From Token to Ornament: Indian Peace Medals and the McKenney-Hall Portraits

June 19, 2015 – June 5, 2016

“Thomas Jefferson” by Robert Scott, Silver, 1801, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Betty A. and Lloyd G. Schermer

National Portrait Gallery
8th and G Streets, NW
Washington, DC

1st Floor, East Floor Plan

Beginning with George Washington’s administration, presidential portrait medals were created to promote peace and friendship between Euro-Americans and Native Americans. Made in multiple sizes at the U.S. Mint from the Jefferson administration until long after the Civil War, peace medals were given to Indian representatives during treaty negotiations or political visits to Washington, D.C. Thomas L. McKenney, superintendent of Indian trade (1816–22) and later superintendent of Indian affairs (1824–30), noted their diplomatic value: “without medals, any plan of operations among the Indians . . . is essentially enfeebled. This comes of the high value which the Indians set upon these tokens of Friendship.” McKenney also commissioned artist Charles Bird King to make paintings of Native leaders when they visited the capital; King frequently depicted his subjects proudly wearing their peace medals as adornments to their formal Native clothing as well as tokens of distinction. His paintings—and copies of them by Henry Inman—were the source for lithographs created for the ambitious three-volume History of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836–44), a publication McKenney launched with James Hall as author. The medals and lithographs shown at the National Portrait Gallery are only one aspect of the complex stories of diplomatic exchange between Euro-Americans and Native Americans.

This exhibition features 21 objects, including photographs, prints, peace medals, and it is curated by Brandon Brame Fortune, the Portrait Gallery’s chief curator and senior curator of painting and sculpture, and Wendy Wick Reaves, senior curator emerita of prints and drawings.