Huguenots were French Protestants who were frequently persecuted in majority-Catholic France in the 16th and 17th centuries. After decades of oppression and failed rebellions in the 1620s, many Huguenots fleeing persecution emigrated from Europe to destinations around the world. The ship Nieuw Nederlandt landed in what is now New York in May 1624, carrying Huguenots primarily from Wallonia (now part of Belgium). Famous Huguenots include Peter Minuit, who “purchased” Manhattan Island in 1626, and Huguenot settlers were influential in the early development of the colony.
In 1922, an association established by the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (comprised of various Protestant churches) sought to honor the upcoming 300th anniversary of Huguenot settlement in the present-day United States. The association was led by Reverend John Baer Stoudt and had assistance in pursuing a commemorative coin from PA congressman and Fred Gernerd, both of whom were of Huguenot descent.
Though 300,000 coins were authorized by Congress, only about 142,000 were actually produced. The Huguenot-Walloon half-dollar was unusual in that its unsold production was released into circulation rather than melted down (as was the case for many other commemoratives). Around 55,000 were officially released into circulation, though judging by the lack of worn coins it would appear that savvy collectors quickly removed them.
Reverend Stoudt provided sketches for the design to George T. Morgan, the US Mint’s Chief Engraver best known for his eponymous Morgan dollar. Stoudt’s original sketches included Peter Minuit purchasing Manhattan Island on the obverse, and the ship Nieuw Nederlandt on the reverse. For unknown reasons, the final design does not feature Peter Minuit but instead bears the jugate portraits of Gaspard de Coligny and Price William I of Orange, two martyred Huguenot leaders.
The choice of Coligny and William on the Huegenot-Walloon half-dollar proved to be controversial. Both were killed decades before the 1624 anniversary being honored, and neither had a distinct connection to Huguenot settlement in the Americas aside from their religion. The coin’s design was publicly criticized by a number of Catholic sources, who objected to the issuance of an official United States coin perceived to be specifically honoring an anti-Catholic religious denomination.
This criticism had farther reaching consequences. The following year, when Minnesota Congressman and Lutheran minister Ole J. Kvale sought a similar commemorative coin honoring the arrival of Norwegian immigrants, the Mint was concerned about attracting similar criticism. Kvale and the Lutherans would have to settle for a medal, instead.