The Oregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar represents the longest running issue in the classic commemorative series. First minted in 1926, the design was struck on and off for an additional 13 years ending in 1939. It also represented the first time a Commemorative coins was struck at the San Francisco mint (1926-S) and the first time a Commemorative coin was struck at the Denver Mint (1935-D). By the time the series ended it was a poster child for the abuses of the commemorative coin system.
The originally authorized calling of the minting of six million coins passed on 17 May 1926. The resolution included:
The coinage of 50-cent pieces in commemoration of the heroism of the fathers and mothers who traversed the Oregon Trail to the far West with great hardship, daring, and loss of life, which not only resulted in adding new states to the Union but earned a well deserved and imperishable fame for the pioneers; to honor the twenty thousand dead that lie buried in unknown graves along two thousand miles of that great highway of history; to rescue the various important points along the old trail from oblivion; and to commemorate by suitable monuments, memorial or otherwise, the tragic events associated with that emigration - erecting them either along the trail itself or elsewhere, in localities appropriate for the purpose, including the city of Washington.
The initial mintage at the Philadelphia Mint, 48,030 was a small fraction of the total authorization, but the market was able to absorb this number and over the year the most were sold (a total of 75 coins were returned for melting due to poor quality) A second batch of coins were ordered and the mint struck an additional 100,000 pieces dated 1926 at the San Francisco mint (the first time a commemorative had been struck outside Philadelphia). However, by the time these coins were struck, the market desire for this particular theme had been satisfied and many of the 1926-S issues sat at the mint waiting for payment from the Oregon Trail Memorial Association.
Even with the 1926-S issue languishing in storage, the association requested additional coins be struck reasoning that a new date would stimulate additional demand. The mint refused in 1927, but succumbed to the argument in 1928 and struck an additional 50,028 coins in that year. However, with the backlog of 1926-S coins unpaid for the mint refused to allow the 1928 coins to be released. 5 years passed before the problem was resolved by melting 17,000 of the unsold 1926-S coins allowing the 1928-S to be issued.
At this point in the story, the professional Marketers get involved. In 1933 the Scott Stamp & Coin Company of New York City teamed with the Oregon Trail Memorial Association in an exclusive contract to market the coins. In a bid to make the coins more desirable Professional Numismatist Wayte Raymond, working for the Scott Company, suggested that all but a small fraction of the 1928 coins be melted to enhance the rarity of the issue. The mint agreed and all but 6,000 of the coins went into the melting pot. This strategy was then continued for the next 7 years. In 1933 a small number of coins were minted in Denver (the first mintage of a commemorative at that Branch Mint), and marketed in conjunction with the “Century of Progress Exposition” being held that year in Chicago.
In 1934, the pattern continued with another small mintage (7,006) in Denver. No Coins were minted in 1935, but in 1936 Raymond went back to the well, and had similar small lots produced in Philadelphia (10,006) and San Francisco (5,006). In 1937 it was back to Denver for 12,008 coins, followed by production at all three mints in 1938 and again in 1939. In 1939, Congress held hearings on the then numerous and varied abuses of the commemorative coin program and issued legislation on August 5 1939 forbidding the further production of Oregon Trail Memorial Commemoratives.
The design was executed by the famous husband and wife team of Laura Gardin Fraser (Obverse) and James Earle Fraser (Reverse). James is best remembered for the "Buffalo Nickel" and Laura won the contest to provide the design for the Washington Quarter, though the design was ignored by Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon in favor of the Flanagan Design which is still in use today. The Fraser design was eventually resurrected for the $5 gold commemorative issued in 1999 on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s death.
The Obverse design is dominated by the figure of an Indian clothed in a very brief loin cloth, a full ceremonial headdress and nothing else. A blanket is slung over his outstretched left arm, and he carries an unstrung bow in his right hand. The Indian stands looking east with his arm outstretched to the East seemingly trying to call a halt to the inevitable immigration. He stands in front of an outline map of the United States, with a dotted line (on a well struck coin) forming the Washington/Canadian border, but no demarcation of rest of the US-Canadian Border in the east. The California/Mexican border can be discerned under the “I” In United, but the Texas/Mexico Border is obscured by the Indian. In a seaming non-sequitur, a faint outline of Hudson Bay is also present above and to the right of the Indians head. A line of Conestoga wagons emerging from behind the Indian and marching off, ant like, to the Oregon/Washington coast. His body divides the inscription “United States of America”, with “United” and “Of” to his left and “States” and “America” on the right. The inscription “Half Dollar” runs along the bottom rim, again split by the Indians feet. On Branch mint issues the mint mark is just to the right of the “F” in half and just behind the Indians heels.
The reverse of the coins shows a Conestoga wagon carrying a mother and child, Drawn by a team of Oxen, and guided by pioneer, marching along a rugged wagon road heading west into the setting sun. “In God We Trust” arcs cross the top of the coin and is pierced by the sun’s rays. “Oregon Trail Memorial” is inscribed below the wagon road and above an arc of 5 stars. The issue date is centered at the bottom, and finally a conjoined monogram of the designer's initials “JE" and "LGF” is at ground level behind the wagon.
Conspicuously missing from the design on either side is the Motto “E Pluribus Unum”, or the word "Liberty"!
General Market Notes
Though demand for design initially died off after the first year of 1926, the Oregon Trail commemorative amongst modern collectors is considered one of the most attractive designs of the 20th Century and is always in demand.
The keys to the series are all of the 1939 issues from all three branch mints. The most affordable issues are the 1926 & 1926-S issues.