The Pilgrim Half Dollar

The Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar or Pilgrim half dollar was a commemorative fifty-cent coin struck by the United States Bureau of the Mint in 1920 and 1921 to mark the 300th anniversary (tercentenary) of the arrival of the Pilgrims in North America. It was designed by Cyrus E. Dallin.

Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Walsh was involved in joint federal and state efforts to mark the anniversary. He saw a reference to a proposed Maine Centennial half dollar and realized that a coin could be issued for the Pilgrim anniversary in support of the observances at Plymouth, Massachusetts. The bill moved quickly through the legislative process and became the Act of May 12, 1920 with the signature of President Woodrow Wilson.


Portrait of Dallin

The Pilgrim Tercentenary Commission made sketches for a design, which were converted to three-dimensional plaster models by Cyrus E. Dallin, a Boston sculptor known for his portrayals of Native Americans, who had also created works related to the Pilgrims. As the legislation was not approved until May 12, 1920, and the commission hoped to have the coins available for sale as early as possible, Dallin was urged to hurry with his work.

Dallin finished his models in August 1920 and the commission referred the designs to sculptor member James Earle Fraser. On examining Dallin’s work, Fraser deemed the lettering crude, but in an undated letter to Moore (probably late August) regretted that due to the tight timeline for production, there was no opportunity to make changes. He suggested that the Mint be urged to allow three months in future for CFA consideration. After the commission met on September 3, a letter to that effect was sent to the Director of the United States Mint, Raymond T. Baker. The letter was ignored, and the Treasury approved the designs.

Pilgrim_tercentenary_half_dollar_commemorative_obverseThe obverse of the coin features William Bradford. He wears a hat and carries a Bible under his arm. Bradford, noted for piety, was intended to be seen in a moment of meditation. Dallin’s plaster models had the words “HOLY BIBLE” on the volume; these, together with Dallin’s initials “CED”, were removed.Instead, the initial D was placed under Bradford’s elbow, likely impressed upon the hub as an afterthought by a punch normally used to create the mint mark D for the Denver Mint. Numismatists Anthony Swiatek and Walter Breen deemed Bradford’s broad collar near enough to Puritan wear of the day to pass, though they questioned the authenticity of the ruffled cravat. Bradford’s portrait is in any case an invention; no genuine likeness of him is known. The Pilgrim_tercentenary_half_dollar_commemorative_reversecrudeness of the lettering complained of by Fraser is not apparent due to the relatively small size of the coins.

The reverse depicts the Mayflower under full sail. Numismatic writers have focused much attention on the fact that the ship bears a triangular flying jib, a type of sail not used at the time of the Mayflower voyage.

Art historian Cornelius Vermeule, in his volume on U. S. coins and medals, deemed the Pilgrim half dollar “a masterpiece in the conservative tradition”. He suggested that Dallin’s portrait of Bradford was influenced by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his sculpture, The Puritan. Vermeule deemed the ship on the reverse a great advance on George T. Morgan’s 1892 depiction of the Santa María on the Columbian half dollar, and felt that Dallin’s vessel presaged the ships (at least five) on commemorative coins of the 1930s. “Seen from the stern on the waves, the Pilgrims’ ship is impressive.”
The Philadelphia Mint coined 200,112 half dollars in October 1920, with the excess above the round number reserved for inspection and testing at the 1921 meeting of the annual Assay Commission. They were shipped to the National Shawmut Bank of Boston which sold the coins for $1 each to the public, with the profits to go to the tercentenary commission. The coins could be ordered through any bank in Boston or Plymouth. Swiatek believed the sale of 1920-dated coins to have been very successful, and there was no thought at that time of returning any to the Mint for redemption and melting. The recession of 1921 began soon after; sales dropped, and tens of thousands of coins remained unsold. The tercentenary commission returned 48,000 of the 1920 issue and 80,000 of the 1921 to the Mint.

The Pilgrim half dollars have appreciated in price over the years, with the rarer 1921 leading the way, of which only 20,000 are extant. At the peak of the first commemorative coin boom in 1936, the 1920 sold for $1.75 and the 1921 for $8; at the peak of the second boom in 1980 the 1920 sold for $275 and the 1921 for $800. The deluxe edition of R. S. Yeoman’s A Guide Book of United States Coins (2015) lists the 1920 at between $85 and $650 and the 1921 at between $170 and $850, each depending on condition. An exceptional specimen of the 1920 sold at auction in 2014 for $7,344.

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