Jesse Ketchum was born in Spencertown, NY in 1782, and died in Buffalo, NY in 1867. In 1799, when he was 17 years old, Jesse walked to York (present day Toronto) in Ontario, Canada, to work and live with his brother, Seneca. Jesse became very wealthy in the tannery business and in real estate. He was a noteworthy philanthropist in Toronto, especially for educational and religious causes. He invested in Buffalo while he resided in Toronto. In 1845, at the age of 66, Jesse moved to Buffalo. For the reamining 22 years of his life, he kept busy by giving away much of his wealth to worthy causes. He was the founder and a major financier of both Westminster Presbyterian Church and Buffalo State College. He tried to visit every teacher and student in the Buffalo Public School System, at least once per year, and give each of them a book. He was known as "Father Ketchum".
Jesse's son in law, Barnabas H. Brennan, eventually inherited what was left of the Ketchum estate. Barnabas made a gift of $10,000 to the Buffalo Public School System, for the awarding of medals for academic excellence, in honor of Jesse Ketchum. Mr. Brennan also paid for the making of the dies for the medals. The first medals were awarded in 1873, and Jesse Ketchum medals are still being awarded to students in the Buffalo Public School System today. From 1873 to 1949, the medals were minted by the U.S. mint; since 1950 they have been made by local companies. Originally, medals (gold and silver) were awarded to high school seniors and to grammar school students in the last two grades of grammar school. However, since 1950, medals (bronze) are only awarded to 8th grade students. Aproximately 15,000 medals have been awarded since 1873. The Buffalo Public School System has the honor of awarding a medal for academic excellence for a longer period of time than any other school system in the country.
The medals are made of gold, silver or bronze, and come in two sizes, 36 mm in diamater, and 49 mm in diameter. On the obverse side of each medal is a portrait of Jesse Ketchum. The original portrait painting was by L. G. Sellstedt. On the reverse side of each medal is a crowned female. The dies were engraved by Mr. William Barber, the chief engraver at the U.S. Mint during the late 1800s. Originally, the larger gold medals contained 1032 grains of gold, the smaller gold medals contained 516 grains of gold, the larger silver medals contained 1032 grains of silver, and the smaller silver medals contained 512 grains of silver. However, because the numbers of schools and awardees increased dramatically in Buffalo in the early 20th century, the Jesse Ketchum Memorial Fund ran short of money, and had to lessen the gold and silver content of the medals over time. Only a handful of the larger bronze medals were minted; these were never awarded to students. Large and small gold and silver medals can be found at coin and antique stores, over the Web, and from private citizens. The small bronze medals, for the most part, are still in the posession of the awardees, and are difficult to acquire.