliaferro, Auto-Biography of Maj. Lawrence Taliaferro, Written in 1864, In Collections of the Minnesota Historical Society. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society, 1890), 236.

[8] Giacomo Constantino Beltrami [Publishing in English as J. C. Beltrami, Esq.], A Pilgrimage in Europe and America, Leading to the Discovery of The Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River; With a Description of the Whole Course of the Former, and of the Ohio (London: Hunt and Clarke, 1828), 101.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Henry Schoolcraft, Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and Co., 1851), 178.

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