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The Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars

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The Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars of 1926 to 1939 represent the single longest-running type coin belonging to the United States Classic Commemorative series and are also one of the most widely collected coins of the period. With its iconic imagery of a Native American and a filled wagon train heading west into the sunset along the Oregon Trail, this commemorative half dollar is often collected both among other commemoratives and as a standalone representative of the Classic Commemorative series in general United States type collections.

The Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars were made by the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints over a period spanning from 1926 through 1939. Seen here is a 1934-D in stunning PCGS MS68. Click image to enlarge.

The Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars were minted to honor the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children who ventured west with hopes of finding prosperity and a better life on the expanding horizons of a young America. The Oregon Trail stretched some 2,000 miles from Independence City, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, and led pioneers traversing the path through a variety of rugged terrains perhaps previously unimaginable to the Easterners and European immigrants venturing west. The trip from origin to destination in a covered wagon could take as long as a year.

Established in 1830, the Oregon Trail saw its heyday throughout the mid-19th century, though the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 ushered in a new era of cross-country transit. By 1890, western emigres were chugging to the West by rail, making the journey from East Coast to West Coast in a week – far less time and challenge than making the same trek by covered wagon over many months. The National Park Service designated the carved path from Missouri to Oregon a National Historic Trail in 1981, by which time, the last of the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars were more than 40 years old.

The Oregon Trail Pioneer Memorial Association helped spearhead the creation of these coins, which were authorized under the Act of May 17, 1926 and were to see a maximum production of 6,000,000 pieces across the entire issuance of the commemorative design. The matter as to which side of the coin is the obverse and which constitutes the reverse is something of a long-running controversy. While much of the numismatic community contends the side featuring the Native American is the obverse, the United States Mint officially declared that the side with the wagon functions as the obverse.

The obverse was designed by James Earle Fraser, whose name is familiar with enthusiasts of the Buffalo Nickel – a coin he designed in 1913. The oxen-drawn carriage, described as a Conestoga wagon, is seen carrying a young family along the Oregon Trail before an oversized view of the sun disc rising above the horizon and signaling the promise of a prosperous future in the American Frontier. Atop the design is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, while below the wagon is inscribed OREGON TRAIL MEMORIAL.

The reverse by Laura Gardin Fraser shows a Native American of unknown tribal affiliation holding a spear in his right hand and gesturing eastward as if to signal “STOP.” Suffice it to say, one could draw multiple conclusions as to the significance and symbolism of the Native American’s defensive stance on this coin, particularly given a map featuring the continental United States sprawled behind him from left to right.

A total of 14 different business strikes were created over the course of the next 14 calendar years, with the first struck by the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints in 1926 and offered for $1 each. Another round of Philadelphia strikes came in 1928, followed by Denver examples in 1933 and 1934, all issued for $2. Philly and San Fran produced more in 1936, followed by Denver in 1937, and these sold for $1.60, with the latter going for $1.65 by mail. Finally, the trio of operating mints struck the half dollar in 1938 and 1939, with the set of three coins going for $6.50 in 1938 and $7.50 in 1939. Some issues were being actively promoted for sale by the American Pioneers Trails Association until 1943, while the Oregon Trail Memorial Association continued marketing them until 1945.

As a type, the Oregon Trail Commemorative Half Dollars aren’t rare, though some dates are scarcer than others, particularly in Superb Gem grades of MS66 and higher. The most prolific batch is represented by the 1926-S issues, which saw a net mintage of 83,000. The 1939 halves are the rarest, with outputs of just 3,000 each. Most individual issues saw rather paltry mintages of between 5,000 and 12,000, with the 1926 Philadelphia strike scoring a second-place net output of 47,925 pieces. While there are no known major errors or varieties, assembling the 14-coin run of Oregon Trail Half Dollars in itself is a considerable expense. Thus, some collectors focus their efforts on building a dedicated 14-coin Oregon Trail Half Dollar Registry Set.

Circulated issues are frequently encountered, though the majority of these coins are known in the uncirculated grades of MS60 to MS65, with a handful known as high as MS68. Prices for this coin, as a type, start at around $110 in XF40, climbing to $215 in MS63, and reaching $350 in MS66. Collectors wanting a top-notch example in MS68 will need to ante up at least $1,800.

Still, across the board, prices for Oregon Trail Half Dollars are but a mere fraction of their marketplace highs in 1989, when United States Classic Commemoratives were selling for exponentially steeper sums. Some might suggest that now is a good time to endeavor on building or completing a set of Classic Commemoratives, particularly those looking to bolster their PCGS Set Registry rankings for the 50-coin and 144-coin U.S. Classic Commemorative Sets.

Sources

  • Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday, 1988.
  • “Oregon Trail.” History. January 20, 2021. Retrieved May 26, 2021.
  • Swiatek, Anthony J. Encyclopedia of the Commemorative Coins of the United States. KWS Publishers, 2012.

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