Revolutionary Honors: Medals Mark Struggle for American Independence

This 1766 Pitt half-penny graded Mint State 63 Brown realized $11,750 when offered in a Nov. 29, 2012, Heritage auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

The largely unremembered war began with the George Washington’s surrender and ended essentially with the accession of George III to the British throne.

The French and Indian War, the mid-18th century struggle that was all but overshadowed by the American Revolution, was a topsy-turvy fight that left a significant mark on American numismatics.

Washington first came to prominence in the conflict. The future president was all of 22 in 1754, when French troops repelled his march on Fort Duquesne at what is now Pittsburgh and surrounded his hastily built stockade, Fort Necessity.

Washington surrendered July 4, a date that ironically would take on great significance two decades later. While France and England did not formally declare war until 1756, most historians count the Virginian’s military misadventure as the first battle.

Neither side struck commemorative coins or medals to mark the battle of Fort Necessity, but between 1756 and 1760 another towering figure of the upcoming American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin—then in partnership with David Hall—printed paper money for Pennsylvania to support Colonial military expeditions.

One of the expeditions, led by Col. John Armstrong against the Indian village of Kittanning, was the subject of one of the first medals struck in Pennsylvania.

Nearly 40 years before the U.S. Mint was established, Philadelphia watchmaker Edward Duffield was commissioned by the city to strike a medal honoring the officers who led the Sept. 8, 1756, attack on the village. Pennsylvania targeted the village as the headquarters for scalping parties that were plaguing settlers in the western part of the state.

The medal shows the village burning and a soldier shooting an Indian. Armstrong’s men killed 30 to 40 Indians and freed 11 British captives.

The Philadelphia Mint came into possession of the medal’s dies about 1800 and offered restrikes to collectors for the better part of the next two centuries. The Mint unfortunately pared most historic medals, including the Kittanning piece, from its catalog in the mid-1980s.

Several other Colonies also issued paper money to raise funds to prosecute the war. These pieces tend to be on the scarce side. Catalog plates often depict torn and ragged pieces and some issues are unknown to collectors in any grade.

So little information exists about Virginia’s issues of 1755 and 1756 that no one even knows what denominations were printed.

In 1758 and 1759, the British under the leadership of William Pitt waged formidable war that saw them oust the French from fortress Louisbourg, sweep them from Quebec’s Plains of Abraham and force them to retreat from Fort Duquesne.

Medals were issued by both the English and French to mark several battles. C. Wyllys Betts cataloged them in his classic 1894 book, “American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals.”

The reverse shows the word “AMERICA” looming just ahead of the ship’s bow. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

The pivotal 1758 siege of Louisburg, Nova Scotia, was marked with numerous gold, silver and pot metal pieces showing Adm. Edward Boscawen on the obverse and the battle on the reverse.

The defeat spelled the end of French rule in what is now Canada and set the stage for the shameful removal of the Acadians (Cajuns) from Nova Scotia to New Orleans.

William Pitt, who orchestrated the attack as prime minister of England, appears on a scarce 1766 token that was struck to honor Pitt for his efforts to repeal the Stamp Act.

The British Parliament imposed the tax on American Colonies to pay for the French and Indian War. Under the unpopular act, Colonists were required to pay a tax on every piece of printed paper they used, including ship’s papers, legal documents and newspapers.

Following protests in America, Pitt, backed by British manufacturing and merchant interests, took up the Colonists’ cause.

Scholars are divided on whether the Pitt token was struck in England or America.

The half-penny piece shows Pitt on the obverse and a ship bound for America on the reverse. The word “AMERICA” looms just ahead of the ship’s bow.

Colonial agitation against the Stamp Act was a step toward the July 4, 1776, Declaration of Independence. George Washington, fighting against instead of for the British, won this time.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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