History Through Coins: Before They Were Coins

Posted on 7/14/2020

The stories behind six men and women who were inspirational as patriots, statesmen and more.

Whether coins are being issued for circulation or as a special commemorative, their subjects often involve heroic legacies. Here are six examples from around the world that show how inspiration can be captured in the metal of a coin.

Accomplished sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser created the Silver Half Dollar and Gold Dollar commemoratives issued for the centennial of Ulysses S. Grant’s birth in 1922. While more than 70,000 pieces were coined of the Dollar, a mere 10,000 were issued in two varieties; this one lacks the obverse star. The reverse depicts Grant’s birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio. An 1843 graduate of West Point, he served in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and then resigned from the US Army in 1854. He returned to service for America’s Civil War, eventually rising to become the top Union general in 1864. After accepting Robert E. Lee’s surrender a year later, Grant briefly resumed his civilian life with wife Julia before being elected to consecutive terms as President of the United States, serving from 1869 to 1877. Stricken with cancer, he completed his acclaimed memoir just days before dying in 1885.

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COIN: US 1922 Grant Commemorative Gold Dollar, graded NGC MS 68★

The first woman to be portrayed on a coin of Mexico, Doña Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez was a hero of Mexico’s War of Independence from Spain. Born in 1768, she was the daughter of Captain Juan José Ortiz, who was killed in action while she was still an infant. Losing her mother shortly afterward, Josefa was raised by her sister and later married Miguel Domínguez, a magistrate in New Spain (later Mexico). The couple was sympathetic to the plight of ordinary Mexicans and joined in the revolutionary movement. Josefa was imprisoned for a time but released in 1817. Following independence, she was offered an honored position by Mexico’s Emperor Agustin de Iturbide, but this was anathema to her and she refused it. Never wavering in her commitment to freedom for the Mexican people, she remained a patriot until her death in 1829. Her portrait was a fixture on the Five Centavos piece from 1954 until inflation rendered it obsolete in 1976.

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COIN: Mexico 1954-Mo Brass Five Centavos, graded NGC MS 65 RD

The centennial of Arkansas statehood in 1936 was commemorated with a Half Dollar that was produced annually from 1935 to 1939. A special edition featuring a bust of Arkansas Senator Joseph T. Robinson was coined at the Philadelphia Mint in January 1937, though it bore the centennial dates. Portraits of living persons on United States coins are rare, though the subject’s death on July 14, 1937 at the age of 64 made the point moot. Robinson, a Democrat, served in Congress for 34 years, the first 10 as a member of the House of Representatives. Elected Arkansas’ governor in 1913, he almost immediately moved to the US Senate and served there for the remainder of his life, the last four years as Senate Majority Leader. He was instrumental in getting much of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation passed, and this certainly contributed to his being honored on a coin.

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COIN: US 1936 Arkansas Commemorative Half Dollar, graded NGC MS 68

While England’s Queen Victoria is indeed worthy of treatment here, it’s actually the reverse of this coin that bears our subject individual. The image of St. George slaying the dragon was rendered by Benedetto Pistrucci on the sovereigns of the British Empire beginning in 1817, and the artist’s initials appear to the right of the date. The legend of a hero defeating evil, here portrayed by a fearsome dragon, predates Christianity. It only gradually morphed into the action of St. George during the Middle Ages. The saint himself was a Cappadocian Greek soldier who served with the Praetorian Guard of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He achieved sainthood in the 11th Century for his execution and martyrdom prior to Rome’s adoption of Christianity.

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COIN: Australia 1876-M Sovereign, graded NGC AU-58

No portraits from life are known for Crispus Attucks, so US Mint Sculptor/Engraver Thomas D. Rogers borrowed from later, fanciful images of how the man may have looked. Our subject is believed to have been the first American to die for the American Revolution when he was killed in the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770. It’s not known for certain whether Crispus Attucks was enslaved or free, but he was known to have been a stevedore at the time of his death. Though contemporary accounts describe him as of mixed ethnicity, with some American Indian heritage, he is enshrined today as a symbol of sacrifice for the cause of freedom, and thus he figures prominently on this coin honoring Black American Patriots.

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COIN: US 1998-S Black Patriots Commemorative Silver Dollar, graded NGC PF 67 Ultra Cameo

A hero in both his native Poland and in the United States for his service in the American Revolution, Tadeusz Kościuskzko was born in 1746 in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was aligned with Poland at the time. Stirred by the cause of human rights and liberty, Kościuskzko sailed for America and was commissioned a colonel in the Continental Army. Serving as a military architect, his most memorable achievement was overseeing the fortifications at West Point, New York, and he retired as a brigadier general. Returning to Poland in 1784, he defended his homeland in the Polish-Russian War of 1792, but it was in vain. Poland would remain servile to the Russian Empire for years to come. Kościuskzko died in 1817, leaving his American assets to the education and freedom of slaves, but the culture of that time precluded the execution of his wishes.

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COIN: Poland 1976-MW Gold 500 Zloty Proba (Pattern) P-454A, NGC PF 66 Ultra Cameo

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