This installment of “From the Colonel’s Desk” comes from the pen of award-winning author Robert W. Shippee, a longtime collector and researcher. His book Pleasure and Profit: 100 Lessons for Building and Selling a Collection of Rare Coins maps his adventures in legal tender; here, he explores an important American medal rooted in Kentucky.
The name Shelby is familiar to those who live in Kentucky and, indeed, far beyond its borders. There’s the city of Shelbyville, located in Shelby County in north central Kentucky. Nine other states have cities named Shelby or Shelbyville, and eight states to the north, west, and south of Kentucky have a Shelby County. There are two Camp Shelbys and a Fort Shelby located in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.
All of these locations and installations are named after Isaac Shelby (1750–1826), who served as the first and fifth governor of Kentucky and was a distinguished military officer in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. So, who was he, and what is his connection to numismatics?
Isaac Shelby was born in the Colony of Maryland on December 11, 1750. His parents were Welsh immigrants. He was educated in local schools and worked on his father’s plantation. At the age of 18, Shelby became a land surveyor, an employment also practiced a couple of decades earlier by George Washington.
Shelby’s first military experience was gained in 1774–1775 when he served in Lord Dunmore’s War, a border dispute between the Colony of Virginia and the Shawnee and Mongo Indian Nations. Some historians have called these engagements the first battles of the Revolutionary War, since the defeated Shawnee again declared war on the Virginia colonists in May 1776, just as the Revolution was getting underway.
In 1776, Shelby was appointed captain of a company of Virginia Minutemen. His unit procured supplies (sometimes at Shelby’s personal expense) for the beleaguered Continental Army. In early 1779, Shelby was appointed a major (by Governor Thomas Jefferson), and later that year, he was promoted to colonel of a North Carolina regiment.
In 1780, Shelby and his men participated in multiple military engagements, serving under generals Daniel Morgan, Horatio Gates, and Nathanael Greene. Collectors of Revolutionary War–era Comitia Americana medals will recognize Morgan, Gates, and Greene (along with Washington and several others) as recipients of gold Congressional medals. While Shelby did not appear on any Comitia Americana medal, he did receive a pair of pistols and a ceremonial sword from the North Carolina legislature for his decisive victory at the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina in October 1780. (Like many legislative promises, there was a long delay between the words and the action. Shelby did not receive his awards until 1813).
After the war, while in the District of Kentucky (then still part of the Commonwealth of Virginia) doing surveying work in 1782, Shelby met Susanna Hart. The Harts were a wealthy and well-connected family who controlled tens of thousands of acres of land in Kentucky. One of Susanna’s cousins was married to Henry Clay, one of the most influential statesmen in the first half of the 19th century. Susanna and Isaac married in the wilderness of Boonesborough, Kentucky, in April 1783. She was 22; he was 32. They eventually had 11 children who themselves gave birth to more than 60 grandchildren.
Over the course of the following decade, Shelby improved the land he had been awarded for his military service. The Shelby family initially lived in a log cabin but, in 1786, moved into their new stone house, called Traveler’s Rest, located near the Wilderness Road built by Daniel Boone. The house survived for over a century until it burned in 1905. A detached outbuilding used by slaves still stands. (Shelby’s taxable “property” in 1804 included 42 slaves.)
Isaac Shelby worked to get Kentucky recognized as a separate state, and when this was achieved on June 1, 1792, he was unanimously elected as its first governor. He served in this capacity for one four-year term, during which time, among many other challenges, he gave strong support to the military actions carried out by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne against the American Indians in the Northwest Territory.* Wayne was yet another Revolutionary War recipient of a gold Congressional medal. As the new Kentucky constitution did not permit governors to serve consecutive terms, Shelby retired back to Traveler’s Rest in 1796 and remained a farmer for the next 16 years. His only public appearances during this time occurred when he served as a presidential elector in six elections.
After the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the old (aged 61) war hero Shelby was urged to come out of retirement and run again for governor. He handily won the election in August of that year.
Two days before his inauguration, Shelby and the outgoing governor, Charles Scott, agreed to appoint William Henry Harrison (aged 39) as commander of the Kentucky militia even though Harrison was not a native of Kentucky. Shelby then pressed President James Madison to give Harrison command of all military forces in the Northwest Territory, where the British and their Native American allies represented a grave threat to American interests.
In March 1813, at Major General Harrison’s request, Shelby dispatched 1,200 Kentuckians, including his oldest son, James, to support Harrison at Fort Meigs in northwestern Ohio. Four months later, at the end of July, Harrison again requested volunteers from Shelby, and this time he asked Shelby to lead the soldiers into battle personally. Shelby, himself now a major general, raised a force of 3,500 men (double the number requested by Harrison) and headed to Fort Detroit.
As Shelby and his men were making their way north, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry secured an important victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie.** When the British lost control of the lake, their primary route for supplying their troops in the Northwest Territory was severed. This weakness caused the British army, commanded by Major General Henry Proctor, along with the allied tribal confederacy under Shawnee leader Tecumseh, to beat a retreat across the border into Canada, with Harrison’s and Shelby’s men in hot pursuit.
On October 5, 1813, the forces under the command of Major General Harrison and Major General Shelby secured a decisive victory over the British army at the Battle of the Thames.§ Chief Tecumseh was killed in the battle, possibly by Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson, another Kentuckian. Five years later, Congress authorized the issuance of gold medals to both Harrison and Shelby for their victory.
Shelby again retired from the governorship at the end of his second term in 1816. President James Monroe tried to recruit him to be his secretary of war, but Shelby demurred on the basis of his age. He did, however, perform one final act of public service, accompanying Andrew Jackson to secure a treaty with the Chickasaw Indians in 1818. Two years later, he suffered a stroke, though his mind remained sharp to the end of his life. On July 18, 1826, Isaac Shelby died at age 75 and was buried at his estate, Traveler’s Rest, in Lincoln County, central Kentucky.
On April 4, 1818, after a two-year delay occasioned by certain entirely unfounded political accusations designed to impugn the character and conduct of General Harrison, the U.S. Congress finally adopted this resolution:
“Resolved unanimously by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled: That the thanks of Congress be, and they are hereby, presented to Major-General William Henry Harrison, and Isaac Shelby, late governor [i.e., former governor] of Kentucky, and through them, to the officers and men under their command, for their gallantry and good conduct in defeating the combined British and Indian forces under Major-General Proctor, on the Thames, in Upper Canada, on the fifth day of October, one thousand eight hundred and thirteen, capturing the British army, with their baggage, camp equipage and artillery; and that the President of the United States be requested to cause two gold medals to be struck, emblematical of this triumph, and presented to General Harrison and Isaac Shelby, late Governor of Kentucky.”
Moritz Fürst, a talented, if mercurial, engraver and die sinker, had the job of preparing many of the dies needed to strike the medals awarded to senior Army and Navy officers for their heroics in the War of 1812. Because of his work backlog, he did not finish preparing the dies used to strike the Shelby medal until May 1822. Fürst created the obverse die based on a portrait or sketch of Shelby but used a design prepared by the famous portrait painter Thomas Sully to sculpt the reverse die.
The reverse of the Shelby medal depicts one of the most stunning battle scenes ever to appear on any early American military medal, rivaling the work of leading French medalist, Augustin Dupré, on the Daniel Morgan at Cowpens medal. Sully and Fürst made a point of showing the death of Tecumseh within the battle scene.
The dies were turned over to the U.S. Mint in May 1822, as mentioned, but further delays ensued. The gold medal itself, measuring 65 mm in diameter (just over 2.5 inches), was not produced by the Mint until March 1824. It was then promptly presented to Shelby at his home in Kentucky, more than a decade after the battle and barely two years before his death.
Shelby bequeathed his gold medal to his wife, who, in turn, left it to their son, Isaac Jr., upon her death in 1833. He (or perhaps a descendant of his) donated the medal to the Kentucky Historical Society several decades later. The medal was stolen from the KHS in the mid-1930s, and it is probably lost forever.
The medal pictured here is from the author’s collection: one of a very small number of surviving white metal examples. The collaring mark or “witness line” on the edge of the medal at 12 o’clock and the perfect state of the dies indicate that this is a very early striking (circa 1824) or, conceivably, an example used to test the dies before the gold specimen was struck. While the War Department ordered a few dozen white metal examples in 1825 and 1828, there is some uncertainty whether these orders were ever actually filled since so few white metal specimens are around today.† There is no evidence that any impressions were struck in silver, but there are on the order of several dozen later strikes in bronzed copper.
Unwelcome “baubles” and a disappointed letter.
On November 1, 1822, Isaac Shelby wrote this letter to his friend, the U.S. senator from Kentucky, Richard Mentor Johnson. As noted earlier, Johnson fought with Shelby at the Battle of the Thames and was credited by many with the killing of Chief Tecumseh.
I have received by a circuitous route two small boxes containing the representations of medals, which I presume have been forwarded by the War Department, in pursuance of the resolution of Congress voting gold medals to General Harrison and myself for the achievement on the Thames.
The composition of the Medals received is so different from that mentioned in the resolution, that I doubt whether it is intended by the Secretary of War [John C. Calhoun] that these Medals shall be considered as a compliance with the resolution. If they are so, I ask the favor of you to return them to the President [James Monroe] as a bauble not worth acceptance or preservation.
As no letter accompanied the packet containing them, I am left to conjecture for what purpose they are intended. I hope you will not take the trouble to bring these boxes back to me.
I am, Dear Sir,
Since the dies were completed in May 1822, is it possible that the War Department, knowing that Shelby had had a stroke two years earlier and realizing that the Mint was notoriously slow in hardening medal dies and getting medals struck, wanted to show Shelby “representations” of what would eventually be coming his way? Might they have sent him two one-sided clichés or tin “splashers,” which can be made from unhardened dies? These would show the intended obverse and reverse separately, thus the “two small boxes.” Why would no cover or explanatory letter have been included with the items? Since no clichés, cover letter, or response from Johnson have surfaced, we can only speculate.
The Location of Tecumseh’s Body?
The historical record is clear that designer Sully and die-sinker Fürst intended that the battle scene on the reverse of the Shelby medal show the death of Tecumseh. However, there’s some dispute today whether the body in the foreground, near an abandoned tomahawk and what could be a beaver hat, or the falling body in the middle distance, being shot by a soldier on horseback, is that of the famous chief. Richard Mentor Johnson was on horseback during the battle, so the body in the middle distance may have the stronger claim to be Tecumseh. But in the absence of some documentary proof from the records of Sully or Fürst, we’ll never know.
Since General Harrison was the commanding officer at the Battle of the Thames, why did Governor Shelby get the great battle scene? R.W. Julian, in his comprehensive 1977 work, Medals of the United States Mint, says that “the reverse [of the Harrison medal] was held up for some time in a squabble over the design. Harrison insisted that he get a battle scene as some of the other officers had been given. Judge [Joseph] Hopkinson, who oversaw the entire project for the War Department, finally had to inform Harrison in October, 1822, that he (Hopkinson) had the final say in the matter.”
Harrison’s complaint is understandable. The Shelby reverse is far more evocative than the Harrison reverse, which shows a static stand of British and Indian arms being crowned by a representation of America or Victory. A sense of the work that Fürst had to do to create the Shelby reverse can be deduced from the size of the bill he sent to the War Department: $1,800 for the pair of Shelby dies, vs. only $600 for the Harrison dies.
Shelby was 22 years older than Harrison. He was far better politically connected in the early 1820s. And he’d supplied most of the troops that took part in the Battle of the Thames. So it’s easy to imagine that the War Department might have preferred to bestow the better reverse on him over Harrison. But in the end, even if Harrison had pursued his complaints about the design of his medal, it would not have been possible to simply switch the two reverses. The legend BATTLE OF THE THAMES OCTOBER 5, 1813, consistent with the Congressional resolution, appears in the exergue of the Harrison reverse. But if you take a close look at the stand of arms, you’ll see a tablet. On that tablet are the words “FORT MEIGS” and “BATTLE OF THE THAMES.” Harrison had built Fort Meigs and had withstood a bloody battle there months before the Battle of the Thames. Shelby, on the other hand, had not been present at Meigs (though his son was), so it would have been impossible just to use the Harrison reverse for the Shelby medal.
Evidence of a Grudge?
Did General (later President) Harrison carry a grudge for decades about not receiving the superior medal? We can’t know for sure, but there exist in the numismatic marketplace several examples of a mule, pairing the Harrison obverse with the Shelby reverse. One such example appeared in a Heritage auction on February 14, 2008, as Lot #81079. It was a bronzed copper specimen, and it sold for a very reasonable $805. The cataloger in the Heritage sale quoted the cataloger of an earlier sale. That earlier cataloger had an intriguing theory: “. . .could Harrison, as President in 1841, have finally been in a position to force the Mint to strike his medal with a battle scene reverse?” This is, of course, just speculation, but it’s a delightful idea, and it could be true.
So, who was the first “Kentucky Colonel”?
This question is not a mystery. According to the website of The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, “The title Kentucky Colonel dates back to around 1813. The Kentucky Militia had just returned from a highly successful campaign during the War of 1812. When the Militia disbanded, Governor Isaac Shelby commissioned Charles S. Todd, one of his officers in the campaign, as an Aide-de-Camp on the governor’s staff. Todd’s official rank and grade was Colonel.” Todd also had a Shelby family connection: he married Shelby’s youngest daughter.
* The Northwest Territory was the name given to present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
** Perry was also a recipient of a Congressional gold medal. His medal includes the famous words contained in his dispatch to Harrison after his victory over the British fleet: “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND THEY ARE OURS.”
§ The Thames River is a waterway in southern Ontario, named in 1793 after the better-known River Thames that runs through the center of London, England.
†An alternative explanation is that 30 (let’s say) white metal medals were, in fact, struck and were given to officers who served under Shelby. But since white metal is so soft and so prone to acquiring tin pest, many of these medals might have deteriorated to the point that they were simply discarded by descendants of the original recipients. The few surviving white metal Shelby medals (aside from the one pictured here), as well as a number of other War of 1812 white metal medals, show substantial corrosion or other impairments.
Joan E. Cashin, Professor of History at Ohio State University, brought the Johnson letter to my attention and guided me on how to obtain a copy from the Special Collections Research Center at the University of Kentucky. Andrew Washburn, curator of the Kentucky Historical Society, provided information about the Shelby gold medal. Chris Neuzil, author of an upcoming book on early U.S. Congressional medals, and John Pack, of Stack’s Bowers Galleries, reviewed the article, provided useful information and suggestions, and helped me avoid novice errors. Gayle Beyer and Richard Shippee read the article and offered helpful comments. Stack’s Bowers Galleries kindly gave permission to use the images of both the white metal Shelby medal and the gold Harrison medal. The Heritage Auction Archives led me to the Harrison-Shelby mule medal. Wikipedia was a source for much of the background information on Governor Shelby.
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