The Pilgrims were English Dissenters, a religious group that objected to certain practices of the Church of England. Facing persecution under the rule of James I, a group including William Bradford fled to the Netherlands in 1608, and more famously to the New World in 1620 aboard the Mayflower. Though they planned to sail to Virginia, they were forced to land in Massachusetts by poor weather. They established the Mayflower Compact to govern their settlement outside the governance of the Virginia Colony; this document is considered a founding document of American democracy. The annual Thanksgiving holiday is traced to the Pilgrim’s celebration of a successful harvest in 1621.
In 1920, Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Walsh proposed a Pilgrim Tercentenary half-dollar. Two other commemorative issues had been proposed that same year. The sponsoring organization was the Pilgrim Tercentenary Commission, which would use profits from sales of the coins to finance observances of the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ settlement. 300,000 coins were authorized.
The Pilgrim Tercentenary Commission selected Boston sculptor Cyrus Dallin to design the coin. His design features William Bradford, Governor of the Plymouth Colony, on the obverse. The reverse design shows the Mayflower at full sail on a stormy sea. Multiple numismatic historians have noted an anachronism in Dallin’s depiction of the Mayflower: the type of sail shown on the bow of the ship was not yet in maritime use in 1620.
James Earle Fraser, a member of the Commission of Fine Arts and designer of the Buffalo nickel, was shown Dallin’s designs and criticized the lettering. However, the production of the coin was on an accelerated timeline, and Fraser was aware that Dallin would not have an opportunity to revise his design. The Treasury approved the design without revisions and production began in October 1920.
The Pilgrim Tercentenary half-dollar is significant in the history of coin collecting because it was one of the first commemorative issues produced across multiple years for marketing purposes. The first 200,000 coins, all produced in 1920, were shipped to the Shawmut National Bank in Boston. Despite steady sales, there were still tens of thousands of unsold coins by the end of the year. Nonetheless, the Pilgrim Tercentenary Commission ordered the remaining 100,000 coins authorized by the Congressional legislation in July 1921. Despite an economic recession, the Committee still felt that there would be sufficient demand from collectors who wanted a full set. Similar logic would be used by sponsoring organizations and coin dealers for future commemorative issues in a bid to increase their profits at the expense of collectors; in the words of the famous numismatist Q. David Bowers, “The age of innocence had ended.”
The 1921 coins differ very slightly in appearance, as they have a 1921 date on the obverse; the 1920 coins have no date on this side, only the “1620-1920” inscription on the reverse. The 1921 coins are significantly rarer and command higher prices among collectors today. Many Pilgrim half dollars show signs of wear and it is difficult to find high-level mint state coins.