Q. David Bowers
Mr Hoffecker: "They have not been is-sued. The reports of the mint up to 1929 showed they had taken out 148,000 coins. Since 1929 I have no information as to the number. They got out two coins in 1926, one in 1928, and one in 1933 from one of the mints, and in 1934 they got out a few from another mint, and I have not the record of how many, but there is not a very large issue. The 1933 coin is selling at $5 now."
Senator Maloney: "Is there any limitation of time on these issues?"
Mr Hoffecker: "No, sir. They can coin them on for the next 100 years unless there is some legislation to stop it."
Senator Alva B. Adams: "As I understand the situation, the practice is to allow the representatives of the organization through which the authority is given, to go to any one of the three mints and get such coins as they ask for."
Mr. Hoffecker: "[Acting Director of the Mint] Miss O'Reilly told me that is true provided the mints have the time to do it."
Senator Adams: "For instance, they can go to the Denver Mint and say they only want a dozen coins from the Denver Mint?"
Mr. Hoffecker: "I hardly think they would grant such a request. That is going too far to an extreme. Two thousand is the lowest they have ever gotten from one mint, as I understand it."
Senator Adams: "Then, within some reasonable limits, they are permitted to get a part of their coins from one mint, and a part from another mint, and a part from the third mint; and they can get a part of them datedin 1934, and a part dated in 1935, and a part dated in 1936?"
Mr. Hoffecker: "Yes, sir."
Senator Adams: "And each of these coins has the different mint mark and the different date, and it is a different coin from the standpoint of coin collectors?"
Mr. Hoffecker: "What we call them is a different variety. Collectors like varieties if it doesn't go to too large a number. There is, of course, a limit to what the ordinary collector can buy."
Over a period of time the promoters assigned special names to certain issues. Thus the 1926 was known as the Ezra Meeker coin, the 1928 as the Jedediah Smith issue (Smith was an explorer of the American West and led a group of pioneers to California in 1826), the 1933-D as the Century of Progress Exposition half dollar, the 1934-D as the Fort Hall, Fort Laramie, and Jason Lee coin (a confusing, catch-all name; Lee was a missionary), and, finally, the 1936-S was designated as the Whitman Centennial coin (also referred to as the Whitman Mission coin; the mission of Marcus Whitman was to convert Indians to Christianity. Whitman, his wife, and 12 others were killed by Cayuse warriors in 1847.). The names attached to these half dollars were not widely publicized and were little heeded by collectors.
The Whitman designation is particularly interesting, for earlier a group known as The Whitman Centennial, Incorporated, of Walla Walla, Washington, sought to have its own issue of commemorative half dollars to observe in 1936 the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in the Walla Walla Valley and the founding of the Waiilatpu Mission. A bill was introduced into Congress (H.R.11555), and much publicity was given to the new half dollars that were expected, hopefully, in time for the August 12-16 celebrations to be held in Walla Walla. Problems developed, and the sponsors wrote to coin collectors all across America to suggest that they encourage their own congressmen to vote on the bill, an effort which came to naught. The Whitman Centennial, Inc. group tried to snatch at least a small victory from the jaws of defeat, and announced on July 13, 1936 that it had made an arrangement with the Oregon Trail Memorial Association whereby 1936-S Oregon Trail half dollars would be designated as "the Whitman Centennial coins." These were offered locally for $2 each and by mail for $2.18 (which was more than the $1.60 list price charged to collectors at the time by the Oregon Trail Memorial Association).
1937, 1938, and 1939 Sets
Oregon Trail issues of 1937, 1938, and 1939 were marketed by the Association, by which time the arrangement with Scott had been discontinued. In 1937, Oregon Trail half dollars were minted only at Denver, to the extent of 12,008 coins. These 1937-D pieces were offered for sale at $1.60 each.
In 1938 Oregon half dollars were issued for the first time as a set from all three mints, with a coinage of 6,006 for Philadelphia, 6,005 for Denver, and 6,006 for San Francisco, the odd specimens being reserved for the Assay Commission. Sets of three were advertised for $6.25 each. The final and lowest mintage in the series consisted of 1939 sets of three pieces made to the extent of 3,004, 3,004, and 3,005 respectively at the various mints. The price was raised to $7.50 per set.
By the end of 1939, well over a decade after the original coinage of 1926, only 264,419 Oregon Trail half dollars had been minted, and, deducting 61,317 returned for melting, just 202,928 had achieved distribution or were still on hand in the stocks of the Scott Stamp & Coin Company and the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. As late as 1943 an outfit named the American Pioneer Trails Association was attempting to sell quantities of 1936 and 1937-D halves. Several observers later suggested that, if Congress on August 5, 1939 had not forbidden further issues of commemorative coins authorized prior to March 1939, Oregon Trail coins would probably still be minted today!
An Overview by B. Max Mehl
In his 1937 monograph, The Commemorative Coins of the United States, B. Max Mehl gave his view of the still incomplete Oregon Trail half dollar program and told how he nearly purchased a large quantity at the outset:
"This is one of the most beautiful, artistically designed, and well struck coins of the entire series. It was struck to commemorate the Oregon Trail. This issue also marks the beginning of the deluge of varieties, mint marks, etc., of the commemorative issues. In 1926, according to mint reports, at the Philadelphia Mint 98,030 specimens were struck. At the San Francisco Mint 100,000 of the coins were struck. The number actually distributed or sold at $1 each is not known.
"In 1927 I was invited to make an offer on quite a large quantity of the coins still on hand, but I do not recall whether the coins were then struck or whether they were available to be struck. That was before the day of small issues, and I was not smart enough to invent the idea. However, the idea was invented by someone else, and in 1928 another issue of these half dollars appeared-all struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
"According to mint reports, 50,028 of the coins were struck in that year (1928) and 42,000 were remelted-leaving a balance of 8,028 that were sold. Then in 1933 another quantity of the Oregon Trail Half Dollars appeared. These were all struck at the Denver Mint, and only 6,000 were struck. They were sold at a nominal sum, I think, that of $1.00 or $1.50 each, but of course now, naturally, are very scarce (selling up to $10 each). As a 6,000 issue is not large, it was readily absorbed by collectors and then, 10 and behold, in 1934 another quantity of 7,000 pieces were struck.
"Apparently it took a couple of years to dispose of those-SO-in 1936 another quantity was struck both at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints; 10,006 at the Philadelphia Mint and only 5,006 at the San Francisco Mint. All of these were originally placed on the market at less than $2 each. The 1936 Philadelphia Mint coin is now retailing at $5 and the San Francisco Mint at $10. Where will this thing stop? I don't know."