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The Long Journey to the Creation of the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar

2021-10-18 18:02:00
The Long Journey to the Creation of the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar
Posted in: News, News

The Long Journey to the Creation of the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar

This month marks the 95th anniversary of the inception of the Oregon Trail commemorative Half Dollar, the longest-running commemorative coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint, and one of the most widely collected coins from its period. 

During the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children made the arduous journey across the country to find a new home in the far West of the United States. With their only mode of transportation being a covered wagon pulled by a pair of oxen, Americans departed on a voyage that stretched over 2,000 miles long. On a journey that could last over a year, they risked facing disease, starvation, the harsh elements, and hostile wildlife. Still, they persevered, dreaming of a better life on the Pacific Coast. 

Years later, numerous groups and activists in states like Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, which had seen most of their growth and development come about thanks to the Trail, wished to celebrate their predecessors in America’s coinage. Ezra Meeker, one of the original pioneers who had traveled from Indianapolis to Portland in 1852, followed the entire Oregon Trail back to Washington D.C. in 1908 to raise awareness for efforts to preserve the Trail. First by wagon, then by automobile, and later airplane, Meeker repeatedly retraced the steps he had originally taken in 1852 as part of his effort to preserve the history of the Trail. 

Congress, however, was reluctant to authorize another commemorative coin, and several government officials felt that the Oregon Trail was not of national interest. After the Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon protested that the Oregon Trail did not warrant commemorating, Meeker personally testified before the Senate committee at the age of 95 to espouse its importance to American history. On May 17, 1926, the bill for the Oregon Trail Half Dollar was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge, with Meeker present to shake his hand. 

With the coin authorized, the next step was to find the right design. Fortunately, the husband-wife team of James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser were more than up for the task. Splitting the two halves of the work between them, James took the reverse and crafted a depiction of a covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen, identical to the kind that thousands of settlers trusted to see them safely along the Trail, with a setting sun to guide them. Meanwhile, Laura sculpted the obverse and created an image of a Native American chieftain standing upright, holding a staff in one hand while holding his free hand out, as if to warn settlers of the dangers of the Trail. The Frasers’ design has been widely praised, with numismatic historian Don Taxay saying it is “the most beautiful as well as the most truly ‘American’ U.S. coin.” 

Once the design was approved by the Mint, production began in September 1926, with the first pieces released to the public the next month. The first 48,000 examples were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, with another 100,000 struck at the San Francisco Mint, making the Oregon Trail half dollar the first commemorative coin to be struck at multiple mints. After its first issue in 1926, the coin was struck again in 1928, 1933, 1934, and finally from 1936 to 1939. A total of 264,419 half dollars were struck, with about 61,000 melted down. All told, 202,928 were released to the public over the course of eleven years, making the Oregon Trail memorial half dollar the longest-running commemorative coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint. Due to the beauty of its design, their rarity, and the history attached to the Oregon Trail, the series remains highly popular among collectors seeking to own a truly American piece.