Pilgrim Tercentenary Half Dollar
Commemorative coins were still
something of a novelty in 1920 when Congress authorized the coining of half
dollars to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the
Pilgrims. Only eight commemorative coin programs had gone before. Some of
these included multiple denominations, while a few even offered two different
dates of the same design. These
multi-date offerings usually resulted from bad timing on the part of the
authorizing commissions. The
Pilgrim Tercentenary half dollar of 1920-21, however, was the first issue
coined with more than one date for the sole purpose of achieving repeat sales. It set an alarming precedent for future programs, since this
gimmick would be repeated numerous times, much to the irritation of
This kind of scheming contrasts
sharply with the Pilgrims themselves, who rejected material wealth, along with
ostentatious display and gregarious behavior. It was their rejection of the
Church of England, however, that earned them the title Separatists, as well as
the wrath of Britain's King James I. Forced
to flee to Holland, their price of freedom proved to be limited opportunities
and a growing loss of their English culture in exchange for mere tolerance by
the Dutch. Holland, certainly, was not the refuge they sought.
With backing from a group of English investors hoping to reap profits
in the New World, the Pilgrims sailed westward in the late summer of 1620,
landing on November 11 at a place they named Provincetown Bay, on what would
ultimately be called Cape Cod. With
winter approaching, they quickly settled on a site for their colony,
christening it Plymouth after their departure point from England.
Nearly starving that first year,
only their instruction by natives in the planting of corn enabled the
colonists to carry on. The next
several summers brought new arrivals, and the Plymouth Colony thrived.
Not everyone was a Separatist, however, and those who couldn't stand
the severity of that lifestyle soon formed neighboring communities.
The Pilgrim Separatists ultimately became a minority of the population,
and the Plymouth Colony was absorbed into the greater Colony of Massachusetts
The summer of 1920 witnessed many
celebrations throughout New England marking the 300th anniversary of the
Pilgrims' arrival. Among the
souvenir items planned was a commemorative half dollar, the proceeds from
which would be used to fund some of these events. The bill as originally read
called for the minting of half a million pieces!
Assured that this was a misprint, Congress instead approved a
still-generous mintage of 300,000. The
legislation was not passed until May 12, however: all those concerned would
have to act quickly to get the coins into production.
Boston sculptor Cyrus E. Dallin
was selected by the Tercentenary Commission to prepare models showing a
portrait of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford and the Pilgrim's ship,
the Mayflower, on which they made their historic journey in 1620.
Dallin ran afoul of the Commission of Fine Arts' sculptor member, James
Earle Fraser of Buffalo nickel fame, who found fault with his execution of the
the design for the Pilgrim fifty cent coin is good.
The part that seems to me to need most attention if there is time is
the lettering." Of course,
there wasn't time to correct this, and the Fine Arts Commission's decision to
not render a verdict on Dallin's models prompted the Treasury Department to
simply disregard their comments and proceed with the preparation of dies.
In October of 1920 a total of 200,112 Pilgrim halves were struck at the
Philadelphia Mint, the odd 112 pieces being reserved for assay and later
destroyed. The coins were first
offered for sale at $1 apiece in November. Distribution was handled by the
Shawmut National Bank of Boston and the coins were available at every bank in
Boston and Plymouth. Although
there was no official packaging, two types of boxes were privately produced.
One was gold with a green coin sleeve inside, and was imprinted with
PEOPLE’S SAVINGS BANK, WORCHESTER, MASS.
The other, a white box with a circular coin slot, was imprinted with
SOCIETY OF COLONIAL WARS, IN THE STATE OF RHODE ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE
PLANTATIONS. Both of these are quite valuable today.
The obverse of the Pilgrim
Tercentenary half dollar portrays a left-facing, half-length figure of William
Bradford, the second governor of the Plymouth Colony. He assumed this role in 1621 and was re-elected thirty times!
The image is fanciful, as no actual portrait of him exists.
He holds in his left arm what is most likely the Bible, but what has
also been identified as his own book History of Plimmoth Plantation. Behind
his portrait is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, while the legends UNITED STATES OF
AMERICA and PILGRIM HALF DOLLAR are arranged peripherally, separated by stars. Dallin's incuse initial D appears below Bradford's elbow.
The reverse is dominated by a three-quarters view of the Mayflower
sailing on rough seas. Its
rigging is erroneous, the forward jibsail being of a type not utilized as
early as 1620. The inscription
PILGRIM TERCENTENARY CELEBRATION is arranged peripherally.
Separated from it by stars are the dual dates 1620—1920.
Coming out so late in the year,
much of the enthusiasm which might have greeted these coins during the summer
months had already dissipated. Many
thousands remained unsold as the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts prepared for
additional commemorative activities during 1921. With sales resuming, but at a much slower pace, something was
needed to prompt additional buyers or, better still, repeat buyers.
As only 200,000 coins had been struck from the authorized figure of
300,000, the Tercentenary Commission requested that the remaining balance be
minted with the date 1921. That date was added in small figures to the obverse field,
and the additional 100,000 halves were minted in July of that year.
Although there were some collectors who responded with repeat orders,
the severe economic recession of 1921-22 worked against these coins becoming a
financial bonanza for the Commission. Conceding
that this issue had run its course, they returned to the mint for melting some
48,000 halves dated 1920 and 80,000 of the 1921 striking.
This left net mintages of 152,000 for 1920 and just 20,000 for 1921.
As the 1920 coin was sold
primarily to the general public, it is often encountered with ugly toning or
harshly cleaned. It is readily available in grades up through MS-65 but quite
scarce above that level. Much of the 1921 issue went directly to dealers and
speculators, so in spite of its lower mintage, a larger proportion of
high-grade survivors exists. In grades of MS-64 and higher, a few hundred have
been certified. Wear on Pilgrim
halves appears first on Bradford's cheekbone and the hair above his ear; on
the reverse, check the crow's nest and stern of the Mayflower.
A few of the 1921 Pilgrim halves
will show die-clash marks but this feature is more commonly seen on the 1920
issue, often accompanied by die striations. Two matte proofs are known of the 1920 coinage, one of these
from the estate of Mint engraver John R. Sinnock, while a single 1921 in matte
proof is also rumored to exist.
Diameter: 30.6 millimeters
Weight: 12.5 grams
Composition: .900 silver, .100
Net Weight: .36169 ounce pure