Commemorating Buchanan

Commemorative Medals

Portrait of James Buchanan. Seated, dressed in black with white shirt. Holding document in hand.
Portrait of President James Buchanan by William McMaster, 1856. LancasterHistory.

Three-inch bronze medals produced to commemorate important events, people, or places have been produced by the U.S. Mint as well as various private coin dealers and firms since the early nineteenth century. The 1850s ushered in an age of increased interest in collecting commemorative medals as mass production techniques allowed these items to be efficiently “struck” and sold at reasonable prices. Although many of these medals were first produced in gold and silver, many more bronze examples were also struck at or near the same time. Early “restrikes” began to appear in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These restrikes have a different look and composition from the originals. Original medals were composed entirely of copper with a bronzed finish. Restrikes were produced in true bronze, composed of 90 percent copper and 10 percent zinc and appeared more yellow in color.

The collections of LancasterHistory contain three Buchanan commemorative medals. The size, weight, and deep bronze color of these medals indicates that they are original strikes most likely produced during Buchanan’s presidency.

Indian Peace Medal

The U.S. Mint first produced this commemorative medal during the presidency of James Buchanan in 1857. Peace medals played a significant role in relations between the United States government and the indigenous populations of North America. Following the British and French practice of distributing silver medals to tribal chiefs, George Washington instituted the policy of presenting peace medals to Native American leaders at treaty signings and other formal ceremonies as a symbol of friendship and respect. The practice continued throughout most of the nineteenth century, ending with the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in 1893.

The front of the medal features the right-facing bust of President James Buchanan and the date of 1857. The name of the engraver Salathiel Ellis (as S. Ellis SC) can be seen under the bust. The reverse of the medal depicts two standing figures facing each other; a settler and a Native American in front of an American flag and a landscape featuring a farm next to the settler and a tree with a tent next to the Native American. A scroll above the flag reads “Labor, Virtue, Honor.” The name of the engraver Joseph Willson (as J. Willson) can be seen just below the landscape.

Dedication to Duty Medal

Although there is no date on this medal, the U.S. Mint first produced this commemorative medal during the presidency of James Buchanan in 1858. This bronze replica of the original gold medal recognized the “kindness and humanity” extended by Dr. Frederick Rose, an assistant surgeon of the British Royal Navy, “to officers and crew of the U.S.S. Susquehanna.” Dr. Rose (1833-1873) oversaw the transfer of eighty-five crewmembers suffering from yellow fever from the ship to the naval hospital at Port Royal when the Susquehanna arrived there in April 1858. Once situated, Rose, with the permission of his commanding officer, volunteered to accompany the Susquehanna on the voyage from Jamaica to New York to care for the sick remaining on board.

The front of the medal features the right-facing bust of President Buchanan. The name of the engraver Paquet can be seen under his bust. The reverse of the medal depicts a standing Asclepius, Greek god of medicine, holding a vessel and shielding several figures. This particular medal came in a handsome book-like red-leather presentation case.

Japanese First Embassy Medal

The U.S. Mint first produced this commemorate medal during the presidency of James Buchanan in 1860. The medal marked the first visit of a Japanese diplomatic mission to a foreign country. The visit was the result of negotiated trade agreements between the two countries beginning with the Treaty of Kanagawa signed in 1854 following Commodore Matthew Perry’s successful visit. In 1858, during the Buchanan administration, the United States and Japan signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, negotiated by Townsend Harris, first U.S. consul to Japan. The visiting Japanese dignitaries met with Buchanan during their visit and were given a variety of medals, including three gold medals, to distribute among their group.

The front of the medal features an image of President Buchanan, facing to the right. Like the Buchanan Indian Peace Medal, the name of the engraver Salathiel Ellis (as S. Ellis SC) can be seen under the bust. The back features a wreath design around the perimeter of the medal and the words “In commemoration of the first embassy from Japan to the Unites States 1860.” It is interesting to note that in this instance, the word “embassy” does not refer to a physical building, but rather to a mission to a foreign government headed by a government representative. The name of the engraver Paquet is located near the bottom of the wreath. This medal came in a handsome book-like blue-leather presentation case.

The Engravers: Salathiel Ellis and Joseph Willson

The partnership of Ellis and Willson began in 1842 and lasted until Willson’s death in 1857. Model makers and sculptors operating out of New York City, the pair collaborated on many commissions for the U.S. Mint, including four presidential and two military medals. The design created by Willson appeared on the peace medals of Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln. Ellis composed the design for the front of each of these medals.

The Engravers: Anthony C. Paquet

Paquet worked as an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint from 1857 to 1864. He created and signed many of the dies (patterns used to produce coins and medals) employed by the Mint during this period; including dies for the Congressional Medal of Honor, first awarded during the Civil War. The son of a bronze smith, Paquet was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1814 and immigrated to the United States in 1848. He operated his own engraving business in New York and Philadelphia before coming to the Mint. After leaving the Mint he returned to the private sector, but continued to work on important commissions for the government before his death in 1882. Although Paquet’s name appears on a number of coins and medals he designed while employed at the Philadelphia Mint, some of these dies were also used by private firms making it sometimes difficult to determine when an actual medal was struck.

From Object Lessons