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The Pilgrim Coin

Updated on July 17, 2014

Did you know there is a Thanksgiving coin?

As a matter of fact, there is a U.S. collectible coin fashioned specifically to celebrate the pilgrims' arrival in the New World, which as every American knows has a lot to do with the meaning of Thanksgiving Day. The Pilgrim Tercentenary coin, as it is called, was minted to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620. The half-dollar was issued through The National Shawmut Bank of Boston and was designed primarily to appeal to coin collectors. The coin was issued twice, in 1920 and 1921. About 200,112 pilgrim coins were minted in 1920, but only 152,112 were distributed. Of the 100,053 coins minted in 1923, only 20,053 were distributed. The undistributed coins were returned for melting. So with about 172,000+ pilgrim coins being held by collectors' hands, the odds are perhaps fairly good that you might find one of these pieces of Americana circulating in the public marketplaces, a fitting reminder that our monetary motto, "In God We Trust," has a very long history among us, as does the Thanksgiving dinner custom and other aspects of American culture.

William Bradford
William Bradford

Coin Face: William Bradford, Plymouth governor

The obverse or face of the pilgrim coin features a portrait of William Bradford, who arrived in the New World with a group of Puritans aboard the Mayflower in 1620, during the reign of King James I of England. Bradford later served 30 years as governor of the American colony established by the pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Among Bradford's achievements, he is remembered as the first civil authority to institute a Thanksgiving Day feast, which is now a national holiday. The first Thanksgiving feast in 1621 celebrated the first bountiful harvest, a joint effort of native Americans and pilgrims, following the first severe winter in which many of the first pilgrims died of hunger. The first Bradford is featured on the coin's face in profile holding a Bible in his left hand. The inscriptions around the coin's circumference read "United States of America" above his head and "Pilgrim Half Dollar" below, with stars separating the words. Also on the coin face is an inscription, "In God we Trust," above Bradford's shoulder. The year 1921 appears on the coin face of that year's issue but the year does not appear on the face of the 1920 coin.

Mayflower
Mayflower

Coin Tail: S.S. Mayflower

The reverse side of the pilgrim coin features a ship in full sail, purportedly the Mayflower, a 100-foot ship that undertook the perilous two-month voyage to the New World with 102 passengers, English and Dutch Separatists, along with 30 crew members aboard. Two passengers died during the Atlantic crossing. The Mayflower anchored off of Cape Cod in November, 1920 and the Mayflower Compact, an early governing document for the Plymouth Colony, was signed that day. Around the coin's circumference is the inscription "Pilgrim Tercentenary Celebration" above the ship and the dates "1620-1920" below, the words separated by dots. The Mayflower is famously misrepresented on the coin, which portrays a ship with a flying jib sail, an innovation that does not appear until many years later in the evolution of shipbuilidng. A more accurate rendering would have rendered it a square sail.

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