The 1870 Pilgrim Jubilee Memorial Medal

Posted on 2/12/2019

A carefully crafted medal radiates the legacy of the Pilgrim Fathers.

The Pilgrims were those first settlers of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. They held Puritan Calvinist beliefs, maintaining that they should remain separate from the English state church. They first fled to the Netherlands before taking a leap of faith to establish a new colony in America.

The hardships the colony faced were immense, and by the end of their first winter, over half of the colony had perished, with only 47 remaining. But the colony survived, and it was their Mayflower Compact from which came the first form of representational government established in America. The Mayflower Compact also served as the foundation for the US Constitution. What’s more, it was their devout faith grounded in the Scriptures that laid the foundation for the influence of Christianity in America. Their commitments, courage and exemplary love would inspire generations to come.

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth (1914), as portrayed by artist Jennie Augusta Brownscombe of New York

On December 21, 1870, a celebration by the Pilgrim Society honoring the first landing of the Pilgrims was held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at the Church of First Parish. This celebration marked that iconic moment 250 years earlier, when the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower and began life in the “New World.” The Pilgrim Society was first chartered in 1819, and is responsible for Pilgrim Hall, built in 1824. The hall is America’s oldest continuously operating public museum, and is home to many historic artifacts, including William Bradford’s Bible and Myles Standish’s sword.

Pilgrim Hall preserves the history, records and artifacts of the Pilgrim fathers,
and documents the dramatic story of their landing and perilous first winter.

A medal highlighting the celebration year remains one of the finest examples of workmanship for any commemorative medal ever produced. The medals were struck and distributed to those in attendance of the main celebration that was held at the Church of the First Parish in Plymouth. It was designed and likely engraved by two members of the Pilgrim Society, Joseph E. Ellis and Asa C. Warren. Their names flank the ground on the obverse. The medal was struck by Scovill Manufacturing Co, Waterbury, CT, and pieces were presented to officials and special guests at the celebration.

HK-13: A silvered-copper specimen of the medal. This one is graded NGC MS 63.
Click images to enlarge

This print shows the obverse of the medal.
Courtesy of the Congregational Library and Archives.
Click images to enlarge

The reverse features that which the Pilgrims (or Puritans) were most committed to — an open Bible. A bird — likely an eagle representing America — is above, with its wings spread in flight (some have suggested it might be a dove). Above these are the words “Whose Faith Follow.” The remarkably complex scene on the obverse is a classic depiction of the landing of the Pilgrims, lifting up a prayer of thanks for a safe voyage. For the design, a distinctly biblical number of 12 figures was chosen — six kneeling, and six standing — and are clustered around William Bradford, whose hands are clasped in prayer.

The medals are listed in the So-Called Dollar reference as struck in silver-plated copper (HK-13), copper (HK-14), and brass (HK-15). However, it is likely that no brass examples were made, as tests by NGC have found these to be gilt-copper. These have been designated as HK-15A. A few medals were made in solid silver (HK-13A), and NGC has also certified a single white metal (tin) piece that was 5mm thick (HK-15B). Of these, the silvered-copper variety is the most common, and these often exhibit dark and/or colorful toning.

Each of the listings in Hibler & Kappen's reference are given R-5 designations (75-200 pieces known), though the silver-plated variety is likely more common than this. The NGC Census records about 90 examples in silvered copper. About half that number in gilt copper were graded, while less than 10 examples in copper, and just three in silver were certified. A low uncirculated example of HK-13 might sell for under $300, but other metal types can easily bring more. An example of HK-14 recently graded NGC MS 65 RB Prooflike, and was sold in a lot with another (less valuable) medal for $4,560 in a December 2018 Heritage Auctions sale.

HK-14: One of the finest copper examples known was sold last December by Heritage Auctions.
It is graded NGC MS 65 RB PL.
Click images to enlarge

The purpose of the medal was mainly to help raise funds for building Congregationalist churches and evangelical outreach. By 1870, denomination leaders set a goal of $3 million to be raised in the jubilee year — all to go toward building new churches and schools, especially in the South and West, as well as a grand Congregational House and library in Boston. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to sell many medals, and even several months into the campaign, only one in every 20 churches had purchased the medal for distribution. Congregationalist bulletins lamented that while other Protestant denominations were raising millions, “the sons of the Pilgrims of Plymouth” have contributed a “meager and shameful pittance.”

The main celebration was held on December 21, and was attended by many prominent figures, though other distinguished individuals, such as President Grant, had to decline their invitations. The proceedings of the event, including letters from those who received invitations, are recorded in great detail and published by the officers and trustees of The Pilgrim Society.

The main oration was delivered by Robert C. Winthrop, who was not a Congregationalist but an Episcopalian. Robert was, however, a descendant of John Winthrop, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He exulted in the magnificent influence those first colonies of Puritans had over the New World and for future generations around the globe.

There can be no true American heart, I think, which has not found itself swelling with a more fervent gratitude to God, and a more profound veneration for the Pilgrim Fathers, as this morning’s sun has risen above the hill-tops, in an almost midsummer glory, and ushered in, once more, with such transcendent splendor, our consecrated Jubilee. When we reflect on the influence which has flowed, and is still flowing, in ever fresh and ceaseless streams, from yonder Rock, which two centuries and a half ago was struck for the first time by the foot of civilized, Christian man; when we reflect how mightily that influence has prevailed...we should be dead, indeed, to every emotion of gratitude to God or man, were we not to hail this Anniversary as one of the grandest in the calendar of the ages.

While the guests were arriving via trains, a band played in the streets, and guests were invited into the various businesses and shops. The event itself kicked off with a church service at 12:15 pm, followed by Winthrop’s grand speech. Afterwards, a magnificent dinner was served to about 900 guests in the new railway station, during which other speeches and toasts were conducted. The Pilgrim Jubilee’s medal’s reverse was aptly designed, as Winthrop declared in his closing statements,

Let us not be deaf to the warnings of the Fathers. Let us not be insensible to the lessons of the hour. Let us resolve that no National growth of grandeur, no civil freedom or social prosperity or individual success, shall ever render us unmindful of those great principles of piety and virtue which the Pilgrims inculcated and exemplified. Let us resolve that whatever else this nation shall be, or shall fail to be, it shall still and always be a Christian Nation, in the full comprehensiveness and true significance of that glorious term — its example ever on the side of Peace and Justice; its eagle, not only with the shield of Union and Liberty emblazoned on its breast, but, like that of many a lectern of ancient cathedral or modern church, abroad or at home, ever proudly bearing up the open Bible on its outspread wings!

The event closed with a grand ball in the evening, which was held in Davis Hall, and was attended by 400 ladies and gentlemen. There was a stunning vibrancy about the decorated hall, which had never been experienced in such a conservative town like Plymouth. At one end of the hall, overhanging the stage in large letters, was the date 1620, and at the rear, 1870, which were exhibited via jets of gas. The music, as played by Gilmore’s Band, continued until “the ball was conducted to a brilliant conclusion at about four o’clock in the morning.”

HK-15A: This gilt-copper example submitted to NGC was graded MS 66 PL. It is possible that no true brass
specimens (HK-15) exist, and they were actually confused with gilt examples in the So-Called Dollar reference.
Click images to enlarge

Harkening back to 1630, it was John Winthrop, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (established 10 years later), who declared, “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” It was to the Pilgrims that the world could look to as an example of righteous living. They were the ones who lit the beacon in America that would shine to all of Europe as a “model of Christian charity.” They were the foundation of what truly made America great to begin with. That is why the jubilee was so passionately celebrated in 1870, and why the carefully crafted medal produced that year is one of the finest trophies in all of numismatics.

To watch the 3-minute video, click above or here.

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