Panel approves controversial coin

Despite strong misgivings about his treatment of Virginia Indians, a federal review panel has supported placing explorer John Smith alongside an Indian chief on commemorative coins to mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown.

In a discussion that was marked by pointed comments about Smith’s dealings with Native people, members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee selected four designs to recommend to Treasury Secretary John Snow for the two commemorative coins that will be issued in early 2007 to mark Jamestown’s settlement.

Voicing fears that some of the proposed designs showed a “Hollywood” approach to the relationship between the European settlers and Indians, the committee voted Jan. 24 nonetheless to recommend a design showing Smith and Chief Powhatan with a bag of corn on the head of a $5 gold coin.

Smith’s dealings with the Indians were clearly troubling to the committee, composed of historians, writers and numismatic experts. Leon Billings, a former Congressional aide from Maryland, called Smith “a brutal sob” and history professor John K. Alexander of Cincinnati, voiced the concern that some images portrayed a “Hollywood image” of the natives.

He said the image ignored the likelihood that Smith was “stealing their coin” in an effort to keep the colony alive.

“Regardless of the skullduggery of John Smith, corn was a great contribution of the American Indians,” said Ken Thomasma, a Wyoming writer.

Jamestown officials had suggested that corn be one of the subjects on the coins, along with glassblowing, the first American industry, the waterways traveled by natives, the remains of the Jamestown Memorial Church, the oldest structure at colonial site, and the three ships that brought Europeans to Virginia. The committee rejected many of those suggested designs, but did endorse images of corn and natives for the coins.

For the reverse (tail) of the gold coin it recommended an image of an Indian girl bearing corn, but urged deleting the phrase “a gift from our harvest.” That came after Alexander suggested that Smith had stolen corn from the Indians.

For the Jamestown silver dollar, the CCAC selected a design for the head side that features three profiles, one of a black woman, an English settler and a Indian male.

The three faces were to show the diversity that quickly developed in Jamestown after its settlement with the arrival of indentured black servants and later slaves. But since the coin design referred to “the founding of Jamestown” some members objected.

Alexander noted that “might be historically incorrect” because the first blacks did not arrive in Virginia until several years after the founding of Jamestown.

For the reverse (tail) of the silver dollar, the committee recommended a view of a native with a bow and arrow and a native “longhouse.”

The panel debated the position of an arrow carried by native, but dropped that objection when told that the coin design was based on an historical drawing.

The designs will now go before the Commission of Fine Arts for a second public review March 16. It then will be up to Snow, in consultation with Jamestown officials, to make the final selection.

Most of the coins are likely to be purchased by coin collectors. Although these coins have a face value of $5 and $1, they come in polished condition and sell at a premium price. In addition, Congress has authorized a surcharge on them to benefit Jamestown, the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Under a law passed in 2004 the U.S. Mint can strike up to 500,000 silver dollars and 100,000 $5 gold coins for the event. If all the coins are sold, surcharges placed on them could yield $4.5 million for Jamestown restoration and other restoration projects.


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