Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, March 23, 2018

United States Commemorative Half Dollar Minted in 1937 Honored Pelham History

John Pell, so-called "Second Lord of the Manor of Pelham," is believed by many to be the individual depicted on the front of a legal tender United States half dollar minted in small quantities at the Philadelphia Mint in April of 1937.  He is shown holding a rope tied to the famed “fatt calfe” that Jacob Leisler, his heirs and assigns are required to deliver to John Pell, his heirs and assigns, every June 24 “forever (if demanded)”. Periodically, members of the Pell family make a ceremonial “demand” for delivery of such a fatt calfe from the City of New Rochelle in connection with family reunions and special celebrations.

This “requirement” arises from a sale of lands by John Pell and his wife, Rachel, on September 20, 1689.  They sold to Jacob Leisler of New York City 6,000 acres from the lands originally purchased from local Native Americans by Thomas Pell.  At the same time they gifted to Leisler another 100 acres for use as church grounds.  Leisler reportedly was commissioned to acquire the land on behalf of French Huguenots seeking to relocate to North America, many of whom fled from La Rochelle in France.  The land became today’s New Rochelle, named in honor of La Rochelle from which many of the Huguenots fled religious persecution by the French Catholics.

A condition of the sale in 1689 was that Jacob Leisler, his heirs and assigns should deliver to “John Pell his heirs and assigns Lords of the said Manor of Pelham . . . as an Acknowledgment to the said Manor one fatt calfe on every fouer and twentieth day of June Yearly and Every Year forever (if demanded).”

The story behind the famed New Rochelle Half Dollar that commemorates this annual “Acknowledgment” is a fascinating one – nearly as interesting as the scene depicted on the front of the coin. The half dollar commemorates the 250th anniversary of the settlement of New Rochelle, celebrated in 1938.  That event, of course, was of local – not national – interest.  So, just how did it come about that a legal tender coin came to be minted for a local event?

The answer is:  the affluence and influence of the members of the Westchester County Coin Club of New Rochelle were responsible.  The members of that club reportedly exerted pressure on their Congressional Delegation.  Consequently, on May 5, 1936, Congress passed legislation calling for not more than 25,000 half dollars to be struck at a single mint.  The coins were specifically to be dated 1938 regardless of when they were struck since they were being struck in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the settlement of New Rochelle in 1688. 

The design process for the coin was painful – so painful that it is now legendary.  Sculptor Lorillard Wise was selected to design the coin.  His design for the front of the coin showed a Native American crouching at the shoreline watching an approaching European ship on the waters with a sunburst on the horizon.  His design for the reverse of the coin included the seal of the City of New Rochelle as well as various commemorative and other inscriptions. 

The Federal Commission on Fine Arts delayed approval of the design and considered criticisms offered by members of the public.  Still, it granted formal approval of the design on September 16, 1936. Barely a month later, the Federal Commission on Fine Arts reportedly had second thoughts and reversed itself.  Commission Chairman Charles Moore issued a letter dated October 28, 1936 saying:

“The Commission feel that this work should be placed in the hands of an artist who has had experience in producing designs for medals and coins.”

An artist named Gertrude K. Lathrop was named to replace sculptor Lorillard Wise.  Lathrop was the sculptor of the Albany Charter Half Dollar minted that same year.  She quickly produced new designs for the front and back of the coin.  She chose a man dressed in an elegant period costume holding a rope tied to the famed “fatt calfe”.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the design on the front of the coin is the fact that no one knows the identity of the man with the “fatt calfe”.  Most presume it to be John Pell, but Lathrop apparently never said this to be the case.  As one author has written:

“Many people believe that the figure in the late 17th Century costume is meant for John Pell, but this is unconfirmed; the design can be read to mean either that the calf is being brought to Pell by one of Leisler’s people, or that Pell has just accepted the delivery.  Had Ms. Lathrop specifically meant the figure to represent Pell, she doubtless would have said so.”

Despite such a conclusion, there seems to be fairly strong evidence that the figure on the coin depicts John Pell.  Indeed, the sales pamphlet distributed by the “New Rochelle Commemorative Coin Committee” in connection with New Rochelle’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1938 states:

“The obverse of the coin shows Lord Pell receiving the protesting ‘fatt calfe,’ while the reverse bears a conventionalized fleur-de-lis, flower of France, which appears on the coat-of-arms of old La Rochelle and on the seal of modern New Rochelle.”

Similarly, an article that appeared in The Pelham Sun at the time noted that six local Pell family members had bought commemorative half dollars and affirmed that the coin depicted delivery of the "fatt calfe" to "their forebear."  The full article stated:

"Six Pells Buy Pell Coins

Six descendants of the Lord John Pell who deeded 6,000 acres to Jacob Leisler for French Huguenot settlers 249 years ago, have purchased commemorative half dollars depicting the delivery of a 'fat calfe' to their forebear, the 250th Anniversary Celebration Committee revealed last week.

The Pells are S. H. P. Pell, John Pell, and Howland Pell, of New York City; Herbert C. Pell, of Pellbridge, Hopewell, N.Y.; Clarence C. Pell, of Westbury, L.I., and Mrs. Walden Pell, of Cedarhurst, Long Island.

The delivery of the 'calfe' alludes to the reservation Lord Pell made in the deed, 'paying unto the said John Pell his heirs and assignes Lord of the said Manor of Pelham or to the assigns of him or them or their or either of them as an Acknowledgment to the Lord of the said Mannor one fate [sic] calfe on every fouer & twentyth day of June Yearly & Every Year forever (if demanded). . . ."

Source:  Six Pells Buy Pell Coins, The Pelham Sun, Jun. 3, 1938, p. 5, col. 1.  

Another local news article published at about the same time also indicated the coin depicts John Pell receiving the fat calf.  The article, quoted in full below, stated:  "The obverse of the coin shows Lord Penn [sic] receiving the protesting 'fatt calfe.'"  Numerous newspaper articles published throughout the country in 1937 and 1938 affirm that the image depicts John Pell receiving the calf, not a resident of New Rochelle delivering it.  See, e.g., THE COIN COLLECTOR, The New York Sun, Dec. 4, 1937, p. 19, cols. 1-2 (""Gertrude K. Lathrop, sculptor of Albany, is responsible for the design, to picture Lord Pell receiving the protesting 'fatt calfe,' on the obverse. . .").

The reverse of the commemorative coin depicts a stylized fleur de lis – a symbol found in the seal of the City of New Rochelle, borrowed from the seal of La Rochelle, France, after which the City of New Rochelle was named.  Lathrop’s designs were approved by the Commission of Fine Arts on February 25, 1937.

Despite some news reports at the time suggesting more coins were sold, reliable numismatic authorities indicate that 25,015 half dollars were minted.  However, 9,749 coins were never sold to collectors and were returned to the mint for melting, leaving a net mintage of 15,251 (15 of the original coins were reserved for assay). 

Uncirculated versions of this coin today are worth more than $450 to coin collectors.

Obverse of the Half-Dollar Commemorative Coin Depicting John
Pell Receiving the "Fatt Calfe"  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Reverse of the Half-Dollar Commemorative Coin Depicting
Fleur De Lis Representing La Rochelle and New Rochelle
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

John Pell Who Is Depicted Receiving the Fatt Calfe on
the Obverse of the Commemorative Coin.  NOTE:
Click on Image to Enlarge.

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"Commemorative Coin Will Increase In Value After Close of Anniversary Fete
Unsold U. S. Half-Dollars Issued to Commemorate 250th Anniversary of the Founding of New Rochelle Will be Melted Up.

When the Commemorative half-dollar issued in conjunction with this city's 250th Anniversary celebration is withdrawn from sale, the number of residents of this county who will benefit from its almost certain increase in value will not be in proportion to the large number of its purchasers elsewhere in this country.

This condition was revealed by Pitt M. Skipton, chairman of the Commemorative Coin Committee here, in an announcement that 17,000 of the limited issue of 25,000 coins have been sold, and that the unsold copies will be melted when the sale closes after the Anniversary Celebration on the week of June 12 to 18.

An experienced numismatist and a director of the Westchester Coin Club, Mr. Skipton asserted that the limited issue, the fact that the coin bears only the date 1938, that it has but one mint, and that unsold copies will not be released to dealers, practically insure an early rise in the value of the half-dollar.  Now being sold through local banks at $2.00 each, Mr. Skipton cited the value increase of other limited issues of commemorative coins as an example of what may be expected for the New Rochelle half-dollar.

'A half-dollar issued in 1935 for the 150th anniversary of the City of Hudson, N. Y. now sells for between seven and eight dollars,' he pointed out.  'The Hawaiian half-dollar issued in 1928 to commemorate the sesqui-centennial of discovery of the island by Captain James Cook now sells for between ten and twelve dollars a copy.'

Authorized by Congress in 1936, the New Rochelle coin was designed by Gertrude K. Lathrop, member of the National Academy of Design and of the National Sculpture Society.  The obverse of the coin shows Lord Penn [sic] receiving the protesting 'fatt calfe,' while the reverse bears a conventionalized fleur-de-lis, flower of France, which appears on the coat-of-arms of old La Rochelle and on the seal of New Rochelle."

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I have written before about the United States half-dollar commemorative coin minted to commemorate the 250th anniversary of New Rochelle celebrated in 1938.  See Bell, Blake A., John Pell and the New Rochelle Commemorative Coin Dated 1938, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 7, Feb. 13, 2004, p. 10, col. 1.  I also have written extensively about the delivery of the "fatt calfe" to John Pell known as the "Fatt Calfe Ceremony."  See, e.g.:

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