My Take on the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar
The 1925 Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar commemorates the 1825 founding of Fort Vancouver by the Hudson’s Bay Company and it’s first administrator, Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857). The obverse features a left facing bust of Dr. McLoughlin based on a sketch by Vancouver, Washington native John T. Urquhart. The reverse features a frontiersman clothed in buckskins standing in front of the Fort Vancouver stockade with the Columbia River and Mt. Hood in the background. Portland, Oregon native Sidney Bell is credited with the coin’s original design and Laura Gardin Fraser with modifying the motifs and preparing the final models.
Interestingly, Laura Gardin Fraser nearly missed out on the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half- Dollar. After rejecting Sydney Bell’s models, the Federal Commission of Fine Arts sought medalist Chester Beach who himself designed the 1923 Monroe Doctrine Centennial Half-Dollar to modify and complete the models. However, Chester Beach was unavailable and Laura Gardin Fraser was commissioned with the task on June 15, 1925. Subsequently, She finished the new models by July 1 and the first 50,028 coins (28 for assay purposes) were ready for delivery on August 1.
Because of their love and admiration for the old west, both James and Laura Fraser were adept at modeling subjects relating to western themes. Accordingly, it is probably for the best that the commission fell to Laura as I will detail in the following paragraphs. To understand Laura’s rendition of Dr. McLoughlin on the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar it is important to understand the man.
In the October 1925 issue of the Numismatist, Portland resident George A. Pipes wrote the following about Dr. McLoughlin. “Dr. McLoughlin was truly a great man. He ruled this great territory as an absolute monarch, a benevolent despot, Haroun-alRaschid reincarnated. He was able to convince the savage tribes of Indians that he and his company intended them no harm. If an Indian did wrong to a white man, he was punished, and the same punishment was administered to a white who wronged an Indian. He forbade the evil practice which had existed theretofore of trading “firewater” to the Indians. He dealt with such justness toward these savage tribes that for hundreds of miles around they acknowledged him their Big Chief and lived in peace and quiet among the whites.”
Laura Fraser’s rendition of Dr. McLoughlin’s bust features him as an older man, and as such someone who is dignified and demands respect. Dr. McLoughlin’s high cheek bone and deep eyes show him to be determined. His thick eyebrows remind me of someone who is wise or in deep thought. Furthermore, Dr. McLoughlin is dressed in clothing that seems to suggest that he was a shrewd businessman. Consequently, when you read Dr. McLoughlin’s biography, the image of his bust on the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar is exactly what you might expect to see. These then are all the little things an artist can subtly add to their subject in order to portray a certain image without significantly altering the subject.
I do not know for sure what changes Laura Gardin Fraser made to the reverse motifs of this coin. However, according to the US Rare Coin Investments website she added the frontiersman to the original design.
The most prominent device on the reverse of the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar is the frontiersman. Ergo, he is symbolic of the type of person who traded furs in the mountainous regions of the Pacific northwest during the early to middle 1800’s. That his head has an appearance of towering higher than Mt. Hood shows that he is more than equal to harshness of the environment in which he lives. He is tall and stocky, indicating that he is strong and physically fit. He is wearing a coonskin cap with a full beard and a stern face proving that he is resilient and ready for any adverse weather conditions he may encounter. His buckskin clothing has the appearance of authenticity as the edges are tattered. His leg muscles are well defined and powerful such as what he would need to traverse rugged terrain. Finally, the frontiersman is standing with his rifle in a position of readiness to defend the fort behind him. This man then is a representative type of the 1,000 white men who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company under Dr. John McLoughlin.
Finally, I’m not sure how this coin may have turned out if Chester Beach finished the models. However, I do know that Laura Gardin Fraser executed the design features of the Fort Vancouver Centennial Half-Dollar well.
1 Legendary Locals of Vancouver, Washington, pg.56
2 Commemorative Coins of the United States by Q. David Bowers, Chapter 8
3 US Rare Coin Investments, http://www.usrarecoininvestments.com/collecting/vancouver- halfdollar.htm
4 The Numismatist, October 1925, pg. 543-54