Despite having one of the most beautiful design in the series, the Oregon Trail Half Dollar is usually cited as the best example of the abuses which began to take place within commemorative coin programs. Between the years 1926 and 1939, the coins were minted with eight different dates at three different mint facilities for varying prices, in an attempt to make as much money as possible.
The obverse of the Oregon Trail Half Dollar was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser. It features a covered wagon drawn by two oxen moving west, towards the setting sun. The inscription “In God We Trust” appears above with “Oregon Trail Memorial” and the date below. (Officially, the US Mint states this as the obverse of the coin, although the designers of the coin and many collectors consider this the reverse of the coin.)
The other side of the coin was designed by James Earle Fraser. The full figure of a Native American in headdress is shown. He stands before a map of the United States with the Oregon Trail marked, with his left hand outstretched to the east and a bow in his right hand spanning the continent. The inscriptions read “United States of America” and “Half Dollar”.
The maximum authorized mintage for the program was set at a lofty 6 million pieces, which was the largest authorization for commemorative coin thus far. For the first year of issue coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint and San Francisco Mint and offered by the Oregon Trail Memorial Association for $1 each.
Since the law authorizing the coins did not include a specific time frame or mint, the Association requested more coins struck in subsequent years and from different mints. Additional coins would be minted in 1928, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1938, and 1939, variously at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints. Individual coin pricing varied from $1.50 to $2.00 to $1.60. The final two years were sold as complete sets from all three mints for $6.25 and later $7.50 each.
Despite the vast number of different issues for the Oregon Trail Half Dollars, ultimately only 264,419 coins were sold. All coins remain relatively accessible for collectors of today, despite some lower mintages. Some issues are available in exceptionally high grades at relatively affordable prices.
Oregon Trail Half Dollar Coin Specifications
Designer: Laura Gardin Fraser (obverse), James Earle Fraser (reverse)
Composition: 90% silver, 10% copper
Weight: 12.50 grams
Diameter: 30.6 mm
Authorization: Public Law 69-235
Maximum Authorized Mintage: 6,000,000
Oregon Trail Half Dollar Mintages