1818 - 1868

 Great and Good Friends

Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles

Historic Gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America

"Great and Good Friends"

From the early years of this relationship, “Great and Good Friend” was a salutation used by U.S. presidents in addressing the kings of Siam. This formal greeting harks back to a time when contact between the two governments was limited to envoys and letters, a reminder of how much the relationship has advanced over the past 200 years.

Portrait of President James Monroe, 1817; Painted by Charles Bird King and engraved by Goodman & Piggot

Courtesy of the Library of Congress; LC-USZ62-16956

The First Contact

Four decades after declaring independence from the British Empire in 1776, American merchants were looking to increase trade beyond the Atlantic Ocean, Siam was strategizing against encroaching European imperialism in Southeast Asia. Although cultural differences and geographical distances divided them, both Siam and the United States saw a friend in each other.

Initial contact was made in 1818, when an American expedition to Siam established the earliest treaty between the United States and an Asian nation, initiating a “perpetual peace” which has lasted to this day. When the countries were still separated by months at sea, Siam’s participation in several American world’s fairs brought the kingdom to the republic’s doorstep.


“View of the City of Bangkok,” 1822 Illustration by H. A. C.
Published in Journal of an Embassy from the Governor-General of India to the Courts of Siam and Cochin - China by John Crawfurd, 1828

This letter from Dit Bunnag (1768-1855) to President James Monroe (1758-1831) represents the earliest known correspondence between the governments of Siam and the United States. It is signed by “Phaja Surivongmontri,” referring to Somdet Chao Phraya Dit Bunnag, one of the most influential noblemen in Siam during the nineteenth century.

Dit Bunnag’s letter recounts a meeting between Prince Chetsadabodin (later King Nangklao, or Rama III, 1788-1851) and Stephen Williams (1781-1844), an American sea captain who had arrived in Bangkok to trade for sugar.

Williams helped to initiate one of the United States’ oldest relationships in the Eastern Hemisphere.


Letter from Phraya Suriyawong Montri (Dit Bunnag) to President James Monroe , 1818;

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, James Monroe Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Collection Doc No 4784-4785

The Roberts Expedition

Edmund Roberts (1784-1836), an agent of the United States, was tasked with visiting the major empires and kingdoms of Asia to seek trade agreements on behalf of the United States, the first diplomatic mission of its kind for the young nation. Roberts and the crew of the USS Peacock arrived in the Gulf of Siam in February 1833, nearly one year after departing from Boston, Massachusetts.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America, Drafted in 1833 and fully ratified in 1836
366 x 53 cm

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government

Bangkok had been the Siamese capital for only half a century when the Roberts expedition arrived, yet it had quickly developed into a bustling hub for trade.

During their stay, Roberts met primarily with Dit Bunnag, who was at this point the phrakhlang (minister of foreign affairs and finance) and thus responsible for the negotiation of treaties.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America, Drafted in 1833 and fully ratified in 1836
366 x 53 cm

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government

Three years after it was initially drafted, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the first agreement of its kind between the United States and an Asian nation, was fully ratified by King Nangklao, the U.S. Congress, and President Martin Van Buren (1782-1862).

Since the two countries did not adequately understand each other’s language at the time, the document was also transcribed in Portuguese and Chinese “to serve as testimony to the contents of the Treaty.”

Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America, Drafted in 1833 and fully ratified in 1836
366 x 53 cm

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government

The primary objective of this agreement was to establish a system of duties to regulate the import and export of goods by American merchants, thereby promoting trade. The treaty’s success was limited by the geographical distance that separated both nations, but still represented an important step for the United States and Siam in their development as world powers.

Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of Siam and the United States of America, Drafted in 1833 and fully ratified in 1836
366 x 53 cm

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government

The Famous Offer of Elephants

Inspired by a discussion King Mongkut had with an American captain about how elephants would be perceived in the United States, the king wrote to President Buchanan offering the United States a pair of elephants to “increase and multiply in the continent of America.” Along with his letter, the king included a pair of elephant tusks “the glory and renown of Siam may be promoted.

Letterbook copy of letter from President Abraham Lincoln to King Mongkut of Siam, February 14, 1862
Letter to Foreign Sovereigns and Heads of State, 1829-1877,

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government, 6158611

By the time the letter reached Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was president of the United States, and the country had descended into civil war. In 1862, President Lincoln politely declined the king’s kind offer out of concern that the U.S. climate would not “favor the multiplication of the elephant,” though it is also possible that the ongoing conflict at home contributed to the decision. Although the elephants never made the voyage around the world, the generosity of King Mongkut’s offer and the graciousness of President Lincoln’s reply nonetheless underscore the friendly spirit between both nations.

Letter from King Mongkut to President James Buchanan, 1861

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 6923529

Letter from Second King Pinklao to President Franklin Pierce (excerpt), 1856

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 6923526

Letter from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce (excerpt), 1859

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 6923542

Calling Cards from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1859

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 6923541

Chalong Phra Ong Khrui (Ceremonial Gold Robe)

Constructed from netted gold threads, the style of robe, known as chalong phra ong khrui, is a traditional garment worn by male members of the royal family. Chalong phra ong khrui dates back to the Ayutthaya period when, in addition to being worn by members of the royal court, they were gifted to foreign dignitaries to formalize diplomatic relationships. Prince Wan Waithayakon (1891-1976), a grandson of King Mongkut who once served as President of the United Nations General Assembly (1956-1957), generously gifted this insignia garment to the Smithsonian Institution during his term as Ambassador to the United States (1947-1952). It had been formerly worn by his father Prince Naradhip during Siamese state ceremonies, and later by, Prince Wan himself.

This style of gold robe is inherently fragile due to the delicate netted gold used in its construction, which is susceptible to wear and oxidation. To prepare the robe for transport and display, the loose threads, seams, and embroideries were stabilized by hand-stitching, and a custom padded insert was built to prevent the threads from eroding against themselves. Because of its weight and fragility, the robe had to be exhibited lying nearly flat in order to prevent deterioration at the seams.

Chalong Phra Ong Khrui (Ceremonial Gold Robe)
Gift from Prince Wan Waithayakon to the Smithsonian Institution, 1947 98 x 79 cm

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E-385867-0;
Photo by Jim Di Loreto

Silk Hip Wrapper for Nobleman

Two characteristic Southeast Asian techniques were used to make this phaa nung (hip wrapper): mat mii (ikat), in which the pattern is dyed onto the weft threads before the textile is woven; and the supplementary gold weft brocade called phaa yok. Similar to court nielloware, the textile design, particularly the two bars bordering the ground of the silk, indicates it was intended for a nobleman. Textiles in this style were worn exclusively within the court.

Silk and Gold Thread Brocade Hip Wrapper55
Gift from Second King Pinklao to President Franklin Pierce, 1856 96 x 326 cm

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E89-0;
Photo by James Di Loreto

Distributed exclusively by the Crown, insignia gift sets comparable to the one received by President Pierce conferred status and admittance to the court.

Gold Nielloware Bowl
Gifts from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E63-0, E65-0, E66-0
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Kate D. Sherwood

Following the signing of the Harris Treaty in 1856, King Mongkut’s presentation of these items to President Pierce was not simply a material gift but also an invitation to the court of Siam.

Gold stands
Gifts from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E63-0, E65-0, E66-0
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Kate D. Sherwood

Gold waterpots
Gifts from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E63-0, E65-0, E66-0
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Kate D. Sherwood

Gold Niello Tonsure Shears
Gifts from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E63-0, E65-0, E66-0
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Kate D. Sherwood

Gold Nielloware Waterpot, envelopes for betel leaf, stands, water bowl, lidded containers, and spittoon
Gift from King Chulalongkorn to the Smithsonian Institution, 1876

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; Left: E27150-0, E27153-0, E27155-0, E27156; Right: E27149-0, E27153-0, E27157-0;
Photo by Jim Di Loreto

Gold Nielloware -stand-spittoon-lidded pot(3 as set)
Gift from King Chulalongkorn to the Smithsonian Institution, 1876

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; Left: E27150-0, E27153-0, E27155-0, E27156; Right: E27149-0, E27153-0, E27157-0;
Photo by Jim Di Loreto

These swords and kris were symbols of power used as court regalia. Like many of the items that comprised an insignia set, these weapons emphasize the cosmopolitan nature of Bangkok, where influences from around Asia, including Japan and the Malay Archipelago, were easily sourced at the time.

Japanese-style Sword with Satinwood Scabbard(Top)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E101-1;
Photo by James Di Loreto and Lucia RM Martino

Japanese-style Sword with Gold Niello Scabbard (Middle)
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 5923141

Malay-style Pamor Steel Kris and Satinwood Sheath(Bottom)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E100-0;
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Fred Cochard

Japanese-style Sword with Satinwood Scabbard
Gift from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856 83 cm length

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E101-1;
Photo by James Di Loreto and Lucia RM Martino

Japanese-style Sword with Gold Niello Scabbard
Gift from King Mongkut to President James Buchanan (received by President Abraham Lincoln), 1861 86.4 cm length

Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, General Records of the United States Government; 5923141

Malay-style Pamor Steel Kris and Satinwood Sheath
Gift from King Mongkut to President Franklin Pierce, 1856 42.5 cm length

Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology; E100-0;
Photo by James Di Loreto, Lucia RM Martino, and Fred Cochard

Portrait of Franklin Pierce
Unknown Artist
Gift from President Franklin Pierce to Second King Pinklao, 1856

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand

Attributed to Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) and his Patriae Pater portrait of the first president, a painting which has hung in both the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House. Peale replicated the work, which he initially completed in 1823, numerous times throughout his lifetime, leaving the possibility that this is an authentic reproduction.

Portrait of George Washington
Attributed to Rembrandt Peale
Gift from President Franklin Pierce to Second King Pinklao, 1856
92 x 79 cm;

Courtesy of the Fine Arts Department of Thailand

Historic Gifts between the Kingdom of Thailand and the United States of America
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