In 1793, when he was Secretary of State under President Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the American commissioners to Spain in Madrid:
Giving medals and marks of distinction to the Indian chiefs . . . has been an ancient custom from time immemorial. The medals are considered as complimentary things, as marks of friendship to those who come to see us, or who do us good offices, conciliatory of their good will towards us, and not designed to produce a contrary disposition towards others. They confer no power, and seem to have taken their origin in the European practice, of giving medals or other marks of friendship to the negotiators of treaties and other diplomatic characters, or visitors of distinction. The British government, while it prevailed here, practiced the giving medals, gorgets, and bracelets to the savages, invariable. We have continued it, and we did imagine, without pretending to know, that Spain also did it.1
On August 17, 1805, among Sacagawea's people, the Shoshone Indians, Meriwether Lewis wrote:
We next inquired who were chiefs among them. Cameahwait pointed out two others whom he said were Chiefs. We gave him a medal of the small size with the likeness of Mr. Jefferson, the President of the U' States, in relief on one side and clasped hands with a pipe and tomahawk on the other. To the other Chiefs we gave each a small medal . . . which were struck in the Presidency of George Washington, Esqr. We also gave small medals of the last description to two young men whom the 1st Chief informed us were good young men and much respected among them.
To learn about the two kinds of medals Lewis and Clark carried, and the two medals they wished to replace, click on the interactive images above.
1. Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael and Willliam Short, the U.S. Commissioners to Spain, June 30, 1793. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892-99), 6:336.
Funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program.