Jim Bisognani: Go West, Young Collector!

Posted on 5/14/2020

Follow the long and winding road of the Oregon Trail commemorative series.

Certainly for many, the changes in our work orientations and social routines due to COVID-19 were as sudden as they were dramatic. Yet, after nearly two months abiding by the new health guidelines, we have mostly readjusted our day-to-day lives and activities. For the most part, we are all admirably adhering to the new restraints and precautions that are deemed necessary for us all to healthfully co-exist in our world today.

The return to the way “things used to be” is still a long way off though, so those plans of family gatherings, parades and barbeques for Memorial Day will have to be played out in a different fashion this year. Being a history nut — good, bad or indifferent — it is, if nothing else, a historic time we are all living through.

The same plight rings true for my fellow coindexters. However, although there have been no “live” shows for several months, coins and the business of numismatics continues along virtually unabated. Truthfully for many, especially with no major sporting events to occupy our spare time (sigh), we can all cozy up to family, devote more time to domestic duties and homebound hobbies and such.

Personally, this past weekend, I took time to view numismatic wares of mine long since tucked away in an old red 2x2 cardboard box. Gosh, it must have been at least a decade or more since I looked inside that slightly dog-eared red box!  Among the eclectic coins and tokens that greeted me as I flipped through the contents was one of my favorite US coins ever minted. That coin is an Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollar.

My example is a raw 1934-D and is as lustrous and satiny white as it was when I purchased it back at the Long Beach Expo fall show in 1987! I recall at that Long Beach show the “slabs” versus vinyl flips or 2x2 white cardboard at dealers’ tables were in the minority as third-party grading was just in its infancy.

My 1934-D Oregon placed on my favorite Ezra Meeker historical postcard, showing the reunion of many of the Oregon Trail veterans just after the monument at Baker City was dedicated. Ezra is the bearded gent with his hat in hand in the right foreground.
Click images to enlarge.

After reconnecting with the coin, the majesty of the design and the historic significance resonated with me. As I said, I am a history buff, so I am compelled to impart the following:

Setting forth on the Oregon Trail

In all of US commemorative coinage annals, perhaps no more glorious example of numismatic art emerges than the impressive Oregon Trail Memorial. Indeed, the long-running series was created by two prolific American sculptors, one under the tutelage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the other receiving an award bearing his name.

The impressive issue is blessed with a truly distinctive American theme forever immortalized by the husband-and-wife team of James Earle Fraser and Laura Gardin Fraser. Through their combined efforts, the couple produced several of our country’s commemoratives and various congressional medallions. Mr. Fraser created perhaps the most popular and endearing circulating coin in US numismatic history — the “Indian Head” or Buffalo Nickel.

Laura, putting forth her artistic brilliance, generated the designs and models for several issues, including the 1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar, 1922 Grant Half Dollar and Gold Dollar along with the 1925 Fort Vancouver Centennial issue. In doing so, she became the first woman to have her work produced on US coinage. This keen experience laid the foundation for the Frasers’ joint collaboration on the Oregon Trail Memorial project.

The 1921 Alabama Centennial Half Dollar, 1922 Grant Half Dollar and 1925 Fort Vancouver Centennial Half Dollar.
Click image to enlarge.

A noble purpose

The purpose of the Oregon Trail series is one that intended to pay homage to the memory of the many thousands of pioneers who endeavored to make that formidable 2,000-mile trek. You see, for at least a decade before the California Gold Rush in 1849, a hardy lot had their designs on reaching the fertile farmland of the Willamette Valley in the Oregon territory.

However, this arduous journey was never completed by many (who were then buried along that infamous frontier highway). But through their determination and personal sacrifice, this western movement not only succeeded in the expansion of the Union, it earned these early heroes an indelible fame. Thus, unlike many of our later commemorative installments, this coin is cloaked with considerable historic merit and passion.

At least partially inspired by these events, enters a New York corporation referring to itself as the Oregon Trail Memorial Association (OTMA) that in turn petitioned Congress to authorize such an issue. Perhaps the best judgment exercised by this enterprise was its appointment of Ezra Meeker as it first “President.”

The Oregon Trail Memorial Association Excutive Committee and Ezra Meeker's signature.
Click images to enlarge.

Though in his mid-90s, Ezra was still vital and a living legend of the Old West. An eccentric to be sure, yet every bit the quintessential pioneer, he had forged that celebrated passage back in 1851. With an unbridled passion for the trail, Meeker wrote numerous books and articles on the subject and brought further notoriety with several repeat crossing recreations in a fully outfitted replica Conestoga wagon. During one such journey in 1906, Ezra’s popularity was such that he was able to meet with and convince Teddy Roosevelt to set aside money for trail preservation.

Some 20 years later, this influential elder statesman proved to be a great bargaining chip and poster boy, as Congress passed legislation for the coins’ production on May 17, 1926. This also coincided with the 75th anniversary of Ezra’s first triumphant trek along that fabled route.

Show me the money

The original plan ostensibly was to raise funds from the sale of this issue and erect various monuments along the trail. Thankfully for posterity, the crusty and tenacious Ezra Meeker was able to persuade the conservation-minded Teddy Roosevelt to set aside some $50,000 in government funds nearly 25 years earlier, or we might not have the Oregon Trail as we know it today. For it appears that none of the proceeds from the sale of the Oregon Trail commemoratives ever went toward its preservation!

Unfortunately, as has been the case with numerous other issues of its kind, the noble purpose and good intentions of the Oregon Trail commemoratives, as a fundraiser and not only a numismatic footnote, were mired down in political jockeying, assorted grumblings and, of course, greed. Yet, in spite of the assorted backroom distribution shenanigans, this visually proud commemorative was indeed authorized by Congress for a minting not to exceed more than 6 million pieces.

The first coins were seen rolling off the Philadelphia Mint’s presses in the fall of 1926, flowing into the waiting hands of the OTMA for distribution. Upon its release, in the “Roaring Twenties,” this coin, known unofficially and affectionately as the “Ezra Meeker,” was an instant hit.

Click images to enlarge.

Running on empty

I’m sure the coin was a visual delight and treasured memento for the many families of the hardy pioneers who had survived the original traversing of the trail. The one-dollar issue price was certainly a small amount to pay for homage and pseudo-immortality. Boasting its bold design and western theme, the Oregon Trail commemoratives also had a large, anxious contingent of collectors who wanted in on our 15th silver commemorative release — so much so that the Philadelphia issue spawned a San Francisco pairing later in 1926.

However, when a third issue was announced, the public’s initial infatuation soured as it became obvious that the OTMA’s continued “enthusiasm” was driven by greed. Rebuked by some, this practice continued, ultimately allowing a total of 14 coins to be produced in eight different years. This certainly secured Oregon Trail’s status as being perhaps our most abused commemorative, along with being the longest-running issue in years. (In numbers, that dubious distinction of proliferation and further mismanagement belongs to the Arkansas and Booker T. Washington ensembles.)

Regardless, this coin saw us through not only the aforementioned Roaring decade, but numerous political scandals, Prohibition, the Great Depression, the birth of Social Security and to the brink of the Second World War. Yes, much like the FDR presidency, this issue seemed to go on forever.

Waxing nostalgic

New collectors and seasoned numismatists alike, do yourselves a favor and take another look at the Oregon Trail. With just one glance at the coin, even the impartial observer most certainly will wax nostalgic, marveling at the beauty of the design. This coin seems to beckon back not only to the golden age of numismatics but also the golden period of radio and the great silver screen.

Emotions begin to stir as we consider the Native American Indian warrior proudly and boldly sculpted in the middle of an outlined map of the continental United States. Armed with long-bow, he gestures to the pioneers leading that Conestoga wagon train toward the glorious sunset and new freedom that awaits them in the west.

Storage and toned rarities — the $69,000 question

It’s always interesting to hypothesize what the original coin designers would have thought about their respective efforts as an investment medium. Certainly the distributors and marketers would tout them as such; however, by the mid- to late 1930s, there was such a saturation of similar pieces that even those with fortified foresight would be impressed by the continued demand for such pieces today.

Unlike their modern counterparts that are handled with care and sonically sealed instantly in a protective holder, the early US commemorative owners did not have the luxury or scientific approach for the housing of these coins. With the new issue on hand from the Philadelphia Mint, the OTMA had little more than either paper envelopes or “open air” tabbed cardboard holders produced by John & Alan Eggers in which to store and ship the coins.

Yet, against the elements, those early recipients who were fortunate enough to have left well enough alone, or had a touch of clairvoyance, most certainly were rewarded with a coin exhibiting varying degrees of an attractively rainbow-toned surface with a prominent “bulls-eye” center. I can only imagine the disbelief if one of the original purchasers of the inaugural 1926 coin for $1 was told that a single example sold for a staggering $69,000! This, however, is what happened when an accidental rarity in the form of a spectacularly rainbow-toned 1926 Oregon realized this impressive sum at auction in April 2004. This amount still stands as a record for any Oregon Trail classic silver commemorative.

The paper holder and a toned "bulls-eye" example.
Click images to enlarge.

Join the wagon train

Certainly this long-running series is one the most admired commemoratives ever produced. With its attractive period theme and long exposure, the popularity of this issue has never really waned with the collecting public. While other contenders and sub-series within the classic commemorative component (such as the Arkansas, Boone or Texas ensembles) all have enjoyed popularity over the past decades, the Oregons — with some built-in low mintage “rarities” — seem to still be undervalued.

Indeed, as most were saved by collectors and/or speculators at the time of issue, very few actually entered circulation (with the exception of the 1926). Now, let us take an in-depth look at the colorful legacy of this fabulous coin.

1926: The quantity issued from the inaugural mintage was 47,955. This became known as the “Ezra Meeker” issue as it was struck 75 years after Meeker’s first conquest of the Trail. This issue is generally the most poorly crafted and can exhibit lack of detail on the Indian’s hand. Original issue price was $1.

1926-S: October found the first batch of 100,000 pieces from San Francisco go to the OTMA for sale; however, the initial zeal for this example quickly faded, and few coins were sold at the issue price. With the Treasury aware that coins weren’t selling, the order came down to cease production until all available 1926-S Oregons were sold. This explains why no coins dated 1927 were produced. This issue is usually well-defined with satiny luster but is also seen with a semi-Prooflike surface. The quantity issued — 83,055 — was the highest output of the series. It was struck in October and November of 1926 and issued at $1 each.

1928: This year found the greedy Association applying further pressure on the US Treasury, which reluctantly buckled under and produced 50,000 coins. These were referred to as the “Jedidiah Smith” issue, paying homage to another famous western explorer. However, when the Treasury Department saw that it had been duped, it refused to strike any subsequent issues and impounded the 1928 mintage to its vaults.

Click image to enlarge.

The coins remained there until 1933 when the lobbying commission cajoled the Treasury to strike more coins! This was agreed to only after the melting of the remaining back stock of 17,000 unsold 1926-S coins. Backroom hijinks came into play in the throes of the Great Depression and the OTMA was authorized to strike a 1933 issue to be produced at the Denver Mint.

The plan was to offer the original mintage of 5,250 coins (production was intentionally reduced to help generate more robust sales!) to the visitors of the Century of Progress Exposition at the increased cost of $2 each. This was a great blunder, and almost instantly, most were sold to speculators via the Scott Stamp and Coin (Wayte Raymond) Company of New York. The Scott Company was also given charge to liquidate the 1928 issue, yet only managed to find buyers for 6,028 coins. Ultimately, 44,000 coins dated 1928 went unceremoniously to the melting pot. This coin is most often found fully struck with satiny luster.

1933-D: This issue bears the distinction of being the first Denver commemorative edition as well as the fifth-lowest mintage coin, with 5,008 issued. It was well-produced and normally exhibits rolling satiny luster. Known as the “Century of Progress” issue, its official issue price was $2.

1934-D: The Denver Mint struck 7,006 examples that became known as the “Fort Hall, Fort Laramie and Jason Lee” issue. They are usually well-struck and satiny luster prevails. The 1934-D also commanded a $2 issue price.

1936: This mintage of 10,006 was marketed by the American Pioneer Trails Association as late as 1943 and by the original OTMA through 1945. The official sale price was lowered to $1.60 in order to attract more buyers.

1936-S: At 5,006, this coin has the fourth-lowest production within the series. It is usually sharply struck with more of a Prooflike surface evident on some examples. The Whitman Centennial Inc. group, which had petitioned Congress for their own commemorative coin but was rejected, found some consolation in an arrangement with the OTMA to market and designate this issue as the “Whitman Centennial Coin.” Like the 1936, this coin was offered at $1.60 and, being of a lower mintage, quickly sold out.

1937-D: This mintage comprised 12,008 coins issued at $1.60 and were again marketed by the beleaguered OTMA, which was finding it nearly as difficult a road to hoe to sell some of these later issues as making the original journey across the Trail. 

The blatant behind-the-scenes abuses and greed-mongering didn’t sit well with the collecting public of the day, but the low mintages of the 1938-P, D and S and 1939-P, D and S finale issues helped keep sales relatively brisk.

1938: 6,006 coins
1938-D: 6,005 coins
1938-S: 6,006 coins

These were mostly marketed as 3-piece sets at $6.25 per set

1939 showcases the final output of this design from all three Mints and also delivers us the lowest production of the entire series. The coins were marketed in 3-piece sets (as were the previous year’s issues) but at $7.50 per set, which ignited collector protests!

1939: 3,004 coins
1939-D: 3,004 coins
1939-S: 3,005 coins

So, now that you are done reading this and probably sitting at home, please take a few minutes and scan dealers’ inventories and upcoming online sales for one or more of these exquisite US coins.

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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