Q. David Bowers
"Artistically [the Oregon Trail half dollar] is my favorite coin," wrote historian Arlie Slabaugh, "but from an ethical stand-point it is not." (United States Commemorative Coinage, p. 78.) This sentiment sums up the situation in a nutshell. Oregon Trail commemoratives are beautiful, but circumstances surrounding their issuance leave much to be desired. Many collectors in the present era know about the Oregon half dollars and their market prices and can look at the coins and decide whether they are artistically interesting, but are not aware of the controversies that swirled around the coins in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Oregon Trail Memorial Association, Inc., (Officers of the Association (asof1938): Howard R. Driggs, president: Anne Morgan, vice president; Arthur W. Procter, secretary-treasurer. William H. Jackson, research secretary; Perry Driggs, executive secretary; the Board. of Directors comprised over a dozen people. In addition, 10 regional directors were listed.) a corporation organized under the laws of the State of New York, secured the approval on May 17, 1926, of a Congressional resolution authorizing "the coinage of 50-cent pieces in commemoration of the heroism of the fathers and mothers who traversed the Oregon Trail to the far West with great hardship, daring, and loss of life , which not only resulted in adding new states to the Union but earned a well-deserved and imperishable fame for the pioneers; to honor the twenty thousand dead that lie buried in unknown graves along two thousand miles of that great highway of history; to rescue the various important points along the old trail from oblivion; and to commemorate by suitable monuments, memorial or otherwise, the tragic events associated with that emigration-erecting them either along the trail itself or elsewhere, in localities appropriate for the purpose, including the city of Washington." Further, the hitherto unprecedented quantity of "not more than six million" coins was authorized, a number eclipsing the overly generous five million authorization for the 1925 Stone Mountain issue.
On the surface the motivation seemed to be good enough, for by 1926 the Oregon Trail was well known in history and legend, and doubtless many American citizens had family ties to the famous migration along that route.
Laura Gardin Fraser, by then the grand lady of commemorative half dollar art, designed the obverse, and her sculptor husband James Earle Fraser designed the reverse. Mrs. Fraser did the models for both sides. The die hubs were the work of the Medallic Art Company of New York, which by this time had been an important player on the commemorative scene for years.
The obverse depicted a relief map of the United States behind the figure of an Indian facing to the viewer's right, a bow (spanning the continent) in his right hand and his left hand outstretched.
The reverse depicted a Conestoga wagon drawn by two oxen, heading to the left toward a setting sun of monumental proportions, with resplendent rays.
It is a curious footnote to observe that in art virtually all illustrations showing westward migration are illustrated by movement from the viewer's right to his left, indicating that the scene was observed by a person standing south of the action taking place, rather than to the north. Of course, this comes from the orientation of maps with which we are all familiar.
Which side is the obverse of the Oregon Trail half dollar and which is the reverse has been a matter of debate among numismatists. The Frasers, who certainly should have known as they designed it, considered the Indian side the obverse and the wagon side the reverse, but Mint reports named the wagon side as the obverse, for it bears the date, and the Indian side the reverse, for it bears the mintmark (in instances of branch mint issues).
Proponents of the issue were quick to realize that if varieties were created the market could be expanded. In 1926 the Philadelphia Mint struck 48,030 pieces, followed soon thereafter by San Francisco Mint production of 100,055 coins, the first time that a single commemorative issue had been struck at more than one mint, setting a precedent which would be expanded and abused in the years to come.
The Oregon Trail Memorial Association offered the Philadelphia coins for $1 each, and sales got off to a goodstart. Aiding the promotional efforts was Ezra Meeker, a long-lived gentleman who had traveled the Oregon Trail in 1851 and who lived to write several books and numerous articles about it, make numerous public appearances, and achieve renown as a living pioneer after nearly all of his contemporaries had passed on. (Ezra Meeker was born in Ohio in 1830 and died in Seattle, Washington on December 3, 1928. Although the Oregon Trail half dollars were not specifically issued to celebrate this, 1926 was the 75th anniversary of Meeker's first traverse of the route.