The Stories Behind All 50 State Quarters
Between 1999 and 2008, the United States Mint produced a series of commemorative quarters, with a new state-specific design released approximately every ten weeks. The quarters were released in the same order that the states ratified the Constitution or were admitted into the Union, and that year is marked under each state's name. Here's how each state decided what to put on its quarter.
The design of this coin which, in 2003, was the 22nd to be released, shows Alabama native Helen Keller reading a braille book. The design was one of many submitted by Alabama schoolchildren as part of a statewide competition with the theme "Education: Link to the Past, Gateway to the Future." The initial favorite depicted a historical timeline of the state, but it was deemed too intricate to fit on the face of a quarter.
The image of Keller was chosen by her living relatives and she is identified on the coin both in English and in braille. She is flanked on either side by southern longleaf pine branches (Alabama's official state tree) and camellias (Alabama's official state flower) while a banner below reads: Spirit of Courage.
Released in 2008, Alaska's quarter was the second-to-last to debut. The image is of a grizzly bear with a salmon in its mouth, a fitting symbol considering that over 98% of the grizzly population in the country lives in Alaska. The inscription reads "The Great Land," which beat out other possibilities like "The Last Frontier," "North to the Future," and "Land of the Midnight Sun" (taken together, these sound like the titles of a dystopian young adult trilogy).
The Alaska Commemorative Coin Commission invited citizens to submit ideas for the quarter and received over 850 suggestions. A final four were forwarded to the US Mint for consideration, and those designs included a polar bear, a dog musher, and a gold panner.
As the last state in the contiguous U.S. to be added to the Union, Arizona was number 48 in coin release order. After soliciting suggestions from citizens, 4,200 ideas were whittled down to five narratives that were sent to the Mint for approval and artistic rendering. The five final images were then subjected to a statewide online poll. The final selection features a (relatively) sprawling view of the Grand Canyon with a saguaro cactus in the foreground. The banner declares it the "Grand Canyon State." Three of the four other finalists also featured the natural wonder.
The 25th quarter design to be released celebrates Arkansas as the "Natural State." A total of 9,320 designs were submitted for consideration and the field was cut to three—all of which chose to focus on the abundant natural resources in the state. After the final three designs were modified by the US Mint, Governor Mike Huckabee chose a winner. A giant diamond floats above a serene lake and is flanked by rice stalks and a mallard duck. The diamond represents Arkansas' popular Crater of Diamonds State Park, home to the only diamond mine open to the public. The rice represents (what else) the prolific rice production in the state, while the mallard attracts hunters from across the nation.
The 31st quarter in the series commemorates California conservationist John Muir's work with Yosemite Park and the Sierra Club, of which he was the first president. The Scottish-born Muir is shown gazing at the granite "Half Dome," which is one of the most recognizable features of Yosemite Valley. Both Muir and the Valley are named on the face of the coin.
The submissions from a statewide contest for the quarter design were narrowed to a field of 20 by a specially appointed California State Quarter Commission. From there, then-Governor Gray Davis chose five to send to the Mint: the winning selection as well as ones based around the themes "Waves and Sun," "Gold Miner," "Golden Gate Bridge," and "Giant Sequoia."
Colorado was the 38th state to join the Union and thus the 38th quarter in the series. The commemorative design shows a sweeping view of the Rocky Mountains with a swatch of evergreen trees in the foreground and a banner proclaiming the state "Colorful Colorado." The four other designs that were sent the US Mint for consideration included depictions of Mesa Verde National Park, the 10th Mountain Division, a prospector's pick and shovel with the Colorado Gold Rush slogan "Pikes Peak or Bust," and a decorative 'C' in honor of Colorado's nickname, the Centennial State, which it earned for gaining statehood less than one month after the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Connecticut's quarter, the fifth in the series, honors an early act of American patriotism and bravery with a depiction of the Charter Oak. The story goes that on the night of October 13, 1687, a representative of King James II came to Connecticut to demand the surrender of the Connecticut Charter. To thwart this effort, Captain Joseph Wadsworth squirreled the document away and hid it in the unusually large white oak, which quickly became famous for its role in American independence.
The famous tree, which fell during a storm in 1856, is such an enduring source of pride for Nutmeggers that out of the 112 submissions from citizens, 19 included some rendition of the Charter Oak.
As the first state to ratify the Constitution, Delaware's depiction of Caesar Rodney was the inaugural release in the state quarter project and bears the designation "The First State." The commemorative design harkens back to Delaware's role in America's independence. On July 1, 1776, Delaware native and Congressional delegate Rodney rode the 80-mile journey to Philadelphia to cast the deciding vote in favor of independence through thunderstorms and a heat wave despite suffering from cancer and asthma.
After the submissions for a design had been narrowed down to a final three, Rodney received 948 of the 1,519 total votes in a telephone and email poll, beating out a quill pen and parchment design and one depicting an allegorical "Lady Liberty."
The 27th quarter design features a "Gateway To Discovery" motto and ship iconography. The tall ship is a 16th century Spanish galleon, like the ones on which Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto sailed before arriving in Florida. Above it, the space shuttle represents Florida's Kennedy Center. Along with the two bookends of exploratory spirit is a depiction of the state's idyllic coastline.
In a three-week public vote, Floridians chose this design over four other finalists: "The Everglades," "Fishing Capital of the World," "St. Augustine," and "America's Spaceport."
The fourth-released quarter showcases a peach inside an outline of Georgia. The image is flanked by sprigs of Live Oak, which is the state tree, and you can read the state motto, "Wisdom, Justice, Moderation," on the surrounding banner. The shape of the state's outline has come under some criticism for apparently excluding one of Georgia's counties.
Dade County is located in that most northwestern corner of the state, where it looks like a chip has fallen off in the quarter design. Some people go so far as to say that the absence is an intentional exclusion as a form of delayed revenge for Dade's attempt to secede from the state prior to the Civil War.
The final coin in the commemorative series is the only one to feature royalty. Along with the eight major islands and the state's motto—written in Hawaiian, meaning "The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness"—is King Kamehameha I, who is renowned for unifying the many islands in the early 1800s.
In an online poll that garnered over 26,000 votes, this design beat out four other finalists: an alternate depiction of King Kamehameha, a female hula dancer, the Diamond Head mountain landmark, and a surfing-centric design.
The face of the commemorative Idaho quarter, the 43rd in the series, is dominated by the profile of a peregrine falcon, which was once on the endangered species list but has been brought back to thrive throughout Idaho by conservation efforts. The design also features a silhouette of the state and the motto, "May it be forever," written in Latin.
The falcon beat out other options, such as "Farmland Tapestry," which celebrated the state's agriculture, and "State Song," which included the lyrics "And here we have Idaho, Winning her way to fame."
There are 21 stars around the border of the Illinois coin to commemorate its status as the 21st state to join the Union. Inside an outline of the state is a young Illinois resident, Abraham Lincoln, who strides confidently towards his future as the 16th president. To the left is a silhouette of a farmstead and to the right is the Chicago skyline.
The initial contest for ideas was open to schoolchildren in the state and received over 6,000 submissions. From there, the pool was narrowed down to three main concepts: Illinois history, agriculture and industry, and state symbols.
Indiana's quarter also sports stars to show its place in the evolution of the country—19 for the 19th state. The rest of the coin pays homage to the Indianapolis 500 with a race car superimposed on the shape of the state itself. The theme and official motto of the state, "Crossroads of America," is emblazoned across the middle. This beat out other finalists that included more sporting images, state iconography and Chief Little Turtle, generally considered the last chief of the Miami Indians.
As with the Georgia quarter, some say the Indiana outline is missing the most northwestern county—Lake County, in this case.
The design of the Iowa quarter, the 29th in the series, comes directly from a painting by Grant Wood, he of "American Gothic" fame. The Iowa native became famous for his small-town scenes and the one chosen for this quarter has a specific focus on education. Along with Wood's name, the inscription reads "Foundations in Education," and shows a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher and her students planting a tree.
The quaint design was not without controversy, however. During the selection process, there was a push for one of the other finalists, which featured the Sullivan siblings. The five brothers from Waterloo all enlisted in the army following America's entry into World War II and were all killed aboard the U.S.S. Juneau during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The Kansas quarter, number 34, is one of the most straightforward: an image of a buffalo and a sunflower, the state's official animal and flower, respectively.
Kentucky was the first state on the western frontier to join the Union, and the 15th overall. An inscription reads "My Old Kentucky Home," which is the nickname for the pictured Federal Hill mansion, an old plantation house that supposedly was the inspiration for the song written by Stephen Foster.
In the foreground, a stately thoroughbred stands at the fence of a pasture, representing the tradition of raising racehorses in the state as well as the famous Kentucky Derby.
The design combines the elements of two other finalists: one dedicated to "My Old Kentucky Home" and one more overtly referencing the history of horse racing. Other options included an homage to Daniel Boone and a depiction of the state's legacy as Abraham Lincoln's birthplace.
The 18th quarter in the series includes not just an outline of the state itself but the entire Louisiana Purchase. In addition to the geographical representation, the design sports the state bird, the pelican, and a trumpet releasing musical notes as an homage to the jazz music of New Orleans.
Many of the finalists for the Maine quarter, the 23rd in the series, honor its coastal status and maritime activity. The winning design features Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, which was first commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1827. In the water around the lighthouse is a three-masted schooner which is intended to resemble Victory Chimes, the last surviving Chesapeake Ram schooner.
The centerpiece of the Maryland quarter, the seventh in the series, is the distinctive dome of the Maryland State House, the largest wooden dome built without nails in the country. It served as the nation's first peacetime capitol from 1783 to1784 after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War was signed there.
Other finalists honored the Star Spangled Banner, which was sewn by Mary Pickersgill while living in Baltimore, and the Ark and Dove, two ships that comprised the first expedition to Maryland from England.
The sixth quarter in the series honors the minutemen who made America's independence possible. The image is of the the Concord Minute Man of 1775 statue by Daniel Chester French, the man who also designed the Lincoln Memorial. The designs for the quarter were solicited through a statewide contest among elementary schoolchildren.
All the finalists for the design of Michigan's quarter included the Great Lakes that define the state's history and identity. The final result kept it simple, featuring an outline of the state that highlights the lakes.
Minnesota is famous as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, which is featured on its quarter, but that's a low-ball boast as it actually features 11,852 bodies of water. The design also shows a loon—Minnesota's state bird—and a boat full of happy recreational fishers.
All three finalists for Mississippi's quarter, the 20th in the series, bore the inscription, "The Magnolia State." The image that was ultimately selected features a closeup of two of the state flowers. Critics of the coin have said that, while nice in theory, this design ends up looking like an amorphous blob when produced quarter-sized.
The 24th quarter to be released came with a lot more controversy than any of those preceding it. The final design depicts the historic return of Lewis and Clark's expedition down the Missouri River with the Gateway Arch rising behind them (symbolically, since construction on the Arch didn't begin until more than a century after Lewis and Clark's exploration).
It's a nice image, but the man who designed it despises it. Missouri artist Paul Jackson was named the winner of the statewide contest after his submission was chosen. But when he saw the Mint's finished design, he didn't recognize it as his own. The engravers at the Mint, it seems, are not looking for an exact image, but rather an idea. What they produced doesn't look like Jackson's original design, so he took his protest all the way to Washington D.C., where he rolled a four-foot quarter down the street demanding justice. He argued that the engravers were looking to have their names and initials immortalized along with the finished product, not those of the citizens whose submissions were selected.
The Mint claimed the conditions of such design contests never promised faithfulness to the winning submissions, but following "Quartergate," the term "design contest" was dropped from solicitations for ideas for later state quarters.
Montana's quarter features a mountain range flattening into a vast plain across the diameter of the coin as reference to the varied and valuable topography of the state. The caption reads "Big Sky Country," the state's oft-cited, unofficial nickname. The most prominent feature, however, is a bison skull, an iconic, albeit nonspecific symbol of Western, cowboy-like pursuits such as cattle ranches and fur trapping.
The caption on the Nebraska state quarter, which was the 37th in the series, reads "Chimney Rock," and it includes an image of the striking geological structure rising out of the Nebraska plains in the background. The towering rock formation, which has been named a National Historic Site, served as an important landmark for many westward voyages in America's early days. An ox-drawn covered wagon carrying pioneers dominates the foreground of the design and commemorates Nebraska as home to portions of the Oregon and Mormon trails. Other finalists from the statewide solicitation included two images of the Nebraska state capitol in Lincoln—one of the building itself and another featuring The Sower statue that sits atop it— as well as a depiction of Chief Standing Bear from the Ponca Native American tribe.
More than 50% of the country's wild horse population lives in Nevada, and they make for a fitting design for the state's quarter. Behind the trio of mustangs is a mountain range, and the scene is flanked by sprigs of sagebrush, the official flower of the state. "The Silver State" refers to the nickname that commemorates the Comstock Lode of silver ore that was the first of its kind discovered in the U.S. Several of the other finalists played up this claim to fame with images of miners and swinging picks while others focused on the Nevada wilderness.
29. New Hampshire
The nine stars on the New Hampshire quarter commemorate its status as the ninth state. The design features two phrases: the state motto, "Live Free or Die," and "Old Man of the Mountain," a caption for the craggy rock formation pictured. The unique shape of the 1,200 foot mountainside was formed by a series of five granite cliff ledges that distinctly resembled a facial profile. The quarter is already a relic, as the formation collapsed in 2003.
30. New Jersey
As just the third state to join the Union, and thus the third coin in the series, New Jersey's quarter features an iconic image of Revolutionary history. The design is based on Emanuel Leutze's famous "Washington Crossing the Delaware" painting, which depicts the 1776 Christmas night crossing by General George Washington and his troops to ambush the enemy in Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey.
31. New Mexico
All four of the finalists for the 47th quarter featured an outline of New Mexico and the Zia sun symbol. The Zia people revered the sun and made frequent use of the symbol that incorporated both the circular sun and the number four which was thought to be reflected in everything from the seasons of the year to the sacred obligations of life. In its statehood, New Mexico co-opted the symbol, which can be seen not just on the quarter but also on the state flag and even in the shape of the State Capitol.
32. New York
New York's quarter celebrates the state's historical significance as an entry point for the millions of immigrants who shaped America's identity.This design received 76% of the final vote and beat out designs like Henry Hudson and his ship and a rendering of the Battle of Saratoga.
33. North Carolina
The 12th quarter in the series features an engraved rendition of John T. Daniel's iconic photograph of the Wright Brothers' successful first flight in Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903.
34. North Dakota
The North Dakota quarter, the 39th in the series, depicts two American bison grazing on the state's Badlands. The once nearly extinct species has enjoyed a minor resurgence in areas like Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The other two finalists also highlighted the natural charm of the state, with one following an agricultural theme and the other depicting its sweeping landscape.
North Carolina gets some commemorative competition from Ohio when it comes to aerial origins. While the former is the site of the "First Flight," the 17th state boasts itself as the "Birthplace of Aviation Pioneers." Not only was one half of the famous Wright brothers duo born there—hence the early flying machine— but so were astronauts Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, who are represented by an anonymous space suit on the coin. Despite this somewhat tenuous connection to aviation, it was a popular theme amongst the design finalists.
The simple image of the state bird, the Scissortailed Flycatcher, and the state flower, the Indian Blanket (or gaillardia), beat out four other finalists which all featured scenes from pioneer life for the design of Oklahoma's quarter.
The 33rd quarter in the series features a scene from Crater Lake, which was formed thousands of years ago by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama. The lake is notable for having no rivers running into it as well as for holding the distinction as the deepest lake in America. Also visible in the quarter design is Wizard Island, the larger of two land masses contained in the lake, which is itself a volcanic cinder cone. The Crater Lake design beat out three other finalists: a jumping salmon, the Oregon Trail, and Mount Hood.
The primary focus of Pennsylvania's quarter is an image of the Commonwealth statue that has stood atop the capitol building in Harrisburg since 1905, the 14' 6" bronze-gilded female figure crafted by Roland Hinton Perry. She is framed by the outline of the state and to her left is Pennsylvania's motto: "Virtue, Liberty, Independence." On her right is a pared-down depiction of a keystone, a nod to the state's nickname, which celebrates Pennsylvania's integral place in the country's early history.
39. Rhode Island
What Rhode Island lacks in landmass it makes up for in beaches. The 13th state has over 400 miles of coastline, which is honored in its quarter with the caption "The Ocean State." It also features a sailboat sitting in Narragansett Bay, the largest estuary in New England and a defining factor in Rhode Island's geography. After the initial pool of submissions had been narrowed to a field of three finalists, a statewide poll awarded the sailboat design 57% of the vote.
40. South Carolina
South Carolina, quarter number eight, went the hodgepodge-of-symbols route. Along with the state outline comes all the official flora and fauna: bird (Carolina wren), flower (yellow jasmine), and tree (palmetto).
41. South Dakota
Quarter number 40 features South Dakota's most recognizable landmark: Mount Rushmore. In addition to the four-headed rock portrait, the coin design includes wheat stalks and a Chinese ring-necked pheasant.
Although these are all fitting symbols, critics have pointed out that, in a state that boasts a high population of Native Americans, the commemorative quarter features icons that are all, in some way, invasive. Mount Rushmore has attracted controversy for serving as a visual reminder of how the mountains and the surrounding lands were violently seized from the Lakota tribe, who have historically protested the sculpture. And both pheasants and wheat are exotic in South Dakota where they have pushed out native species.
The three stars on Tennessee's quarter refer not to its numerical place in the nation's formation—which is 16th—but rather the three regions of the state that have each made a unique contribution to the country's musical heritage. Along with an open book of sheet music, there is a fiddle representing the Appalachian music of east Tennessee, a trumpet for the Blues of Memphis and west Tennessee and a guitar to symbolize central Tennessee's country music, based in Nashville.
Eagle-eyed critics have pointed out that, for a state that takes such pride in these instruments, Tennessee failed to accurately render all of them—the quarter's acoustic guitar has just five strings.
The 28th quarter in the series depicts a visualization of Texas' nickname: The Lone Star State. Along with an outline of the state there is, well, a lone star. The image is bordered by a lariat, the rope used to form lassos of the sort Texan cowboys might use.
The back of Utah's quarter shows an artistic rendering of an actual event. On May 10, 1869, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads were joined to form the first transcontinental railroad. The ceremony for the so-called "wedding of the rails" took place in Promontory, Utah where, just as is shown in the quarter, trains from each railroad came face-to-face for the nailing of the final golden spike (not drawn to scale). The depiction of this event, which earned Utah the designation as "Crossroads of the West," beat out other finalists featuring a beehive, part of the state seal, and a winter sports design to celebrate Utah's role as host of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The first state admitted after the original 13 colonies, Vermont's quarter features an idyllic winter scene. As Camel's Hump mountain looms in the background, an appropriately bundled Vermonter taps leafless maple trees for sap. The state motto, "Freedom and Unity," is also inscribed on the coin.
Quarter number ten celebrates Virginia's distinction as home to the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The three ships shown in the design, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, were all part of the Virginia Company, chartered by King James I of England. On May 12, 1607, they landed on a small island along the James River and founded Jamestown, which celebrated its quadricentennial in 2007.
The "Evergreen State," quarter number 42 features a design heavy on the Pacific Northwest's natural beauty. A king salmon is shown leaping from the waters in the foreground while Mount Rainier, an active volcano encased in more than 35 square miles of snow and ice, rises out of a lush forest in the background.
48. West Virginia
West Virginia's quarter features New River Gorge, with the river below and the bridge above. When it was completed in 1977, the bridge held the distinction of being the world's longest steel single-span arch bridge as well as the highest vehicular bridge in the world (it is now the fourth longest and 15th highest). Although it didn't make to the final round, among 1,800 design concepts submitted, perhaps the most notable was a depiction of Mothman, the shadowy, 7-foot tall anthropomorphic winged figure who was reportedly spotted throughout the state in 1966 and '67.
Of course quarter number 30 features a wheel of cheese. With 17,000 dairy farms, Wisconsin produces 350 varieties of cheese—more than any other state. But there's more to Wisconsin than just cheese, so an ear of corn is also present in the design to represent the rich agricultural production of the state.
Three of the five final designs for Wyoming featured an image of a bucking horse with a rodeo-style rider, so it's no surprise the pair is featured on the quarter. The cowboy represents the 44th state's Wild West heritage. The coin also includes Wyoming's motto: "The Equality State," which is a reference to its progressiveness on the issue of women's suffrage. In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote.
This post originally appeared in 2014.