The Oregon Commemorative Half Dollar
Ezra Meeker traveled the Oregon Trail by ox-drawn wagon with his family as a young settler in 1852. Concerned that the history of the pioneers that traversed the Oregon Trail was becoming lost, he retraced his route from Iowa to Oregon in 1906-1908, attracting much publicity. For the remainder of his long life, he sought to memorialize the Oregon Trail through a variety of means.
Meeker was still hard at work as a nonagenarian, traveling the route again by airplane in 1924 - a testament to the rapid changes in technology during his lifetime! His extensive efforts culminated in 1926 when Meeker met with President Calvin Coolidge in Washington and appeared before a Senate committee to press for the issuance of a commemorative half dollar to benefit his Oregon Trail Memorial Association. The Association would pay for the coins at face value and sell them at a premium to raise funds for various historical markers and other initiatives.
Meeker’s Association solicited a number of sculptors before ultimately choosing the husband-and-wife team of James Earle and Laura Gardin Fraser. James Fraser had previously designed the famous Buffalo nickel and was involved in other projects dealing with Western themes. Laura Fraser had previous experience with commemorative coins, having designed a dollar and half-dollar honoring the centennial of Ulysses S. Grant in 1922.
Laura Fraser designed one side of the coin; James Fraser designed the other. Laura’s side features the full figure of an Indian chief in full regalia, standing with his hand outstretched towards the east. In the background is a map of North America with a procession of Conestoga wagons depicting the route of the Oregon Trail. The side designed by James Fraser features an ox-drawn wagon conveying a family across the Trail, with a radiant Western sun in the background.
Note that there is still some controversy as to which side is the obverse and which is the reverse: the Frasers intended the “Indian side” to be the obverse, but the US Mint contended that the “wagon side” was the obverse, as the latter possesses the date of striking. Some numismatic resources use these terms (“wagon side” and “Indian side”) when referring to the Oregon Trail half-dollar, instead of obverse and reverse.
Despite a successful initial release in 1926, sales of the Oregon Trail Memorial half-dollar quickly tapered off. The Mint ceased production until the initial run of coins (over one hundred thousand) were sold, thus explaining why no coins were struck with 1927 dates. The Oregon Trail Memorial Association pressured the Mint to produce additional coins for 1928; fifty thousand were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, though most of these were melted down after failing to sell. Ezra Meeker died in December 1928, just shy of his 98th birthday, after a cross-country automobile trip during which he promoted sales of the coins.
The early years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration saw a resurgence in commemorative issues. Somehow, the Oregon Trail Memorial Association succeeded in petitioning the Mint to reissue the Oregon Trail half-dollar in small batches throughout the 1930s. Coins were struck at three different mints across the various years, resulting in a whopping fourteen separate issues for collectors to seek out. Congress finally put an end to the commemorative coin boom in 1939.