Money of the American Colonies and Confederation

Mossman, Philip L. (Writer on coinage)
Numismatic Studies
American Numismatic Society
New York
Worldcat Works




Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program.


Table of Contents



CHAPTER ONE The Economic Relationship Between England and Her North American Colonies

Less than five years following the ratification of the Constitution of 1787, the first regular coinages of the United States were struck at the new Philadelphia mint. There had been much deliberation, with many discarded proposals, before the Federal coinage system assumed its final form. The architects of the new government had considered the experiences of the prior colonial and Confederation periods in the construction of their monetary plan. While in that first year, 1793, only copper cents and half cents were issued, these were soon followed by the silver and gold coins of the new republic.1

This book is the story of the early currency of British North America prior to the establishment of the Federal Mint. The pervasive theme of this study is that money, in whatever form—be it commodities, wampum, coin or paper—must be understood in the context of a circulating medium of exchange. This holistic approach to numismatics requires an appreciation of the prevailing economic, political, and historical factors which shaped the environment in which the money was current. Without such an awareness, the coinages of this fascinating era are reduced to interesting specimens in collectors' cabinets rather than active players in the living history of our national tradition.

The currency of pre-Federal America lacked uniformity with the majority of hard coin from Spanish American sources, while small copper coins were of English origin. Monetary exchange rates between the colonies themselves, and between the plantations and other world markets varied, a factor which complicated commerce. While the ready availability of hard coin fluctuated because of cyclical inflationary and recessionary periods, there was a chronic shortage of small denominational currency for daily business. The monetary history of this period is concerned with the various foreign coinages—gold, silver, and copper—which circulated in British North America and the several actions initiated by the colonists to supplement contracting money supplies during economic bad times. Despite these fiscal encumbrances, the local economy prospered and finally, for a variety of reasons, the rebellious colonies became their own master. After independence, foreign specie coins remained scarce while the copper money supply continued to expand by the proliferation of both domestic and imported issues, many of which were counterfeit. During the Confederation, the small change medium became so overburdened with both legal and counterfeit coins, that coppers ceased to circulate during the summer of 1789. The United States gradually emerged from the stranglehold of the post-Revolutionary War depression just as copper money began to circulate again and the new Federal Mint was becoming a reality. This is the point where our story ends.


Plus Ultra

An appropriate starting place for this narrative about the money of pre-Federal America is an account of the colonization of British North America and the developing relationship between England and her plantations. It was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that England had joined its maritime neighbors in a race to lay claim to the treasures of the New World. Although the impression is given that the early North American colonists were persecuted emigrants fleeing their homeland for religious and political reasons, this romantic view is not entirely accurate, since there were significant economic factors in the development of the new frontier. England viewed these colonies jealously, but not as a sanctuary for its restless, adventurers, or oppressed. On the contrary, the colonies were a valued economic asset to an island nation with limited natural wealth. Over the years they were cultivated as a source of raw materials for English manufacturing and later as an important marketplace for finished goods. As American exports to the mother country increased, any excess could then be sold in Europe to profit English merchants. The settlement and development of the North American colonies followed a series of restrictive covenants imposed by England which were designed to control all aspects of economic growth, trade, and development. Such strict regulation of the provincial and national economies is embodied in the theory of "mercantilism," a system designed to increase national wealth by decreasing reliance on foreign powers for raw materials and by securing a favorable balance of trade. The increased wealth and prosperity translated directly into bolstered national security and military power. The ultimate objective of all mercantilist powers was to manipulate their colonies in whatever ways necessary so that all possible wealth or advantage gleaned from their overseas territories would accrue to the benefit of the mother country.

Colonization of British North America proceeded under the principles of mercantilism whereby the colonies were expected to buy English goods for which they paid by selling raw products to England to supply her factories. "The trade should employ English merchants and vessels, thereby providing freights, profits and interest. These were the three pillars of colonial policy designed to support the mercantile edifice of state security and private profit."2 Foreign competition was virtually eliminated while at the same time, colonial manufacturing was restricted. The colonial trade policy and England's mercantile system in general were governed by the English Board of Trade, a governmental department concerned with the promotion of domestic and foreign commerce and the administration of colonial departments particularly in matters relative to the development, expansion, and protection of trade.3 This agency promulgated regulations and sponsored certain legislation in Parliament, the Acts of Trade and Navigation, a series of laws designed to exert a continued control over colonial commerce and raw materials by maintaining permanent colonial dependence on English manufactured goods and shipping.4 Although these Acts were designed to strengthen English mercantilism, the colonists also prospered under their structure since competition from rival Dutch merchants was removed.5 Prior to 1761, a total of 29 such laws was passed but many were difficult to enforce, virtually ignored, or effectively circumvented by experienced American smugglers. While in "theory and definition" these Acts of Trade and Navigation "appeared rigid and uncompromising, they were in practice elastic and adjustable and did not seriously interfere with the growth and prosperity of the colonies" until after the French and Indian Wars.6 At that point England assumed a firmer stance toward her colonies as evidenced by the stricter Navigation Acts following 1763. These more stringent regulations have been cited as a cause of the American Revolution because of the growing resentment toward British restraint of colonial trade.7 Even when all aspects of the Navigation Acts and the other impositions of mercantilism are considered, it becomes apparent that the balance of benefit swung in the favor of the colonies. Despite her attempt to exert full control, the mother country was unable to stifle the emergence of a colonial-based economy.8 Moreover, England had failed to recognize "that the Colonies had changed from infants into adolescents, and would now have to be handled by their mother-country with supreme tact if harmony was to be maintained."9 Lacking this insight, England witnessed a deterioration in her relationship with the colonies, culminating in the War of Independence.

Despite the controls engineered by the Board of Trade policies, a local prosperity emerged in the colonies. Initially the colonies were sparsely populated, lacked capital, but had an abundance of raw materials; a colonial economy evolved which corresponded closely to the "export-led," "vent for surplus," or "staples approach" model. This economic system was typified by "small domestic markets, limited supplies of labor and capital, and abundant natural resources" which were shipped to England in exchange for manufactured goods required by the colonists. Consequently, more labor and capital were attracted to North America which in turn stimulated further development within the colonial export market. Significant differences in the economic base and growth of the plantation-rich South and the developing frontier regions of the North were the natural consequences of the geographical, demographic, and climatic diversity of the regions. From its very inception, it is clear that British America was not a single economy but rather a series of "distinct regional economies, most of them tied more closely to Great Britain than to each other, and each distinguished from the rest by the goods it produced for export and by the ways it earned credits in the balance of payments." This economic regionalism was responsible for the unequal monetary exchange rates between the various colonial monies of account, a frustration which plagued intercolonial commerce throughout the entire period. This heterogeneity which emerged from the earliest days of settlement spawned a sectionalism which still characterizes the political, social, and economic life of this country.10

Inherent within the structure of mercantilism was the requirement that colonial manufacturing and foreign trade with nations other than England had to be discouraged, thus preventing the "American plantations" from economic competition with the parent country and ensuring continued subservience as a source of raw materials and a ready market for finished English goods. A natural consequence of this necessity to buy imported English merchandise was the rapid accumulation of a trade deficit since purchases by the colonies for needed manufactured goods exceeded credits derived from the sale of exported commodities. This imbalance affected the North more than the South whose exported agricultural products, tobacco and cotton, were a ready source of income.11 In a very early attempt to keep hard money at home to circulate locally, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 imposed a 16.7% tax upon the purchase of certain nonessential imports such as fruit, spice, sugar, liquor, and tobacco. The logic of the Puritan fathers was that indulgence in such luxuries could lead to "disarrangement and detriment to the medium of exchange."12 However, they moderated the harshness of this pronouncement by exempting from the imposition "such wine as the deacons of the Churches shall buy or procure bona fide for the Churches' publike use."

End Notes
The Constitution became law on March 4, 1789, following ratification by the ninth state, New Hampshire on June 12, 1788. On March 1, 1793, the first copper cents were minted. (Breen, Encyclopedia, p. 177.)
Nettels, Money Supply, quote p. 160; Greene, Foundations, pp. 179, 182; McCusker and Menard, Economy, chap. 2; Andrews, Colonial Period, chap. 10.
Greene, Foundations, pp. 230-31.
Nettels, Money Supply, p. 160; Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 19. The mission of the Board of Trade was succinctly described by Raymond H. Williamson (personal communication, Sept. 3, 1990), who stated, "they viewed the colonies as a farmer views a cow."
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 46-50.
Andrews, Colonial Period, p. 179.
The relationship between the "patriotic" and the "economic" causations of the American Revolution are discussed by Egnal and Ernst, WMQ 1972. This topic will be presented in Chapter Six.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, p. 354.
Baxter, Hancock , p. 225.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 12, 17-34; quotes from pp. 12 and 26.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 136-41, 149.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 21.


There are numerous contemporary reports throughout the colonial period lamenting the fact that the trade deficit with England constantly siphoned all available hard money across the Atlantic to pay for imported necessities and, in some instances, luxuries. Typical of such commentaries was the 1719 report from Massachusetts. All the silver money which formerly made payments in trade to be easy, is now sent into Great Britain to make returns for part of what is owing there. We have been so deficient in farming and managing our own manufacture, lived so much above our abilities, spent so much of our imported commodities, that our money is gone, there is scarce a penny of it passing for a twelvemonth.13

Estimation of the prevailing trade deficit has been attempted by a study of the existing custom houses' records such as Table 1 which relates New England's trade imbalance with England.

Table 1 Trade Deficit for New England with England; English Customs Records (Data from Nettels, Money Supply, p. 139)
Periods Average yearly purchases from England (imports) Average yearly sales to England (exports) Average yearly deficit
1698-1702 £ 92,200 £ 33,100 £ 58,800
1702-1706 62,750 26,750 36,000
1706-1712 121,000 33.000 88,000

Historical convention has perpetuated the supposition that such trade imbalances drained all ready cash from the colonies to pay for imported commodities. The fact is that customs ledgers only tell a portion of the story.14 The accounts failed to give the current price for the goods which cleared the ports since values were quoted at levels current in the late 1690s and did not reflect price changes or the annual inflation rate.15 Although customs house records do not correctly state the actual price of merchandise which passed their portals, such figures do record the volume of trade. Another serious flaw concerning these colonial ledgers is that data were only collected for transactions with England and Wales and trade with all other countries ignored. "Invisible" sources of income which would help offset the costs of imported purchases are not enumerated in customs tabulations. Such undocumented income would include monies earned through trade related activities including wages and the use or sale abroad of American ships. The profits derived from smuggling were considerable and, of course, these evaded official attention. While a negative balance of trade existed, it was not as severe as a first glance at existing customs house files would imply. A reevaluation of American colonial balance of payments from trade with Great Britain, Ireland, Europe, and the West Indies, including both "visible" and "invisible" trade related incomes, discards "the traditional notion of a severe, chronic deficit for the colonies" since the annual imbalance was only in the range of £40,000.16

In their analysis of the colonial money supply, McCusker and Menard make the following assessment: A central question is whether the money supply of the colonists was "adequate." To be adequate for the purposes of an economy, money must be both available in sufficient quantities and of a recognized standard to facilitate rather than inhibit its use in the exchange of goods and services. The total quantity of money available to the colonists is unknown since contemporary or modern estimates are few and never include all forms of money. Some speak of the supply of coin, some of public paper, some of both; all omit commodity money and private paper.17

Hence, the "available money" supply for local and foreign transactions was more than just hard cash at hand, but also included paper currency, commodities and the credit extended by English merchants.18 Calculations using the estimated per capita income from 1750 to 1775 suggest that within the colonies as a whole, there was an adequate quantity of money.19 While there may have been sufficient gold for large transactions, there existed a shortage of smaller denominational currencies for the daily business transactions of the typical urban householder, or prosperous farmer who had limited access to specie. "We know very little about the real story of the money condition of the vast majority of the common people, because most of them were illiterate and hence left no 'paper trail'."20 Many, especially those from rural areas, lived at a "subsistence" level without any actual need for money. For them daily commerce was conducted by barter or "work changing," which are other forms of "currency" to be discussed in the following chapter.

Writing in 1900, Bullock summarized his findings concerning the availability of specie during the colonial period. Nevertheless complaints of the scarcity of coin and the alleged impossibility of keeping it in circulation remained so common, and have been accepted so complacently by historians, that it will be necessary to present a little of the evidence that proves the presence of a moderate amount of specie in the colonies.21

Bullock supported his thesis by quoting sources which related that in Massachusetts in 1676 "there is a reasonable quantitie of silver money in the colony, but no gold." In 1671 in Maryland there was English, foreign, and Maryland silver. In the period around 1700 there was reported "a great quantity of Spanish money Plate and Bullion" available in Carolina, Philadelphia, the Tidewater districts of Virginia, New York, and New England; "but these evidences of coin are accompanied by many complaints of scarcity."22

In answer to this question regarding the adequacy of metallic currency during the colonial period, there is indication that specie, while rarely abundant, fluctuated in availability from place to place and from time to time, depending on the prevailing economic conditions. Modern economic research has satisfactorily solved the riddle of the cyclic availability and scarcity of hard currency. Definite times of economic expansion and stagnation within the colonial economy have been identified, particularly in postwar periods, which corresponded to similar activity within the English economy.23 When hard money became scarce during a depression, there was clamor from contemporary observers who decried the shortage of specie and the burden this placed on the public. Perhaps complaints at such times reflected more a shortage of credit than of money. No doubt there was periodic scarcity of circulating hard coin for remittance to England for the purchase of imports, but the fact remains that colonial commerce generally flourished despite periods of cyclic economic decline. Several periods of sluggish economy were more significant than others and influenced the colonial monetary status in ways which will be detailed in subsequent chapters.


Fig. 2: A VIEW OF New York FROM THE NORTH WEST (1773). This engraving appeared in the Atlantic Neptune, a collection of maps, plans, and views of America published by the British Admiralty from 1763 to 1784. Trinity Church is on the promontory to the far left and the fifth tower to its right with a flag is the cupola of City Hall. The second tallest steeple is on the Wall Street Presbyterian Church (Stokes and Haskell, Prints, pp. 42-43). Courtesy The New York Public Library.

The earliest economic downturn occurred from 1638 to 1644 and has been termed the "first depression in American history." This event, to be described in Chapter Two, was an international rather than a local New England phenomenon. This period saw the start of a gradual "overvaluation" of silver currency, an inflationary measure which extended until the Proclamation of 1704. The subsequent depressions of 1650 to 1655 and 1662 to 1672 followed war with The Netherlands. The next three major periods of slump (1714 to 1716, 1751 to 1755, and 1764 to 1769) coincided with the end of Queen Anne's, King George's, and the French and Indian Wars, respectively.24 Conflict with England over colonial paper money policies flared during 1751 and 1764 with wide-reaching paper currency reforms in America which are topics in Chapter Four. Many historians examined these hard times and attempted to blame the financial recessions on paper money practices in order to garner support for their own personal opposition to that medium. Typical of this attitude was the opinion advanced by Douglass, an avowed early eighteenth century foe of paper money, who claimed that silver coin was plentiful in Massachusetts until driven out by paper money first issued by the colony in 1690.25 It was his interpretation that the availability of hard money was not a problem until the colony resorted to paper money whereupon this inflated medium drove specie out of circulation. This theory will be considered further in Chapter Four. Modern-day scholars have been more objective; in an analysis of contemporaneous commodity price indices, these currency fluctuations have been linked to worldwide business cycles rather than local currency mismanagement.

At the end of King George's War in 1748, Thomas Hancock, a prominent Boston merchant and uncle of the Revolutionary War patriot, wrote, "Peace hath put a stop to all our trade"; "money became 'monstrously scarce'."26 The following year, a large amount of Spanish silver was awarded to Massachusetts by Parliament, creating a ready amount of available specie for the province right up until the Revolution. This story will be related in great detail in Chapter Three. An economic slowdown after the French and Indian War was the probable cause for the Massachusetts Council's petition to the House of Commons presented in December 1768 which described the circumstances present in the Bay Colony. The scarcity of money in the Colonies is owing to the balance of their trade with Great Britain being against them; which balance drains them of their money, to the great embarrassment of their trade, the only source of it. This embarrassment is much increased by the regulations of trade, and by the Tax Acts, which draw immediately from trade the money necessary to support it; on the support whereof the payment of the balance aforesaid depends. The exports of the Colonies, all their gold and silver, and their whole powers of remittance, fall short of all the charged value of what they import from Great Britain.27

The final depression to occur within the time frame of this book lasted from 1782 to 1789 and equaled in magnitude the Great Depression of 1929 to 1933 in terms of decline of the gross national product.28 This period of economic stagnation during the post-Revolutionary War period, which had a notable impact on numismatic history and the hard money supply, is covered in the last four chapters. Rather than ascribe to a chronic, unrelenting shortage of hard money during the entire colonial period, it appears that specie supplies fluctuated depending upon the prevalent economic condition of the time. During war, when there was an increased demand for raw materials, colonial export trade flourished, there was local prosperity, and ample hard money was available to exchange for manufactured goods from England. When peace returned, the foreign markets for colonial exports softened and hard money became scarcer. In order to obtain specie to remit abroad during these recessionary times, the merchants had to pay dearly for it with other currencies to be described in Chapter Two. In such periods of economic decline, hard money for foreign remittance essentially traded as a commodity.29 Undoubtedly, there was a maldistribution of hard money in favor of the merchant and business populations with most of it being sequestered in the counting houses awaiting shipment to England. When specie was thus unavailable for commerce, a relative shortage was induced. Since all foreign purchases did not require a specie transaction, hard money was not always essential for overseas trade. Nonetheless, the fact remains that there were numerous contemporary complaints recorded about inadequate stocks of silver and gold coin, but the accuracy of such lamentations may be difficult to assess because of the subjectivity of the speaker and the lack of complete records. McCusker summarizes this hard money "shortage" by suggesting that Complaints about the "dearth of available coin" in the colonies should always be read with the added phrase supplied by the reader: "at 'reasonable' price."30

This is to state that hard coin could always be obtained but the question was whether the buyer was willing to afford the price. McCusker's position is well supported by the statement of Judge Samuel Sewall who spoke of the period when Massachusetts first issued paper currency. I was at making of the first Bills of Credit in the year 1690: They were not made for want of Money; but for want of Money in the Treasury.31

As previously noted, small denominational coins were scarce and at a premium during much of the colonial period. An inventory of hard money reported by Thomas Hancock was primarily in gold with only a scattering of small coins. "As a result, shopkeepers found great difficulty in providing their customers with small change."32

The same monetary situation was experienced outside the Thirteen Colonies; in Nova Scotia the government had to buy circulating medium, generally Spanish silver coins, on the open market to provide wages and payments.33 Merchants who possessed hard money were reluctant to spend it locally. This is further indication that hard money was available if one had the means to buy it with other currencies, and when one owned it, there was a tendency to hoard it or use it for foreign purchases. Thus while the quantity of money "circulating" in the community was limited, hard coin was not impossible to obtain. Since those who held it, kept it, it was not so much an issue of quantity but of distribution. It was not an "absolute money shortage" but more of a "circulating money shortage," especially for small denominational coins where limited numbers impacted more severely on daily commerce rather than affecting overseas transactions.

How is this question to be resolved; was there an adequate supply of hard money for the colonists to conduct daily business? Writers of the past century certainly would have insisted there was a troublesome shortage of gold and silver. They would have added that such a deficiency was linked to many of the colonists' economic woes. Since it is human nature to complain about difficult times and take prosperity for granted, history is replete with subjective and anecdotal accounts of money shortages during a depressed economy. Modern historians have cited evidence for an adequate supply of specie whose immediate availability to those who could afford it was directly related to the prevailing economic cycle. During a period of expansion, hard money would have been more plentiful. In a recessionary period, colonists not having access to sufficient coin would have resorted to some non-specie monetary instruments such as commodity monies, paper currency, and other substitutes to be described in the following three chapters.

Any shortage in America of hard coin for daily use could not have been alleviated by England even if she wished since her own coinage was in such a desperate condition. As a result of this situation and her mercantilist policies, the exportation of specie out of England was outlawed, even to the colonies, except for the payment of its military forces.34 In spite of this embargo, "there were countless subterfuges and devices for smuggling coin out of the kingdom ... and the state of the silver currency of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is ample proof of the failure of this prohibitive legislation."35 English coins actively circulated in the colonies as evidenced by their inclusion in contemporary tables of exchange rates. England and her American colonies had no natural source of precious metals and depended on the wealth of the Spanish American mines from the profitable trade via the West Indies. Despite shortages of coin for daily commerce, the English government would never sanction the establishment of a colonial mint, or develop a uniform coinage system, except for the feeble attempt of the Proclamation of 1704. For England to have inaugurated a colonial currency would have been contrary to the tenets of mercantilism since it would have encouraged specie to flow out of the realm if special coins had been minted for colonial use. England's monetary policy toward its plantations was simple: assure that the net drift of gold and silver was from the colonies to the mother country.36 Thus the North American Plantations remained obliged to depend on foreign coin, especially Spanish American silver, as their source of circulating specie. The local money supply was not reliably stable since, during periods of recession, hard coin was tight and specie was in great demand for foreign purchases. Even during the best of times, low denominational coins were never abundant for daily use and this dearth of circulating hard currency became a chronic, continuing grievance of the American colonists and a theme central in the study of contemporary economic, political, and numismatic history.

End Notes

Felt, Massachusetts , p. 71.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 73-78.
The annual inflation rate from 1620 to 1730 was 0.09%, and from 1730 to 1770 was 0.75% (McCusker and Menard, Economy, p. 67).
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 80-84.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, p. 338.
Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 356.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 338-40. Just prior to the Revolution, the money stock in America was calculated at £2.70 per person as compared to £3.50 in England and Wales for the same period.
Raymond H. Williamson, personal communication, Sept. 3, 1990.
Bullock, Essays, pp. 13-15, quote pp. 13-14.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 204-7.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 60-70.
See footnote 19, chap. 4.
Bullock, Essays, p. 15.
Baxter, Hancock , p. 111.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 159-60.
McCusker and Menard, Economy, pp. 373-74.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 11-13; Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 20.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 124.
Sewall, Diary, p. 366.
Baxter, Hancock , p. 15.
Bell, Foreign Protestants, p. 343.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 163, 166; Bezanson, Prices in PA, pp. 316-17.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 4-5.
Andrews, American History, pp. 351-52.

CHAPTER TWO Money In Early America: Wampum, Commodities, Foreign Coin

In the previous chapter it was concluded that throughout the colonial period there were adequate, although never excessive, hard money supplies except during the difficult periods of postwar economic slump or frank depression. The problem was that this coin money was expensive, traded as a commodity, commanded a premium, and so was not readily available for everyday commerce. While large denomination specie could be "bought," there was a shortage of lower denomination currency for everyday business transactions even in good times. Undoubtedly this monetary situation was an inconvenience to the colonists but certainly it came as no great surprise since most had emigrated from England where they were well accustomed to the vexations of a defective national currency as this chapter will reveal. In order to provide for daily money needs, it was necessary to create some additional monetary systems which could substitute for hard coin if domestic commerce were to proceed.


To begin, it is necessary to resolve what is encompassed by the term money. The definition of money, or currency, would be very restrictive if it only included "hard coin," or specie. Joseph B. Felt in the introduction to his classic work, An Historical Account of Massachusetts Currency, asserted that: Currency ... denotes whatever has been adopted, as a medium of exchange, by general consent and practice.... It is well known, that substances, adopted as a medium of circulation or standard value, have been essentially different in various ages and nations. In Italy, the ancient mode of estimating articles of property, was by cattle. Hence, the word, "pecunia," in their language, was from pecus, flock or herd; though it has long been translated, money.1

Felt offered other examples, through both the ancient and modern worlds, of how various materials, including those "of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms," served as currency in different countries during different eras. Considering this broadened definition of "money" or "currency," one can easily understand how the colonists responded to this lack of "circulating" specie. Their initial reaction was to promote the use of readily available substitutes for coin by the adoption of indigenous Indian wampum, by the barter of goods, commodities and services, and by the use of commodity monies. The next expedient was to expand the pool of circulating hard money by prohibition of its export and by the systematic overvaluation of existing hard coin in terms of local currency. Also, a colonial mint was established in Massachusetts to provide a local source of hard money. The final stratagem to introduce a substitute for unavailable hard cash was the development of four systems of paper currency, (a) commodity notes, (b) bills of exchange, (c) land-office (land bank) notes, and (d) bills of credit. Some of these alternatives were more local in scope than others, and while they appeared more or less in succession, some existed simultaneously "and the adoption of a later, perhaps more sophisticated device did not necessarily mean the abandonment of an earlier one."2

Circulating media other than hard coin are referred to as "money substitutes."3 If we accept the definition proposed by Felt that "money" can be anything upon which we agree, it is inconsistent to speak of "money substitutes" for such items as wampum and commodities for which specific values have been assigned by popular consent. While wampum, commodities, and the like may well be considered substitutes for "hard coin," they are, indeed, just another "species" of the genus "money," and are a currency in their own right.4

Money is either "real" or "imaginary." In the colonial era, "real" money invariably referred to metallic coin, while "imaginary" money was a bookkeeping contrivance also called "money of account." Money of account does not exist per se as a tangible item of value, but is rather a "notational device" where disparate coinage systems can be reconciled into a single monetary standard.5 For example, in October 1672, the Spanish eight reales or piece-of-eight was valued at six New York shillings.6 The eight reales was an actual "real" coin, whereas the New York shilling did not exist except on paper. It was the local "money of account" or "New York money" in which the current value of the eight reales could be reckoned in relationship to other coin money or other imaginary monies. Money of account was also a useful vehicle for reconciling underweight or clipped coins because their relative values, based on the actual weight of precious metals, could be established.7 While the colonial monies of account were reckoned in the same denominations as England, namely pounds, shillings, pence, and farthings, there was no equality in the value of the currencies used in the mother country and her North American colonies; the only point they had in common was the name of the monetary units. Even among the various colonies themselves, there was no uniformity in the relative values of the several colonial monies of account which could be, and frequently were, different depending on the strength or weakness of the particular colony's local economy. The Spanish American eight reales, which was the monetary standard of the period, had four different value "zones" in colonial America. The rates noted below, or par of exchange, stabilized from about the mid-eighteenth century to the early Federal period (see Table 6 below):

  • 4s. 6d. (54d.) in English sterling
  • 4s. 8d. (56d.) in South Carolina and Georgia money
  • 6s. 0d. (72d.) in New England and Virginia money
  • 7s. 6d. (90d.) in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware money
  • 8s. 0d. (96d.) in New York and North Carolina money

While there was no impediment in the financial calculation among colonies whose monies of account were at par, such as within the four New England colonies, this inconsistency in value of money from one colony to another, as expressed in the local monies of account, was an aggravation which added significant complexity to intercolonial commerce. (See Appendix 1 for calculations in the various monies of account.) The disparity between the rates of exchange from one colony to another, and later among the several states, was a frustration which existed into the Federal period.

Money is further defined as to its intrinsic worth.8 "Fiduciary" coinage is money whose monetary value exceeds the value of the contained bullion. More specifically, a "subsidiary" coinage refers to fiduciary silver coins, whereas "minor" coins are base metal fiduciary coins. A "token" coinage conveys the idea of a money substitute, and while there may be provisions for its exchange into specie, such tokens usually do not possess inherent legal tender status. "Fractional" coins are a currency in denominations less than the standard silver unit.

As part of our numismatic heritage and this historical survey, it is of interest to review the derivation of the monetary denominations used for both the real and imaginary systems.9 Silver pennies date their origin to the beginning of the eighth century, the Middle Anglo-Saxon period, when they were introduced as a currency by King Offa of Mercia. By the ninth century, silver pennies were prevalent throughout England where they remained the sole denomination for about five centuries. They passed at 240 to a pound, money of account, but their weight was uncertain until defined by a statute of 1266 which stated that each silver penny should weigh "thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear." Further legislation in 1280 redefined the penny's weight to equal 24 grains (of wheat); hence 24 grains came to comprise one penny-weight, abbreviated dwt. Although the penny was the only silver coin until 1279, these pence were struck with a deeply impressed cross such that they could be broken into two halfpence or into four parts called "fourthings" or farthings. The pound sterling of account (imaginary) was a unit which has been in existence since Anglo-Saxon times and it was the intent that the pound of money, divided into 240 pennies, equal a troy pound of silver. This pound of account was further divided into twelve shillings (also imaginary until the reign of Henry VII) of twenty silver pennies (real), or twenty shillings of twelve pennies.

The d. abbreviation for the silver penny (and later the copper and bronze) is from the Latin denarius, a Roman silver coin. The s., as the abbreviation for shilling, is from the Latin solidus, a Roman gold coin but more importantly a medieval money of account equal to twelve denarii. The Roman unit of weight, libra, equal to 0.718 lbs., avoirdupois, is the source of the £ in reference to pounds. The term "sterling" refers to English currency in general, but specifically to the standard alloy of 925 parts silver and 75 parts copper. The purity of the silver is its "fineness"; the 92.5% silver content of sterling is otherwise expressed as 925.0 millesimal fineness or .925 fine. "Sterling" originally was the term for a pound weight of English silver pennies but the derivation of the word remains shrouded in mystery.10 It has been conjectured that the word comes from the old English word for star, steorra, indicative of the small star on early silver pennies, or even from staer, a starling, suggestive of the four birds on pennies of Edward the Confessor. The theory that the word was derived from "Easterling money," silver coins from eastern Germany imported into England through continental trade, is no longer held.

End Notes

Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 10-11; See also a recent scholarly study by Osborne, Num 1984.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 117.
Massey, Studies.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 8.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 6.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 157.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 8.
Carothers, Fractional Money, pp. 2-5.


When the early colonists were faced with an inadequate supply of coins to meet their currency needs, a natural response was to employ the indigenous currency of the natives, namely Indian wampum. Wampum was variously known as "sewan, seawan, and seawant," from the Algonquian for "loose beads," and as "roanoke" from the same language for "smoothed shells." In the Narraganset tongue, the name was "wampumpeag, peage, peag, peak and wampum." "Wampumpeag" specifically referred to the white polished shells which were less valuable than the dark purple or black "wampum."11 The early American explorer, Jonathan Carver, provided a lucid description of these strings of hand-fashioned shell beads which were used as both ornamentation and money. These belts are made of shells found on the coasts of New-England and Virginia, which are sawed out into beads of an oblong form, about a quarter of an inch long, and round like other beads. Being strung on leather strings, and several of them sewed neatly together with fine sinewy threads, they then compose what is termed a belt of Wampum. The shells are generally of two colors, some white and others violet; but the latter are more highly esteemed than the former. They are held in as much estimation by the Indians, as gold, silver, or precious stones, are by Europeans. The belts are composed of ten, twelve, or a greater number of strings, according to the importance of the affair in agitation, or the dignity of the person to whom it is presented. On more trifling occasions, strings of beads are presented by the chiefs to each other, and frequently worn by them about their necks, as a valuable ornament.12


Fig. 3: Two strings of Indian wampum: the white beads passed at half the value of the darker ones which were variously described as black, violet or blue (blew).

Wampum, as a monetary medium, was introduced into the Plymouth Colony by the Dutch in 1627.13 The schedule of value published the following year indicated that six beads of white wampum would pass for one English penny, three beads of black also for a penny, while "one fathom of this their stringed money is worth five shillings."14 A notation of October 7, 1640 stated, "The want of coin enhances the rate of wampum. 'It is ordered, that white wampompeage shall passe at four a penny and blew at two a penny and not above 12d. at a time except the receiver desire more'."15 "Wampum became a universal currency, exchangeable for merchantise, for labor, [and] for taxes" in New England, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and in New York by the Dutch, who had no other effective small change medium.16 It was even inventoried in the estates of the deceased and passed on to their heirs.17

Wampum achieved and maintained its status as a coveted decoration and desirable currency since it was a highly labor-intensive article whose production costs could easily be translated into other measures of value such as beaver pelts. For ages, the Indians had become very familiar with the amount of work involved in hunting and trapping and so these energies could be directly compared to the time requirements and skills necessary to craft sea shells into wampum. Thus a parity was established over the years between wampum and other local items of value.18 The value of the wampum was maintained until counterfeit material appeared which was no longer fabricated by the ancient hand-made process; stone, bone, glass, mussel shells, horn, and wood were substituted for the traditional colored shells. The last record of wampum circulating as money was from New York in 1701.19

End Notes

Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 15, 249; Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, pp. 7-10; Seaby, English Coinage, pp. 13, 33-34; Peck, British Museum, pp. 2-3.
W.I.D; Carothers, Fractional Money, p. 20.
Carver, Travels, pp. 207-8.
Weeden, New England , p. 38.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 12-13.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 24; Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 26-29.
Weeden, New England , p. 41.
Adler, Money Units, p. 167.


The use of commodities as money was a practice common in the ancient world as well as in Elizabethan England whence the colonists had emigrated and so the introduction of this currency into the New World is not unexpected.20 The simplest use of commodities in commerce would be in the nature of "barter," or trading agricultural products, staples or other necessities among two or more individuals. Hard money was not necessary within a rural subsistence economy. As the exchange of these goods became more complicated, involved parties "kept running accounts of the money value of the goods traded—in terms of money of account" through a system described as "bookkeeping barter." No money ever needed to change hands and the sales contract could even be expanded to accommodate a third party in a "triangular transfer of goods."21 This account book procedure not only included bartered goods but also services, where physical work was also exchanged, "changing works" in common parlance, for other goods and services particularly within rural areas where cash was less frequently seen and less vital since people lived off the land.22 Commodities were officially designated by colonial legislatures as legal tender for private debts and taxes according to an established price schedule. Thus, "commodity money" or "country pay," as it was also known, came into being as another system to compensate for the shortage of circulating coins.

Items which were legitimized at specific values as money included tobacco,23 liquor, gunpowder, shot, furs, livestock, lumber, fish, and grain. Problems were encountered with commodity monies when non-marketable, inferior grade merchandise was misrepresented as high quality and passed as "money," while better goods were diverted into the export market where they brought hard coin, foreign credit, or imported products in exchange.24 In one effort to control the quality of goods delivered as money, the Massachusetts General Court issued an order in 1658 that no man should attempt to pay his taxes in "lank cattle."25 Tobacco, which was made the official currency of Virginia in 1619, was widely exported to England and Europe where its great demand created a favorable trade balance for the tobacco-producing colonies.26 "Staple commodities formed the normal medium of exchange. Even when coined money was plentiful, it [coined money] was frequently used for external rather than internal payments."27 Commodity monies in Massachusetts ceased for a time after 1690 following the introduction of paper currency,28 but the system was resumed during the hard times of 1727 when rates were again published as to the value at which goods would be received for taxes.29

Table 2 Scheduled Values of Commodity Monies as Established by the Massachusetts General Court in 1727 (From Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 82-83)
Item £ s. d. Measure
Good merchantable beef 3 a barrel
Good merchantable pork 5 10 a barrel
Winter wheat 8 a bushel
Summer wheat 7 a bushel
Barley 6 a bushel
Rye 6 a bushel
Indian corn 4 a bushel
Oats 2 6 a bushel
Peas clear of bugs 9 a bushel
Flax 1 4 a pound
Hemp 9 a pound
Bees' wax 2 6 a pound
Sweet firkin butter 12 a pound
Dry hides 6 a pound
Tanned leather 12 a pound
Merchantable dry cod-fish 1 10 a quintal
Mackerel 1 10 a barrel
Oil 2 10 a barrel
Whale bone, six feet long and upwards 3 6 a pound
Bayberry wax 1 4 a pound
Turpentine full bound 13 a Cwt.
Merchantable bar iron 48 a Cwt.
Cast iron pots and kettles 48 a Cwt.
Well cured tobacco 4 a pound
Good tried tallow 8 a pound

Baxter, in his description of the business practices of Thomas Hancock imagines the following scenario as typical of the times: We can guess that the arrival of "country pay" must have put a severe test on a creditor's resourcefulness; on occasion, he might open his door to find a farmer there with rye, corn, wheat, poultry, and a couple of hogs, all of which had to be valued and disposed of as quickly as possible. A number of fates might befall such remittances. Presumedly they were sometimes eaten without further ado by Thomas and his wife. Often they were handed over to other Bostonians in payment for purchases made locally. But quite frequently they were exported to Newfoundland or the West Indies.... He thus looked upon the meat and fish, not as things to eat or sell, but as another kind of money.... Most of the staple commodities found in New England (pickled pork, corn, molasses, and so on) would serve as commodity money, since they were durable and had well-established markets.30

A further sophistication in the use of commodities as legal tender was the development of commodity notes called "storehouse notes" issued as receipts or in reality certificates of inspection when goods, particularly tobacco, were deposited in official government warehouses.31

Sumner, writing in 1874, was quite disparaging of commodity money or barter currency, as he called it, suggesting that its presence drove hard money out of circulation.32 "The more barter currency was used because money [hard coin] was scarce, the scarcer money became! Prices rose to fit the worst form of payment which the seller might expect."33 Even if barter currency were "inferior in status to specie" as Sumner wrote, and despite its acknowledged shortcomings, such as inconsistent quality and the requirement to provide storage space for bulky and perishable items, it was nonetheless a medium which was relatively stable in value and fulfilled currency needs in one form or another throughout the colonial period.34 There were instances where commodity monies were more favorably received than certain colonial paper currencies, particularly those of Rhode Island.35

In his analysis of the business records of Thomas Hancock, Baxter summarizes his findings by stating... that the New Englanders, deprived alike of cash and satisfactory bank notes, ingeniously filled the gap by devising home-made means of exchange. They had no money; so they built up a barter system based on debits and credits. They had little precious metal; so they backed their notes with beef and pork. They had no banks; so every bookkeeper became a banker. Crude barter is an appallingly clumsy method of carrying on business. If goods had been exchanged only for goods, trade would have slowed down almost to a standstill. But when the New Englanders paid for goods with assignable titles to other goods (relying on money units for reckoning only), the situation improved immeasurably; as a result of this new lubricant, the machinery of commerce could run at a reasonable speed.36

The simultaneous circulation of commodity monies and hard coin necessitated the development of some equivalency rating among the several media and accordingly four different types of payment and price structures evolved.37 The first monetary system to be described was "money" which was, of course, hard coin and wampum which was used for small change. The second called "pay" or "country pay" was actually the commodity monies legalized by the colonial legislatures for payment of taxes according to a specific schedule. Confusion is drawn into the discussion with the addition of the third interaction known by "Pay as money." This appeared to be commodity money, or "pay," at a one-third discount from the established rate. The relationship between "pay as money" and "pay" was at times unclear, but Weiss suggests that this ambiguity might have occurred when the official schedule for commodities differed from the actual market price.38 The final system for the purchase of goods was aptly called "trusting," or a credit arrangement. Analysis of the price structure in New England in 1693 suggests a ratio of 1:1.33:2 between "money," "pay as money," and "pay." The distinction between "pay" and "money" was obvious, and hard coin, i.e. "money," was always received preferentially. In Massachusetts the taxpayer was entitled to a one-third discount when tax bills were settled in coin rather than "pay,"39 while in Connecticut the reduction for specie payment could be as high as one-half.40

The desirability of coin over commodities was apparent since "pay" required storage and transportation, and was susceptible to spoilage and deterioration. Despite these problems, "pay," or commodity monies maintained relative stability over the years. As the eighteenth century progressed, commodity monies became less necessary and their popularity dwindled.

In a similar manner, the Dutch colonists regularly supplemented their hard currency with wampum, as a substitute for money, and with beaver pelts as a commodity money. The wampum and beaver "money" depreciated substantially over the years and by 1658 the quotation for the equivalent values of these three "currencies" was in the ratio of 10 guilders in silver coin equal to 15 guilders of beaver equal to 21 guilders of wampum.41

The "Crying Up" of Money

The Spanish American eight reales remained the coinage standard of reference from the earliest American settlements. During the first years, this standard was at par between America and England, passing at 4s. 6d.42 Parity did not exist for long, since economic hard times soon hit the colonies, triggering a series of events which seriously affected the local economy and currency. By 1610 the population of the Plymouth Colony was about 2,500. Between 1630 and 1640 the population of the neighboring Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown to 22,000 persons representing about 4,000 families.43 At the same time, the combined settlers in Virginia and the West Indies approached 52,000.44 During these years, hard money had been plentiful, having been transported to America by the emigrating colonists apparently in spite of the specie exportation ban. Hard money did not remain in circulation long since it was soon returned to England to purchase needed imports. In post-1640 New England, there was a cessation of Puritan migration since there was no longer the motive for them to leave their homeland after the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell. Of subsequent immigrants, more returned to England than remained in America since they found a very poor economic climate and low prosperity.45 The situation was aggravated by a 1643 crop failure in New England during which prices fell, not to normalize again for five years.46

Felt quoted a contemporary description of this first American depression in New England. The scarcity of money made a great change in all commerce. Merchants would sell no ware, but for money. Men could not pay their debts, though they had enough. Prices of land and cattle fell soon to one half and less, yea to a third, and after to one fourth part.47

Although this depression placed a significant burden on Massachusetts, one benefit accrued since the lack of money to buy imports from England obliged the colony to become more self-sufficient and hence a local textile industry was born. Although the product was crude and did not replace fine English cloth, it did transform the colony "from an agricultural to a diversified economy."48 Such progress was of concern to English merchants.

Responses to the economic crisis in Massachusetts have already been noted when the General Court increased the rate of wampum by one-third in relationship to the money of account on October 7, 1640.49 Commodity money became more prevalent and acts were passed to benefit debtors.50

A more successful expedient to increase the supply of hard coin was "the raising of the monies" by the Massachusetts General Court who increased the value of the monetary standard eight reales from a par of 4s. 6d. to 4s. 8d. and later, on September 8, 1642, to 5s.51 The "crying-up of money," as it is also known, is merely currency overvaluation, a procedure commonly practiced in Europe. The theory is based on the premise that if coin is more highly valued in one country than another, there will be a natural flow of specie to that state where money has greater value and purchasing power, assuming that prices will not rise rapidly to reach a new equilibrium with the overvalued coin. "For say they, If we do observe these States which do soonest and most raise their Money, we shall find that they do most abound with Money; and that Trader and Manufacturer do most flourish there."52 This is actually a currency devaluation of the money of account by an overvaluation of silver. As other colonies followed Massachusetts by local overvaluation of silver in terms of regional monies of account, the advantage of the inflated value was lost, and another spiral of overvaluation was triggered. The process of "crying up of money" is illustrated in Table 6 which shows the competitive increase in the rate for the eight reales among the colonies until the early 1700s, at which time all the possible advantage had been gained with this scheme for increasing the pool of local hard currency.

There is an interesting account of the "crying up of money" as it occurred in Virginia. As early as 1631 that colony had considered "raising" the value of coin but records are too fragmentary to ascertain the outcome of that early petition.53 Definite action was taken in 1645, when the Spanish American eight reales was set at six shillings in local money of account. Ten years later the rate was reduced to five shillings because extensive clipping of Spanish silver coins had reduced the standard eight reales from 420 grains (17.5 dwt) to an average of 384 grains (16 dwt) for circulating specimens. This lowered value for specie in Virginia "tempted People to export the Coin to other Plantations, where it went for more than it did in Virginia."54 Governor Culpeper rejected a 1679 proposal to "raise" the value of the Virginia currency until he managed to buy up all the lightweight silver he could at five shillings. Then by his own proclamation he "raised" its value to six shillings and thereby profited nicely from his personal speculation and subsequent manipulation of the exchange rates. However, the Governor's advantage was short-lived when he was required to receive his own stipend in inflated silver, at which point he reissued the proclamation restoring the five shilling rate.55

While some historians state that colonial legislatures prescribed overvaluation of silver to "attract" more specie into their jurisdiction, Ernst advances the theory that overvaluation or the "crying up of monies" was in fact a measure to control "the external drain of coin which resulted because of the chronically adverse balance of payments in the trade between the colonies and the mother country whenever the prices of colonial exports were depressed or English credits for colonial economic development fell short of the expanding needs in America."56

In addition to the local "crying-up of money," another measure enacted to assist in keeping hard coin within the colonies was the prohibition against the export of specie, an action identical to that taken in England. A law was passed in Massachusetts on May 12, 1651, which attempted to keep Massachusetts silver coins within the colony by imposing "forfeiture of the transgressor's whole estate" for anyone convicted of carrying over 20 Massachusetts Bay shillings out of the province.57 A "searcher for money" was appointed for each port of entry. Other colonies shared the concern about the export of hard money from their borders. "An Act for the Advancement of Coin," enacted in Maryland on November 19, 1686, contained the provision that "persons exporting such Coins so advanced, to forfeit the same, Half to his Lordship, and Half to the Informer."58 Similarly, there was a ban imposed by the New York Legislature on September 24, 1709, restricting the exportation of all foreign coin or bullion, both silver and gold, "under Penalty of forfeiting Double the Value of all Such."59

End Notes
Sumner, Yale Review 1898, p. 259.
Weiss, Colonial Standard, p. 584.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 157.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 132.
Gottfried, NEQ 1936, p. 656; Sumner, American Currency, p. 9.
Nettels, Money Supply, p. 134.
Sumner, American Currency, p. 9.
Sumner, American Currency, pp. 9-10; Gottfried, NEQ 1936, p. 656.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 23, where Felt quoted Elder Winthrop.
Gottfried, NEQ 1936, pp. 665-66, 670, 678.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 12-13, 24.
Gottfried, NEQ 1936, pp. 657-59; Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 24-30; Essex Inst. Hist. Colls., vol. 1, p. 126, 126n.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 6; McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp 118, 118n, 132.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 7, quotes Vaughn, Discourse.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 205.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 22-24, quote p. 22.
Hoober, Num 1953, p. 1145.

The Proclamation of 1704

The silver currency of British North America was in disorder by the end of the seventeenth century. Most of the silver was lightweight from severe clipping and an intact coin was a rarity. Spanish silver generally entered British colonial circulation via Jamaica, the military, naval, and piracy center during the troubled years of the seventeenth century, and from there hard coin was dispersed through the remainder of the West Indian and mainland colonies. In Jamaica, the Spanish real was roughly equivalent to the sixpence and hence the name "Spanish sixpence."60 This amounted to a devaluation of the eight reales from 4s. 6d. to 4s. in that colony. There developed a rampant practice of clipping the eight reales down to an actual sterling value of 4s. and through this practice, the commerce of British North America became encumbered with lightweight coins. As commented by Chalmers, "... clipping by the subject was the counterpart of the debasement of coins by the sovereign."61 To prevent economic loss, the various colonies stipulated that Spanish eight reales pass by weight and schedules of values were published. Not only was colonial commerce disturbed by light coins of varying weight, but the already mutilated money was also "cried up" by the competitive overvaluation of Spanish silver in terms of sterling.

This irregularity and inconvenience within the colonial currency system escaped official attention until it became the subject of concern presented to the Board of Trade in 1700.62 At that time the following values for the undipped eight reales were quoted in the respective colonial monies of account, although the value remained stable in England at 4s. 6d.:

  • Maryland 4s. 6d.
  • Virginia 4s. 6d.
  • Bahamas 5s.
  • Carolinas 5s.
  • New England 6s. 6d.
  • New York 6s. 6d.
  • Pennsylvania 7s.

This list notes that the Carolinas were not separated into North and South until 1712. From 1676 until 1702, New Jersey was split with East New Jersey economically tied to New York, while West New Jersey was identified with Pennsylvania. When the colony united in 1702, it officially adopted the monetary policies of New York although foreign currency in West New Jersey was exchanged at the Pennsylvania rate. Following 1750, all New Jersey currency shared a par with Pennsylvania.63 Maryland and Virginia were in a unfavorable position since their hard money drained into Pennsylvania where the value of specie was significantly enhanced.64

Until 1704, the management of colonial currency had been pretty well left to the colonies themselves with the resultant complexity in exchange rates. An attempt was made to resolve these inconveniences by creating a single monetary standard for the colonies through the Royal Proclamation of 1704 (see Table 3). Since this regulation was initiated by the English Board of Trade the motive must be suspect. Rather than inspired by altruism toward the colonists, the authors were much more concerned that there be a stable currency to pay the English merchants. The document listed the comparative values of the most common current world silver coins based on an assay by Sir Isaac Newton, director of the Royal Mint.65 This Proclamation dictated that the full weight Spanish American eight reales would pass at 6s. in all the colonies, the Massachusetts rate of 1697, but in no case at a value one-third greater than its sterling rate of 4s. 6d., effectively establishing an exchange rate of 133.33:100, colonial money of account to sterling. Fractional and other coins would pass proportionally to their intrinsic silver content and were not tabulated separately. The 133.33:100 ratio directed by the Proclamation of 1704 was not a new concept, having been enacted by France for its Canadian settlements in the seventeenth century.66

Only Barbados 67 and Maryland complied with the Proclamation, while the other colonies virtually ignored it. Massachusetts openly defied the order and refused to appropriate money for the support of local government which did not conform to the prevaling rate of 155.55:100.68 This insubordination prompted the Crown to reissue the provisions of the Proclamation as an Act of Parliament in 1707 with the force of law.69 Resistance to this legislation continued since the overvaluation of hard currency provided cheaper money for payment of debts and maintained a price level which would be reduced if the currency were standardized at a lower rate. The North feared that a reduction in the inflation rate for silver coin would give the South a competitive edge in their quest for hard money.70

Table 3 Coin Values as Documented in the Proclamation of 1704 Calculated at 5s. 2d. per Troy Ounce, Sterling (Chalmers, British Colonies, pp.67, 391, 414-15)
Current World Coins of 1704 Weight in grains Sterling Value in pence
Sevill pieces of eight,a old plate b 420 54
Sevill pieces of eight, new plate c 336 43.25
Mexico pieces of eight 420 54
Pillar pieces of eight 420 54.75
Peru pieces of eight, old plate 420 53d
Cross dollarse 432 52.75
Ducatoons of Flanders f 501 66
Ecus of France, Silver Lewis 420 54
Crusadoes of Portugal g 268 34.25
Three Gilder Pieces of Holland h 487 62.25
Old Rix dollars of the Empirei 442 54

Fig. 4: Seventeenth Century world silver coins typical of those enumerated in the Proclamation of 1704 (Table 3).


(a) Spain: 1683 eight reales of Charles II, old plate. Segovia mint (408.6 grains).


(b) Spain: 1687 eight reales of Charles II, new plate, Segovia mint (327.7 grains).


(c) Mexico: 1655 eight reales of Philip IV.


(d) Mexico: eight reales of Charles II (1665-1700). This style of rough, irregular cob was probably what was called a "Peruvian," or "Peru piece of eight" without regard to the mint of origin.


(e) Brabant: 1625 "cross dollar" or patagon of Philip IV, Brussels mint. (ANS/HSA)


(f) Flanders: 1670 ducatoon of Charles II. (ANS/HSA)


(g) France: 1643 écu (silver Lewis) of Louis XIII, Paris mint.


(h) Portugal: 1690 cruzado of Peter II, Porto mint.


(i) United Provinces of the Netherlands: 1694 three guilders, Zeeland mint. (Joseph Lasser Collection)


(j) Lübeck: 1628 taler, typical "old rix dollar of the Empire."

Sumner called attention to some inconsistencies in the computations in the Proclamation of 1704 and further added that very few coins existed with these stated weights because of loose mint standards and the widespread practice of clipping.71 Since coins passed according to weight, a reduction in value for lighter pieces could be calculated in local monies of account.

The complex history of the early money of the British North American colonies, or the currency prior to 1704, consisted of indigenous Indian wampum, commodity monies and their various ramifications and refinements, clipped, underweight and overvalued foreign coins, and Massachusetts silver. Chalmers summarized: the currency history of the period ... is marked (a) by the rise of "denominational currency" systems as the result of competitive over-valuation of Spanish silver in terms of sterling, and (b) by the final predominance of the clipped piece of eight. But it was not till the close of this period that coin superseded commodities even in prosperous colonies; in the more backward settlements barter continued to dominate the currency.72

After the Proclamation of 1704 was enacted as law in 1707, there was no longer any advantage to be gained from the progressive overvaluation of silver. Following this Parliamentary restriction on silver coin, Bermuda 73 and the West Indies resorted to a gold standard since Spanish gold was so readily available and the Proclamation of 1704 carried no restrictions regarding gold. On the mainland, however, the colonies turned to paper money as the next and final expedient to increase currency supplies.74

End Notes
The distinction between the four types of eight reales (pieces-of-eight) is not always precise or uniformly clear: Sevill [Seville] coins are from Spanish mainland mints; Mexico pieces are probably those New World coins without pillars on the design regardless of the actual mint of origin; Pillar pieces refer to all round coins struck in America with a pillar design but obviously not the machine-made Pillar dollars with the milled, protective edge which did not appear until 1732; Peru , or Peruvians refers to cobs from any mint, and not necessarily from that viceroyalty.
Old plate refers to the 1497 to 1728 standard of 423.9 grains at .9305 fineness.
New plate refers to a 20% reduction in value of the European Spanish real whereby Spanish American eight reales circulated in Spain at ten new reales according to the debasement of Philip IV of December 23, 1642 and of Charles II of October 14, 1686.
Written in the Proclamation as 4s. 5d. or "thereabouts."
Refers to the Patagon of the Spanish Netherlands with crossed cudgels on obverse design.
Flanders was part of the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium).
The crusado (cruzado) was named for the cross on the reverse design commemorating the struggle between the crusaders and the Muslims in Africa.
These were three guilder pieces of 60 stuivers and not silver riders of 63 stuivers, also called ducatoons.
The Empire refers to the German States. In his 1702 assay report, Newton examined thirteen such rix dollars and determined an average weight of 441.96 ± 2.53 grains and a sterling value of 54.65 ± 0.57d.
Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 14.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 35-36; Hull, Diaries, p. 290. Crosby notes that while the May 12th proposal was defeated, it was later enacted on August 22, 1654, and reconfirmed both in 1669 and 1697 (Early Coins, pp. 104-5).
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 132.
Solomon, Studies, p. 30.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 6.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 8.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 10-13. See also McCusker, Money and Exchange, for a complete listing of exchange rates between all principal commercial centers from 1600 to 1775.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 168, 171; Nettels, Money Supply, p. 241n.
Hoober, Num 1953, p. 1146.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 14-15; Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 231-48; McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 126; Ruding, Annals, pp. 61-63.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 14.
Adler, Money Units, p. 170.
Nettels, Money supply, p. 243n.
Nettels, Money supply, p. 248; Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 414-15.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp.233, 249.
Sumner, Spanish Dollar, pp. 614-15; and Sumner, Yale Review 1898, pp. 405-10. Sumner calculated that an eight reales of 17.5 dwt of sterling standard (.925 fine), should pass for 4s. 6d. If., not 4s. 6d., at the mint price for silver of 5s. 2d. per ounce.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 15; McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 126, 257; Nettels, Money Supply, p. 249.

End Notes

Fiske, Dutch and Quaker , pp. 152-53.
Bullock, Essays, pp. 8-9; Del Mar, History, pp. 86-90.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 8-11, 13, 14.
Baxter, Hancock , chap. 2.
Larkin, Account Book, pp. 8-9.
Williamson, CNL 1986, pp. 931-34.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 208-28.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 38; Sumner, American Currency, p. 11.
Massey, Studies, p. 17; Williamson, CNL 1986, pp. 931-34.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 5.
Sumner, American Currency, p. 15.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 82-83.
Baxter, Hancock , pp. 22-23.
Massey, Studies, p. 20; McCusker, Studies, pp. 95-97; Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 21; and Hoober, Num 1953, pp. 1147, 1149.
When there are two currencies in circulation with equal debt paying power, but unequal intrinsic value, the better currency tends to be hoarded, or bad money drives good money out of circulation. This statement (known as Gresham's Law, after Thomas Gresham, [1519-1579], a financial advisor to Queen Elizabeth) is being applied in this instance to commodity money and specie. While this economic principle was attributed to Gresham by Macleod in 1892, it was first noted by Aristophanes (Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, p. 78n). "Under the mediaeval European currency system, bad money was allowed to buy up good money (Shaw, Monetary History, p. vi.)."
Sumner, American Currency, p. 5.
Weiss, Colonial Standard, pp. 580-85.
Baxter, Hancock , pp. 23-24.
Baxter, Hancock , p. 34.
Knight, Journal, p. 42, as quoted in Weiss, Colonial Standard, p. 584; Crosby, Early Coins, p. 114; Felt, Massachusetts , p. 54; Del Mar, History, p. 78; Sumner, American Currency, pp. 15-16; Essex Inst. Hist. Colls., vol. 1, p. 127.
Weiss, Colonial Standard, p. 584.


Up to this point there has only been passing reference to the silver and gold money of the period. It is important in our study to determine as accurately as possible the composition of the circulating currency in British North America. The most reliable evidence as to the actual coins which passed from hand to hand in commerce or were shipped abroad to settle large transactions would be from the examination of undisturbed hoards or access to contemporary inventories. The evidence from such tabulations would be "frozen in time," so to speak, and much more representative of the current monetary medium than data derived from coin accumulations whose origins are uncertain.

One early hoard indicates that English gold and silver, although scarce, were present in the colonies, either brought over by immigrants or otherwise smuggled out of the country. This is apparent from a cache of coins uncovered in 1855 at Richmond's Island, a coastal fishing settlement near Portland, Maine. This particular hoard contained some 50 English gold and silver coins dated no later than 1642, an indication of when the coins were hidden.75


Fig. 5: An old photograph of surviving specimens from the Castine Hoard.

An analysis of the Castine Deposit provides only limited clues as to the types of coins current in 1704, the date when this hoard was thought to have been hidden by the French near Castine, Maine, who were fleeing the English.76 Unfortunately, only a fraction of this hoard was ever inventoried, and then after the majority of the coins had been dispersed. The number of coins from the cache is uncertain with the count ranging from 400 to 2,000. As might be expected, French coins were the most numerous, Spanish American cobs the next most common, followed by Belgic and Portuguese issues. A large number of Pine Tree shillings and sixpence was recorded, perhaps as many as 75 of each. Only two English coins, shillings, were encountered in the whole lot. Other countries represented in the find were United Provinces of the Netherlands (lion dollars), Spain, and Brunswick-Luneberg. While interesting, this coin census cannot be considered representative of the British territories but is biased toward the French possessions.

A cross section of money current in New York is now available from the inventory of coins recently recovered from the wreck of the H.M.S. Feversham which sunk in a storm off Nova Scotia in 1711.77 This ship withdrew £569 12s. 5d., sterling, from the New York Victualling Office of the British Treasury to outfit the fleet for an assault against Quebec City in an attempt to dislodge the French from Canada. Six hundred and thirty-six specimens have been reclaimed from the ocean amounting to £33 13s., which is considered the unspent sum remaining after the ship was provisioned. A census of the salvaged currency includes only 8 English coins, 22 Dutch lion dollars or their fractional parts, 5 Spanish pieces, 504 coins from Spanish American mints, and 92 examples of Massachusetts silver. The recovery gives only a qualitative notion of the content of the original allotment since the actual distribution of the coin varieties received by the purser prior to disbursement is unrecorded. In this sample, small denominational issues were well represented.

On the contrary, an inventory of £1626 10s. 11d. in hard coin conducted by Thomas Hancock in 1762 revealed that the total value was 80% in large Portuguese gold coins and 18% in English guineas.78 The remainder was in 15 other smaller gold coins and 33 sundry pieces, most being cut Spanish silver. A single copper halfpenny was found. Such large denominational sums were better suited for overseas remittances rather than for the daily market place.

Much information about the current world coinage of the period is revealed from assays conducted at the Tower Mint by Sir Isaac Newton in 1702 and 1717, and that of the Royal Mint in 1740 (see Appendix 3).79 It was the analysis of world currencies by Newton in 1702 which provided the basis for the monetary reform as promulgated in the Proclamation of 1704. His 1702 assays tabulated the weight, fineness, and value in sterling currency of some 47 silver and 21 gold major specie coins. Information from this and other sources is listed in Tables 5, 7, 8, and 9 which describe world silver and gold coins, commonly encountered in colonial commerce. Any change from the prescribed alloy should be considered a deliberate manipulation on the part of the mint. Refining techniques for precious metals had been perfected since the Roman days when any variation greater than 1% was significant.80

Spanish and Spanish American Silver

Despite the English heritage of the American colonies, the most important and preponderant coin of the period was, of course, the Spanish American eight reales which had become the world's silver standard. This coin, first minted in Mexico City in 1535, eventually appeared from many other mints in Central and South America. The earlier coinages were circular but without a protective edge. Beginning in 1556, the style was changed to the so-called "cob," a crude and irregular coin cut from a bar of silver and imperfectly stamped with a design and designation of value on a planchet usually too small to receive the impression from the entire die. The finished specimen was a most primitive product, not for lack of an existing technology to mint more attractive coins, but because the primary purpose of the cob was to provide a convenient means for shipping bullion to the melting pots of Spain rather than to furnish money for general circulation. Although cobs were minted in certain locations up through 1773, the famous pillar dollar, or Spanish milled dollar of eight reales, and its fractional parts, were introduced in 1732. This series was replaced in 1772 by portrait coins bearing the bust of the reigning monarch.81

Fig. 6:


(a) Mexico: 1766 "pillar" eight reales, or "Spanish milled dollar" of Charles III. This famous design, minted from 1732 to 1772, was also issued in fractional denominations of four, two, one, and half reales.


(b) Mexico: 1753 fractional half real, medio, half bit, or picayune of Ferdinand VI.


(c) Mexico: 1773 "portrait" eight reales of Charles III. the new motif adopted after 1772.

For the period 1497 until 1728 the eight reales was authorized at all mints to weigh 423.9 grains at .9305 fine. There were local exceptions to this provision made in 1642 and 1686 which were applicable to Spain only. According to assays conducted at the Tower Mint in 1626, eight reales weighed 420 grains (17.5 dwt) and were .9166 fine with a pure silver content of 385 grains. The sterling equivalent (i.e. English currency value calculated at 62d. per troy ounce for the .925 fine standard) in this circumstance was 53.76d., a value which held quite constant as recorded by other assays through the first quarter of the next century. In 1728, the weight of the eight reales was further reduced to 417.6 grains and the fineness lowered to .9166. For a coin adhering to this standard, the value in English currency was essentially unchanged at 53.45d. The eight reales was reduced for the last time in 1772, to .90277 fineness, with a sterling value of 52.64d.82 For the entire 351 year period from 1497 until 1848, Spanish eight reales minted according to authorized standards, depreciated a meager 4.4%, and for those pieces examined by actual assay, the reduction was only 5.9%.83 This level of constancy is why Spanish American silver was the revered standard for world currency. Calbeto de Grau describes the Spanish American coinage and particularly the eight reales piece "as a principal symbol of the world's monetary economy during almost three centuries."84 These relationships are recorded in Table 5. This uniform value for the Spanish eight reales was also due in part to the stability of the price of sterling silver throughout the period. From 1601 the Tower Mint price for .925 fine standard per troy ounce remained at 62d. and was the rate used by Newton during his tenure of office. On the open market where silver varied 1.5d. to 3d. above the Mint price,85 the price of sterling averaged 64.8d. during the first half of the eighteenth century, and from that point to the America Revolution advanced only by an additional 1.1d.86

Fig. 7:


(a) Potosi: 1645 eight reales of Philip IV with the Hapsburg coat of arms, the style minted prior to discovery of the "debasement."


(b) Potosi: 1660 eight reales of Philip IV, with the "crowned columns of Hercules." A recoinage of the debased Potosí silver was ordered in 1651; the new coins were struck with this different design as a guarantee that all currency with this emblem had the proper silver content (ANS/HSA).

Spanish American silver was not always held in high esteem as evidenced by an uncommon event during the reign of Philip IV when there "occurred a scandalous falsification in the fineness of silver monies coined in our Peruvian mints."87 Under the framework of the Spanish colonial system, the mint was essentially a proprietary enterprise purchased by the mintmaster for life and operated under royal license. A fraudulent scheme of coinage debasement, which had been operating for eight years, was uncovered in 1648 involving a silver merchant and an assayer at the Potosí mint who were apprehended and two years later condemned to death.88 Silver coins from that mint depreciated up to 50% in 1649. An October 1650 decree ordered that all Potosí cobs either be turned in for melting or be counterstamped as an indication of their officially devalued status.89 Another royal decree of February 17, 1651, ordered a recoinage of the depreciated currency and a change in design to distinguish new issues from the mint of proper weight and standard from the inferior money of the previous decade. Therefore, in 1652 the familiar insignia of the Hapsburg coat of arms was replaced by the "crowned columns of Hercules floating over the waves of the sea." This new emblem on an eight reales became a guarantee that such coins bearing it had returned to the authorized standard. Adulteration of the Peruvian coinage almost caused the demonetization of Potosí silver in England and its colonies during the last half of the seventeenth century. An "exact assay" of "base Peru-pieces" performed in Ireland in 1652 revealed an almost 37% deficiency from the standard.90 By the end of the century, eight reales examined at the English mint had returned to an English currency equivalence of 53.86d. and there was renewed faith in the standard.

The scarcity of hard money was further complicated by the fact that Spanish American silver arriving in the colonies was severely clipped, sweated, filed, shaved, "whirled, slung," or otherwise reduced from its mint weight of 120 grains or 17.5 dwt.91 In New England the money of account eight reales was calculated at 15 dwt, in Philadelphia at 12 dwt,92 while in Virginia, the 16 dwt coin was usual.93 A full weight coin was a rarity and traded as a commodity rather than used as money. One remedy for receiving coins of varying weight adopted in the Leeward Islands was the use of a sliding scale whereby a "cried up" 17 dwt eight reales passed for 7s., a 15 to 17 dwt coin at 6s. 6d., and any piece below 15 dwt at 6s.94 A similar system in South Carolina provided values for eight reales weighing from 13 to 17 pennyweight.95

Spanish silver eight reales were also cut into fractional pieces to accommodate the need for small change. These eighth parts were called "cut money, sharp change," or "bits" with "two bits" being one-fourth of the Spanish milled dollar, a term which still endures in our language in reference to a quarter of a dollar.96 A small Spanish American coin of the period, the picayune or half real, was useful as small change both in the colonial and early Federal times. The expression "picayune" was adopted into the English language to denote something of trivial worth. Table 4 lists the common terms for the fractional Spanish silver coins used as small change from colonial times until passage of the Act of February 21, 1857, which demonetized all foreign specie coins. For generations in Pennsylvania, where the real had passed for eleven pence in money of account, the U.S. dime was called a "levy" and a half dime a "fip," a contraction for five pence.97 In the early Federal period, when the worn real or bit was roughly equivalent to the dime, it was christened a "short-bit" and the picayune became the common name for the half dime.

Table 4 Common Terms For Fractional or Cut Spanish Silver Coins Used as Small Change (See below, p. 157 and n. 64 there)
Spanish Coin Four reales, four bits Two reales, two bits One real, one bit Half real, medio, half bit, picayune
Value of eight reales in local money of account
at 96d.
Area: New York, North Carolina
Local Value 48d. 24d. 12d. 6d.
Local Name 4 shillings 2 shillings shilling sixpence
at 90d.
Area: Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey
Local Value 3s. 9d. 22.5d. 11.25d. 5.6d.
Local Name eleven pence or levy fippenny bit, fip, five penny bit or fippence
at 72d.
Area: New England, Virginia
Local Value 36d. 1s. 6d. 9d. 4.5d.
Local Name 3 shillings one and six ninepence nine penny bit 4.5d. four pence ha'-penny

Fig. 8:


(a) Spain: 1719 two reales or "cross" pistareen of Philip V, Madrid mint


(b) 1776 "head" pistareen of Charles III, Seville mint.

Another small but important coin of the period was the debased silver pistareen (little piastre) or provincial peseta of two reales which was minted in mainland Spain after 1707.98 This series was officially .8333 fine, or "new plate," as compared to .9305 for the standard eight reales and its fractional parts. Pistareens and their fractional one-half and one-quarter parts were inscribed with the arms of Castile and León within their familiar cross on the reverse and the Hapsburg crest on the obverse. This motif was responsible for the name, "cross pistareen." In 1772 the fineness was reduced to .8125 and the design changed to include the head of the monarch on the obverse and the Castile and León crest on the reverse, giving rise to the name, "head pistareen." Although intended solely for use in the Iberian peninsula, these two reales coins traveled rapidly across the Atlantic to the British Colonies, including Nova Scotia,99 Bermuda,100 and particularly the West Indies where they became an important "colonial currency for more than a century" passing at five to the Spanish milled dollar. The 20% debasement of this Spanish "new plate" currency as compared to the Spanish American silver coins, protected it from the melting pot which was the frequent fate of coins of lesser alloy, including Massachusetts silver. Because of lower intrinsic value, pistareens circulated as a subsidiary coinage while higher quality specie from Spanish America was treated as bullion. Lest there be confusion between these two issues, the pistareen was a debased Spanish two reales valued at five to the Spanish milled dollar whereas the Central or South American two reales passed at one-fourth of the standard eight reales or dollar.

Because of a ready supply of Spanish gold, the West Indies adopted a gold standard following the Proclamation of 1704. Since Spanish American silver was traded more as a commodity than used as money, it was not generally available as a currency. For this reason the debased "new plate" pistareens became important in the West Indian economy since no threat existed that they would be either exported or melted. Hence this humble coin became the small change in an area where it "served for internal and subsidiary circulation under cover of a gold standard."101 Counterstamped cross and head pistareens are attributed to several West Indian locations.102

In 1750, Massachusetts paper currency was redeemed by a quantity of Spanish silver which had arrived from England on the ship Mermaid the previous year. The inventory of this shipment contained some debased Spanish "new plate" coins, including pistareens. It having been discovered that pistareens and larger and smaller pieces of the same stamp [new plate], had been imported among the specie from London, and paid out of the treasury for Province notes, an order is issued, that all such money considered of greater alloy than others, shall be retained until further action of the Court. Here we are introduced to coins, which became current and are familiar to the memory of many.103


Fig. 9: A TABLE OF COIN WEIGHTS AND VALUES (ca. 1750). This table, engraved and printed by the silversmith Nathaniel Hurd, listed the common gold and silver coins and their fractional parts which were current in Massachusetts. This table was to aid in the redemption of depreciated "Old Tenor" bills, issued prior to 1737, into Proclamation, or "lawfull" money, at the rate of 7½ to 1. This redemption was completed by 1751 after the colony had received sufficient specie from England in 1749 on the Mermaid to retire its inflated paper currency and placed the colony in a "hard money" status (Newman, Paper Money, p. 13). Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.

The description of this occasion by Felt also indicates that the "new plate" coinage within the shipment was apparently withheld from circulation until an equitable exchange rate could be calculated. On April 6, 1753, the exchange rate for pistareens in Massachusetts was established at 14.5d., at which time the quantity of base Spanish silver from the Mermaid consignment was released.104 These newly arrived coins were apparently popular since the colonists chose to receive "the Spanish pistorines at 20 percent over the intrinsic value" in preference to the lesser denominational paper money printed to provide small change at the time of the 1750 redemption of the bills of credit.105

The American Negotiator of 1765 printed the following commentary regarding pistareens: All Spanish monies, great or small, either gold or silver, if full Spanish standard weight, are fit to remit to Europe, except a particular sort which circulates in great quantities in the British Sugar Islands which are called Pistareens, whose current value is two ryals. Those pieces of money, if full weight, are not fit to remit to Europe, as they are coarse silver at least 6d. sterling the ounce under standard silver. The blackness of their color is a sufficient mark to distinguish them by.106

The value of the pistareen was not always constant because the weight varied from 84 to 96 grains and the fineness from .8125 to .842.107 In 1759, a Spanish pistareen passed at 17.8% and 18.75% (instead of 20%) of a Spanish milled dollar in Philadelphia and New York, respectively, while a Spanish American two reales, as a fractional coin, would have passed at 25% of the dollar in both cities.108 In New York in 1775 the pistareen passed for 1s. 7d., New York money, while in 1793 its value was reduced to 1s. 4.5d., despite the fact that the value of the Spanish milled dollar and its fractional parts remained constant.109

The pistareen was so well received in Virginia by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, when it passed for 15d., money of account, that the 1s. 3d. Virginia paper money note of 1775 carried the additional designations of "A Pistereen [sic]" and "fifteen pence."110 At a rate of 72d. Virginia money to the Spanish milled dollar, the other fractional paper denominations of 30d., 60d., and 90d. coincided to two, four, and six pistareens, respectively, all passing at a rate 20% lower than the Spanish American dollar standard. The status of the pistareen during the late Confederation period in 1786 is outlined in Table 17. Thomas Jefferson, in his early writings on monetary units, noted: The tenth (of a dollar) will be precisely the Spanish bit or half pistareen in some of the States, and in others will differ from it but by a very small fraction.... Perhaps it would not be amiss to coin three more pieces of silver, one of the value of five-tenths or half a dollar, one of the value of two-tenths, which would be equal to the Spanish pistareen, and one of the value of five coppers, which would be equal to the Spanish half bit.111

Despite the approval and popularity of the pistareen, the coinage never attained legal tender status in the United States after 1792 although the Spanish milled dollar and its fractional parts remained legal tender until 1857.112 In an interesting Supreme Court decision in 1836, The United States vs. Joseph Gardner , the defendant was found innocent of the charge of counterfeiting legal currency, since the 100 "head pistareens" he forged were not considered legal coins of the United States and thus no crime was committed. Only the Spanish milled dollar and its fractional parts enjoyed legal tender status pursuant to the presidential proclamation of October 15, 1797. Whereas the role in numismatic history of the eight reales and its fractional parts, including the various sized bits and the picayune, is familiar to modern day collectors, the Spanish pistareen remains an unsung hero among other contemporary Spanish American coinages which circulated widely in the colonies. The pistareen's low silver content afforded it protection from bullion speculators and the export market. Since there was no external competition for the pistareen, it was free to circulate as an important coin within the small change segment of the colonial economy.


Fig. 10: A Virginia 15d. "pistareen" note of July 17, 1775.

Table 5 Spanish and Spanish American Silver Coins Which Circulated in the American Colonies and their Equivalent Value in English Money Calculated at 62d. per Ounce Sterling (from Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 392, 395, 402-3; Shaw, Monetary History, pp. 85-89, 126, 140-42)
Denomination a Weight in grains Fineness Pure silver content, grains Sterling Value d.
eight reales. 1497-1728
authorized 423.9 .9305 394.4 55.1
1626 assay 420.0 .9166 385.0 53.8
1651 value 54.25
1696 value 52.5
1704 assay 420.0 .921-.933 386.8-391.9 54.0-54.7
1717 assay 417-420 .921-.925 384.1-388.5 53.6-54.25
eight reales, Seville "old plate"
1702 assay 420.0 .9187 385.9 53.9
eight reales, Seville "new plate," raised to 10 realesb
1702 assay 336.0 .9188 308.7 43.1
eight reales, 1728-1772
authorized 417.6 .9166 382.8 53.5
1765 assay 416.5 .9060 377.3 52.7
eight reales, 1772 to 1848
authorized 417.6 .9028 377.0 52.6
Cross pistareen, 1707-1772
authorized 94.6 .8333 78.8 11.0
1712 assay 96.25 .8417 81.0 11.3
1721 assay 88.5 .8125 71.9 10.0
Head pistareen, from 1772
authorized 92.0 .8125 74.8 10.4
1775 assay 90.0 .8020 72.2 10.1

It has already been mentioned that the Spanish American eight reales became established as the world's silver standard, a measure that applied not only to England but her colonies as well. In England the basis was 54d. but among the colonies this rate was variable which proved vexatious to commerce. The colonial value of the standard was fixed by market forces according to the strength of the local economy and also, as previously described, by legislative edict designed to sustain the currency by "crying-up the money" in a competitive race with neighbors to attract or preserve circulating silver. The Proclamation of 1704 was an unsuccessful attempt to stabilize the currency and control the inflationary spiral precipitated by the "crying up of monies." Following the Proclamation, many colonies resorted to paper money and the rate for silver was unstable and inflated in several others, especially Massachusetts where constancy was not achieved until 1750 after the colony received a large shipment of specie and returned to a silver standard. By about 1750 the exchange rate or par of exchange, for the standard in the colonies settled down and remained constant until the Federal period. A summary of the fluctuating standard for the several colonies is given in Table 6.

Table 6 The Value, Expressed in Pence of Local Money of Account, for the Standard Spanish American Eight Reales in the Various Colonies as Compared to the English Rate of 54d.a (Data from McCusker, Money and Exchange and Newman, Paper Money pp. 467-73)
Year New England New York Penna. & Del. New Jersey b Maryland Virginia Carolinas c Georgia d
1620 54
1640 66
1642 56/60
1645 72 60
1655 60
1671 72
1672 72 72
1676 92 54
1683 72 72
1684 81
1685 90 East
1686 72
1688 54
1691 81
1692 74 72
1693 74 97.7 West
1694 54
1700 94 81
1705 83.6
1708 96 72
1709 96 72
1710 65.5
1712 81 North
1714 108 South
1723 72 324 South
1726 78
1728 70
1735 54
1740 96 96
1742 90 372 South
1748 100 96 North
1750 72 90 72 54
1752 90 382 South
1755 54
1761 88 West
94 East
1764 86 60
1771 390 South
1775 72 96 86 90 90 67 390 South 59
1783e 72 96 90 90 90 72 56 South 56
96 North
End Notes
The fractional silver coins of four, two, one, and half real are in proportion.
The "new plate" was a devaluation of the Spanish real which occurred in 1642 and 1686 where the Spanish American eight reales was ordered to pass in Spain at 10 "new" reales.
The last value listed under each colony is the rate which applied into the Federal period. The advantage of "cried up money" was lost after the early 1700s and the Proclamation of 1704. From 1708 to the late 1740s there was significant inflation in many colonies.
New Jersey was divided into East and West from 1676 to 1702. After reunion, the official rate followed New York until 1750 when the exchange rates of Pennsylvania were adopted. For a few years prior to 1761, New Jersey paper money circulating near Philadelphia (West) "curiously" acquired a 6% premium over the same currency circulating near New York City (East).
In 1712 Carolina split into North and South. The paper money of both colonies inflated enormously from 1712 until 1748; North Carolina depreciated its currency whereas the paper of South Carolina remained stable.
Georgia was a corporate colony until 1754 whose currency was at par with England at 54d.
These are local values for the eight reales according to contemporary trade schedules.
Feversham ; Lasser, Num 1989.
Baxter, Hancock , p. 15.
Shaw, Monetary History, pp. 133-79.
Morrisson, ANSMN 32, pp. 188-89.
Burzio, ANS 1973, pp. 8-10; Sedwick, Cobs, pp.5, 15.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 390-94, 402.
Sumner, Spanish Dollar, p. 617.
Calbeto de Grau, Compendio, vol. 1, p. 8.
Feavearyear, Pound Stirling, pp. 151, 158, 435.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 13-17.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 391.
Calbeto de Grau, Compendio, vol. 1, p. 288; vol. 2, pp. 580-81; Dasí, Estudio, vol. 2, nos. 793, 796, 798, 800, 806, 811, 817, 860, CXL-CLV; Murray, Num 1988, p. 1204.
Sedwick, Cobs, p. 29.
Simon, Essay, p. 49.
Sweating was a process of removing particles of metal from a coin by abrasion. Slinging or whirling was a method of obtaining metal from coins by placing them in a canvas bag which was violently "slung" or "whirled" for hours. The bag was then burned and the chips of metal recovered from the ash (Sedwick, Cobs, p. 15; Utberg, Mexico , p. 35).
Sumner, Spanish Dollar, p. 614.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 205-6, 206n.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 67.
Adler, Money Units, pp. 160-61.
Carothers, Fractional Money, p. 27.
Carothers, Fractional Money, pp. 34-35; see also Adler, Money Units, pp. 143-73, and Williamson, CNL 1986, pp. 937-939.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 15-16, 395, 403; Solomon, Studies, pp. 32, 35, 41.
Bell, Foreign Protestants, pp. 267, 343.
Pridmore, Commonwealth, p. 18.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 395.
Wood, AJN 1914; Duffield, Num 1919, pp. 47-64.
Felt, Massachusetts, pp. 128-29. A "greater alloy" means a larger amount of base metal in the mixture.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 136.
Hutchinson, Massachusetts , p. 9, as quoted in Sallay, CNL 1975, p. 528. Felt ( Massachusetts , p. 127) listed the denomination of these small bills as 1d., 2d., 3d., 4½d., 6d., 9d., and 18d., which are documented by Newman (Paper Money, p. 180). Newman writes that due to the preference for the small coins, most of this emission of small change notes remained unissued (Newman, Num 1985, p. 2186).
Adler, Money Units, p. 159. There would be no reason to expect a color change at this reduced fineness, but indeed an ounce of pistareens of authorized weight (5.07 coins) would be 6.2d. under an ounce of standard.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 403.
Solomon, Studies, pp. 32, 35, 41.
Adler, Money Units, p. 158.
Williamson, CNL 1986, pp. 937-38, 946; Newman, Paper Money, p. 480.
A.S.P.F., vol. 1, p. 106.
Schilke and Solomon, Foreign Coins, pp. 73-79. This book catalogues foreign coins which had legal tender status from 1793 to 1857. There is an excellent chapter dealing with pistareens.

Dutch Money in America

Although it has been estimated that up to one-half of the circulating coins in the colonies was eight reales,113 mention is made of other specific foreign coins, especially from the United Provinces of the Netherlands and the Spanish Netherlands. As has been described, the Spanish influence extended into the New World with their acquisition of Mexico, Central and South America. The Dutch also became a great commercial nation and had the largest merchant fleet during the seventeenth century, and supplied about half the world's shipping. The histories of Spain and the Low Countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) are significantly intertwined and deserve some brief comment.

The Low Countries were successively under the domination of the Dukes of Burgundy beginning in the 1300s and the Austrian Hapsburgs after 1477. When in 1516, Charles of Burgundy fell heir to the Spanish throne, all the territories of Austria, Burgundy, including the Low Countries, and Spain, including the New World, were united under the same monarch, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Upon his abdication in 1555, the empire was divided with the Spanish possessions and the Low Countries coming under the rule of his son, Philip II. The Low Countries, which had always enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy, soon revolted and in 1581 the northern provinces declared themselves independent as the Republic of the Seven United Provinces of The Netherlands. The southern provinces, including South Brabant, Luxembourg, and Flanders remained under Spanish authority as the Spanish Netherlands until 1795 when they fell to France. The United Provinces became a powerful mercantile nation and as such founded the Dutch colony of New Netherland which included parts of Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Much silver from the mines of the New World found its way to the Netherlands via Spanish American and Dutch merchants. The Dutch mints were actively producing coins for the profitable export trade and "some issues never circulated at all within the borders of the country itself."114 Frequently, there was not enough coined money for use at home and thus many foreign coins were employed in the Netherlands to meet local needs.115 In the early years, there was active trading between the English of Massachusetts and the Dutch of New Netherland. Commerce was so advantageous to the New Englanders that they were "indisposed to the war with their Dutch neighbors, the other colonies being otherwise disposed."116 As might be anticipated since "currency followed the flag,"117 the Dutch settlers also brought their current silver coins with them to the New World, which circulated freely in Massachusetts, along with English and Spanish money, bullion, wampum, and commodities. Specifically the ducatoon of three guilders and the rix-dollar (rijksdaalder) of two and one-half guilders were cited by the Massachusetts General Court on September 8, 1642, when that body established the value of those coins at six and five shillings, respectively, a law which placed the rijksdaalder and the eight reales at par. This Cort [Court] considering the oft occasions wee have of trading wth Hollanders at the Dutch Plantation and otherwise; do therefore order that the holland ducatoon being worth 3 gilders shalbee current at 6s. in all paymts [payments] within or [our] jurisdiction & the rix doller being two & a half gilders shalbee likewise currant at 5s., & the ryall of 8: shalbee also currant at 5s.118

Perhaps as a reaction to the Massachusetts provision, the Dutch in New Netherland reciprocated by raising the value of the eight reales in their territory to three guilders, a rate 20% higher than at home.119 In 1686 in Maryland, "An Act for the Advancement of Coins," a provision which "cried up of money" by 25%, placed the rix dollar, French écu, and eight reales at 6s. each, while the ducatoon was made current at 7s. 6d., local money of account.120

The ducatoon (ducatone) was originally a silver coin of three guilders first minted in the Spanish Netherlands in 1618, successively displaying the portraits of the monarchs, Albert and Isabelle, Philip IV, and Charles II.121 This quality coin was .944 fine, weighed 501.23 grains, and passed at 60 sols (stuivers), or three guilders. Beginning in 1659, all seven independent northern United Provinces minted the so-called silver rider, named because of the mounted knight on its obverse. The coin, authorized at 505.86 grains at .941 fine, passed at 63 stuivers. Because of the similarity in size and value with its southern counterpart, the silver rider also became known as a ducatoon. From 1726, ducatoons or silver riders were also minted for the United East India Company as a trade coin with the company's insignia.122 In addition to the silver rider, alias ducatoon, another important large silver coin was the three guilder piece which passed at 60 stuivers. The silver guilder was an actual coin only from 1544 to 1558 and after 1681. In the intervening years, it was a money of account. From 1578, the value of the guilder continually fluctuated, adjusting itself to the value of other silver coins. The value of the guilder was stabilized in 1681 at 148.30 grains, or 200 azen, of pure silver, and its twentieth part, the stuiver, in proportion.123

The rijksdaalder was another common Dutch silver piece which by 1581 was minted by most cities and provinces of the Republic. Although attempts were made to standardize this coin, many variations were encountered. The usual weight of the rijksdaalder was 448 grains at .885 fine which passed at 50 stuivers, or two and one-half guilders. Another Dutch coin of similar size to the rijksdaalder was the silver ducat, or "leg dollar" (since the right leg of the standing knight is evident), which after 1659, also passed at two and one-half guilders. There were many other German and Scandinavian versions of the rix-dollar, rijksdaalder, reisedaler, or reichstaler rendering the definition of this coin very imprecise. The average value of 13 different "rixdollars" of "the Empire," i.e. the German states, assayed at the Tower mint by Sir Isaac Newton in 1702 revealed a weight 441.96 grains at .886 fine which was comparable to the Dutch issue.124

The lion dollar (leeuwendaalder) was probably the most important Dutch coin to circulate in the New World.125 It was the first coin struck by the United Provinces during their war of independence against Spain. First issued in 1575 in the province of Holland, it was soon minted by all seven provinces and five cities, and was last struck in 1713. It is among the crudest of all the crown-sized coins ever minted to the extent that the lion was mistaken for a dog and, hence, the sobriquet, "dog dollar."126 This coin had the lowest silver content of all large Dutch silver at .750 fine and a weight of 427.16 grains. It passed initially at a low of 36 stuivers from 1586 to 1606, to a high of 42 in 1659. During the seventeenth century, the lion dollar was primarily a trade coin minted for use in the eastern Mediterranean countries or the Levant. The coin was so popular and successful that it was even copied by several other states, particularly in Germany and Italy.127 Together with rijksdaalders and silver ducats, lion dollars circulated widely in the Dutch East Indies before the ducatoon became the prevailing currency of the region.128 In the next century, the lion dollar was displaced as the prominent trade coin of the Levant by the famous and still popular Austrian Maria Theresa taler which first appeared in 1780.129

Fig. 11:


(a) United Provinces of the Netherlands: 1674 over 73 double ducatoon, Holland mint.


(b) United Provinces of the Netherlands: 1583 rijksdaalder, Holland mint.


(c) United Provinces of the Netherlands: 1641 leeuwendaalder or lion dollar, Overijssel mint. From the Aitub hoard.


(d) Utrecht (United Provinces): 1625 copper duit.

As might be expected with any trade coin, the lion dollar made its way to the New World where it was reported to be the "chief metallic currency of Maryland in 1701." It was mentioned again in 1708 as "the only generall coyne among us," with its value set at 4s. 6d.130 In New York in the same year, the rate for the lion dollar was established at 5s. 6d. and the half lion dollar was proportionally set at 2s. 9d.131 Since the same regulation pegged the eight reales standard at 6s., the lion dollar was significantly overvalued and should only have passed at 4s. 10d. as determined from Tables 5 and 7; the Maryland rate was far more equitable. There is an interesting New York paper money emission dated November 1, 1709, issued in denominations of 20, 16, 8 and 4 "Lyon Dollars" expressed in terms of sterling silver equivalency. The largest bill of this series is for 13.75 ounces of sterling (plate) or 20 Lyon Dollars with all others in proportion.132 This calculates to 6600 grains of sterling for the 20 pieces which is about 2.5% below the expected sterling content of 6767 grains based on Newton's assay as recorded in Table 7 and Appendix 3. This reduction in value would be anticipated since the average lion dollar was probably clipped by that amount or otherwise reduced in weight from ordinary wear.

The presence of the lion dollar, or "dog dollar," along the Eastern Shore of Virginia as late as 1696 was due in part to the ineffectiveness of the Navigation Laws to prevent active smuggling by Dutch merchants.133 The lion dollar also saw significant service in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The several lion dollars salvaged from the wreck of the H.M.S. Feversham indicate that the currency was readily available in New York in 1711 when the ship was provisioned. Two lion dollars were recovered in the Castine, Maine, hoard hidden in the early 1700s, giving further evidence of their wide circulation.134 Additional indication of their popularity is suggested by the report that lion dollars were counterfeited in Massachusetts in 1701/2.135 The acceptance of the lion dollar was not a universal phenomenon. In Ireland in 1677, lion dollars passed at 57d. (Irish) but in proportion to the standard Spanish dollar, were worth only 45d. As a result of this inflated value, no one was required to take these "New lyon Dollars."136

The "Cross Dollar of Flanders," or the patagon of the Spanish Netherlands, first minted in 1612 as a "Burgundian rijksdaalder," also received contemporary attention as it was specifically mentioned in the Proclamation of 1704. This interesting coinage, valued at 48 stuivers and bearing the inscriptions of the Spanish king, was so named because of the crossed staves of its design. Its lower silver content, 433.64 grains at .875 fine, tended to drive better coins into the export market. The name patacón or patagon was applied to coins of both the Portuguese and Brabantine series, the word having the same derivation as piedfort, or "large foot," the term commonly applied to heavy pattern or multiple denomination coins.137 In the Leeward Islands, the "Cross and Lyon dollars, and all Peru Pieces of Eight [i.e. cobs], without weighing" passed at five shillings, a schedule which substantially overvalued the lion dollar.138 From 1680 to 1712 in Ireland, the eight reales from Spain and Spanish America (exclusive of the "old Peruvians" [i.e. cobs]), all rix-dollars, cross dollars, and French crowns circulated by proclamation at the same rate which varied between 57 and 64d., Irish. According to Newton, and as it is apparent from the accompanying Tables 5, 6, and 8, this edict overvalued the cross and rix-dollars in terms of the Spanish and French currencies.139

Another interesting minor Dutch coin was the copper duit, doit, or dite, worth one-half farthing. Eight duits made one stuiver, and 20 stuivers equaled one guilder. The word dite remains in our local language, much like picayune, to characterize a trifle or something small.140 Dite is not to be confused with mite (pl. myten or miten), a contemporary copper or billon coin of very little value current in Brabant and the Netherlands. Mite also has other meanings including 1/20th of a grain as well as being the monetary standard unit of the Spanish Netherlands where 1440 mites equaled a gold real.141

The role of Dutch coinage in the American colonies, while certainly not as prominent as the Spanish, is not usually appreciated. New Netherland was a sizeable colony, and although it did not survive under Dutch authority, its money remained an important medium especially in Maryland and along the shores of the Chesapeake where there was continued contact with Dutch merchants. The inclusion of Dutch money in the Proclamation of 1704 together with Spanish, French, and Portuguese silver, suggests that it was considered significant in the colonial economy.

Table 7 Silver Coins of the United Provinces of the Netherlands and the Spanish Netherlands which Circulated in British North America (Shaw, Monetary History, pp. 85-89, 126, 140-42; Van Gelder, Munten )
Denomination Weight in grains Fineness Pure silver content, grains Sterling Valuea d.
Lion dollar of 40 stuivers, 1575-1713
Authorized 427.16 .750 320.37 44.7
1696 value 40.5
1702 assay 422.0 .7416 312.95 43.7
Rijksdaalder of 50 stuivers, 1591-1700b
authorized 448.0 .885 396,48c 55.36
1651 value 55.125
1696 value 52.0
1702 assay 432.0 .8667 374.39 52.28
Three guilder piece of 60 stuivers, 1694-1800
authorized 491.0 .920 451.72 63.08
1702 assay 488.0 .91666 447.33 62.46
Silver rider or ducatoon of 63 stuivers, 1659-1798
authorized 505.86 .941 476.01 66.47
1702 assay 501.0 .93746 469.67 65.58
Cross dollar or patagon of 48 sols,d from 1612
authorized 433.64 .875 379,44 52.98
1651 value 52.75
1696 value 50.5
1702 assay 433.0 .87512 378.93 52.91
Ducatoon of 60 sols
authorized 501.23 .944 473.16 66.07
1651 value 66.25e
1696 value 66.0
1702 assay 502.0 .94361 473.69 66.15
End Notes
Values for 1702 assay and authorized weight based on 62d. per troy ounce of sterling, .925 fine, silver.
The silver ducat, 1659-1808, had the same value as the rijksdaalder.
The Leicesterrijksdaalder was finer at .888 and weighed 451.23 grains.
The Spanish Netherlands sol was equivalent to the stuiver.
Value given from 66.125 to 66.25d.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 7; Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 394. While this estimate is speculative, it is based on the prodigious output of the Spanish American mints. From 1537 to 1821, the Mexican mint produced over $2,082,000,000 in silver, while in the decade 1766 to 1776, over 20,000.000 eight reales were minted annually.
Delmonte, Benelux , p. 186.
Van Gelder, Munten , pp. 108-10.
Essex Inst. Hist. Colls., vol. 1, pp. 79, 124.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 4.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 6.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 156-57.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 132.
General information regarding Dutch coinages from Van Gelder, Munten; Delmonte, Benelux ; Bachtell, World Dollars. Data regarding weights and fineness are from Van Gelder, pp. 124-25, 221, 230-31. 265, passim.
Scholten, Dutch, pp. 23, 38.
Posthumus, Prices, pp. liv-lvii.
"Sir Isaac Newton's Mint Reports," p. 142, in Shaw, Monetary History.
Verkade, Muntboek, pp. 33-34; Delmonte, Benelux , pp. 193-204.
Draskovic and Rubenfeld, Crowns, p. 281.
Imitation lion dollars are known from the German states of Emden, Jever, and Rietberg; the Italian states of Bozzolo, Corregio, Ferrara, Genoa, Massa Di Lunigiana, Maccagno, Messerano, Mirandola, Rovegno, and Tassarolo; Norway; and Bouillon and Sedan, in present day Luxembourg and northern France. See Davenport, Crowns 1977; Crowns 1974; Church Talers; Secular Talers.
Scholten, Dutch, pp. 33-38.
Van Gelder, Munten , pp.79, 109, 149, 221-22, 230-31, 263; Saloesen pp. 34-36.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 12n.
Solomon, Studies, pp. 29-30.
Newman, Paper Money, p. 246.
Hoober, Num 1953, p. 1146.
Noe, Castine Deposit, p. 27.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 250.
Simon, Essay, pp. 53, 137-38.
Hazlitt, Coinage, p. 221. A piedfort is a heavy coin struck on a planchet of double or more thickness.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 67.
Simon, Essay, pp. 50, 55, 57, 65-66, 67, 68-69; Shaw, Monetary History, p. 159. Irish to English during this period averaged 108.00:100.00.
"When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian." The Tempest, II, scene 2, 34-36.
Hazlitt, Coinage, pp. 216, 400. A mite is also a New Testament half-farthing; "And there came a certain widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing." (Mark xii, 42.)

Other Foreign Coins in America

Other important coins, both gold and silver, were prominent in the New World. As far back as 1655, the Virginia legislature regulated the value of several other foreign coins in current circulation.142

£. s. d.
The Spanish Double Doublon 03 00 00
The Doublon, consequently, 01 15 00
The Pistole, 00 17 06
Arabian Chequins, 00 10 00
Pieces of Eight, (except of Peru ,) weighing 16 penny Weight, 00 05 00
French Crowns, 00 05 00
Peru Pieces of Eight, and Dutch Dollars, 00 04 00
And all English Coin as it goes in England .

From the above schedule, it is evident that the "crying-up of money" had not yet occurred but the weight of the eight reales in common circulation was reduced from 17.5 to 16 dwt indicative of the extensive clipping of the coinage which did not have a protective milled edge until 1732. Silver from the Peruvian mints was depreciated by an additional 20% because of the discovery of debasement at the Potosí mint extending from 1640 to 1648. The Dutch dollars, which were at par with the debased Peruvian coinage, were probably lion dollars. Although the export of English specie was prohibited, there were sufficient quantities of crowns and shillings in circulation to warrant their inclusion in published rates of exchange.143

This tabulation introduces the smallest Spanish gold unit, the escudo, or shield, which was equivalent to sixteen reales in silver. Two escudos equaled one pistole. Originally the double pistole was the Spanish doubloon of four escudos, but in later usage the doubloon became the quadruple pistole of eight escudos. Another coin mentioned in this early document was the chequin or sequin, a gold ducat-sized piece common to the Arabic countries bordering on the Mediterranean and introduced into the American colonial trade as the Barbary ducat.144 Comparable coins to this piece were the Venetian zecchino and the Turkish altun.145 These small gold coins which essentially passed for two eight reales circulated in the West Indies and the American Colonies in the first half of the eighteenth century but were soon discarded because of their low gold content.

Gold coins were relatively unimportant in the American colonies until after the Proclamation of 1701, when gold became the monetary standard in the West Indies. At that point, Spanish doubloons, pistoles, escudos, and Portuguese gold assumed great importance. The moidore series of Portuguese gold (1640 to 1732) was primarily a European currency where it was the principal gold for Ireland and Western England during the early eighteenth century. Containing 22 carat gold, the basic unit was the moeda de ouro (money of gold) of 83 grains. The largest coin in the series was the dobrão of 830 grains, whereas the most familiar coin was its fifth part called the moidore, double moeda de ouro, or Lisbonine. This popular coin, originally worth 4,000 réis, was inflated to 4,800 réis in 1688. The moidore system was later replaced by the "Johannes" series (1722 to 1835), so named for the monarch of Portugal whose effigy was on the obverse of the coin. The advantage of these new denominations was their easy conversion to Spanish currency since the Johannes, dobra, joe or eight Portugese escudos of 12,800 réis was roughly equivalent to the Spanish doubloon or quadruple pistole, although the Portuguese gold was about 5.5% stronger than the corresponding Spanish. The Johannes series, and particularly the "half joe" of 6,400 réis, became an important colonial currency. Portuguese gold was highly prized because of its uniform consistency in both alloy and weight. Such a good reputation "led to the wholesale manufacture of counterfeit joes in North America and Birmingham."146

French money was also an important New World currency not only in Canada and Louisiana but also in British North America as evidenced by the inclusion of its various denominations on conversion tables.147 French silver écus, or crowns, were inconsistent in composition until 1726 when they remained stable into the Federal period, falling between the Spanish eight reales and the English crown in value.148 These relationships are documented in Tables 5 and 8.


Fig. 12: France: contemporary counterfeit of 1787 écu of Louis XVI with Orleans (R) mint mark. This contains only 24.5% silver; note ancient test clip upper left obverse (Private Collection).

Many aspects concerning the circulation and exchange rates in colonial America of world monies can be gleaned from the study of the tables in this chapter. The inflated value of the lion dollar in New York in 1708, and the overrating of the rix and cross dollars in Ireland are two examples already mentioned. French currencies are noted to have been very unstable in terms of weight and alloy, whereas Portuguese money, especially gold, was of constant value and highly esteemed. Table 5 demonstrates the stability of the Spanish eight reales and the minor depreciation which occurred over the years accounted for its popularity as a standard. Although it was of a lesser alloy than English coins, its current value was easily calculated by converting its silver content into sterling of .925 fine. The details of this conversion are presented in Appendix 1. The price relationship between silver to gold, as evidenced by the sterling values of the eight reales and the doubloon (Tables 5 and 9), remained about 15.6 to 1 but this ratio varied according to the market forces of supply and demand. Despite the massive imports of silver from South American mines, the great supply was offset by the constant demands for silver by eastern markets which managed to keep the price up.149 Tables 8 and 9 note that in England, gold was overpriced as compared to silver as demonstrated by the nominal gold guinea of 21s. which would actually command 21s. 6.8d. in silver. Since gold guineas could be converted to silver at a profit, such transactions placed a bounty on full weight English silver coins which were diverted into the bullion market. They virtually disappeared from circulation since they were constantly drained to India where the ratio of value of silver to gold was as high as 9 to 1. The reactive legislation to prevent export of minted specie coins from England was ineffective and the flux of silver to the east continued. These uncurbed market forces were damaging to a mercantilist economy and accounted for the scarcity of full weight domestic hard money in England and the relative absence of English money from its American colonies. Even after the Revolution, English silver was not abundant in North America as Alexander Hamilton explained in his famous memorial, "On The Establishment Of A Mint." In Spain and England, where gold is rated higher than in other parts of Europe, there is a scarcity of silver; while it [silver] is found to abound in France and Holland, where it is rated higher, in proportion to gold, than in neighboring nations. And it [silver] is continually flowing from Europe to China and the East Indies, owing to the comparative cheapness of it in the former, and the dearness of it in the latter.150


Fig. 13: England: 1695 crown of William III.

Newton called attention to the fact that the guinea in England was priced up to 1s. above comparable currencies in most of Europe except for Spain and Portugal where the vast imports of silver arriving from America made gold relatively more expensive. If bimetallism were to be successful in England so that silver and gold could circulate together, either the official price of silver had to increase or that of gold decrease to maintain the ratio which had been dictated by the law of supply and demand on the world market. In order to preserve the English silver medium from the melting pot and subsequent exportation as bullion, Newton proposed a devaluation of gold by whatever amount was necessary to correspond with the price of gold in neighboring countries on the Continent. This and other suggestions to preserve and improve English money went ignored and the currency situation in England languished in morbidity until 1816 when the country adopted a gold standard and silver became a subsidiary coinage. Some improvement did result following a proclamation of December 1717 which pegged the guinea at 21s. 0d. and other gold coins proportionately. Although still overrated, the mint price for gold was thereby reduced from £4 to £3 17s. 10.5d. per troy ounce.151

Thus in the period of British North America colonialism, English currency remained in a lamentable state and the colonists relied on Spanish American, and to a lesser extent Dutch and other European currencies for their commercial needs, since English specie was not available to them. Earlier English monetary history is replete with many accounts of shortages, debasements and recoinages so this was nothing new. Silver had virtually disappeared from England but the available gold, because of its high value in relation to the income of the common people, was not a satisfactory medium for ordinary commerce. When small change was in particularly tight supply, local businessmen resorted to the issue of merchants' tokens redeemable in legal tender. A regal copper coinage was created to fill this need during the reign of Charles II, but the inherent profit from minting and circulating coppers was so great that counterfeiting became a very lucrative activity for the unscrupulous. Although English specie coins were forbidden to the colonists, counterfeit copper coinage was imported in great quantities to become the most common small change in America.

Fig. 14: Common Gold Coins Which Circulated in Colonial America (See Table 9).


(a) France: 1641 louis d'or (French guinea) of Louis XIII, Paris mint.


(b) Mexico: 1762 eight escudos or doubloon of Charles III.


(c) Mexico: 1779 two escudos or pistole of Charles III.


(d) Brazil: 1699 moeda de ouro of 2.000 reis of Peter I.


(e) Brazil: 1767 four escudos, half dobra or "half-joe" of 6,400 reis of Joseph I, Río mint.


(f) England: 1688 guinea of James II.


(g) Venice: zecchino or sequin of Francisco Loredano (1752-1767).

Table 8 Representative Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century World Silver Coins Which Circulated in the American Colonies.a
Denomination Weight in grains Fineness Pure silver content, grains Sterling Valueb d.
France c
Louis d'argent of 60 sols, 1641-1709
authorized 423.3 .9166 388.0 54.18
1702 assay 421.0 .9208 387.66 54.13
Ecu aux trois Couronnes, 1709-1718
authorized 472.2 .9166 432.8 60.44
Navarra taler, 1718-1724
authorized 374.9 .910 341.16 47.64
Ecu aux deux L., 1721-1726
authorized 364.0 .9166 333.64 46.59
Ecu, 1726-1773
authorized 440.0 .912 401.28 56.03
Ecu, 1774-1792
authorized 444.0 .912 404.93 56.54
Cruzado "of 400 Réis now raised to 480"*
1702 assay 268.0 .91689 245.73 34.31
Shilling, 1601-1816
authorized 92.9 .925 85.9 12.0
Crown, 1601-1816
authorized 464.5 .925 429.6 60.0
Table 9 Representative Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century World Gold Coins Which Circulated in the American Colonies with Relative Values Expressed in Sterling Currency Calculated at £4 per Troy Ounce of .9166 Fine (22 Carat) Gold, the rate prior to 1717. (See Appendix 3)
Denomination Weight in grains Fineness Pure gold content, grains Sterling s. Value d.
France a
Louis d'Or (French guinea) 1640-1709
authorized 104.2 .9166 95.5 17 4.4
1702 assay 104.0 .9113 94.8 17 2.8
Louis au Soleil 1709-1715
authorized 125.9 .9166 115.4 20 11.8
Louis a la Croix de Malte 1718-1723
authorized 151.1 .9166 138.5 25 2.2
Louis d'Or (Mirliton) 1723-1726
authorized 100.7 .9166 92.3 16 9.4
1740 assay 100.0 .901 90.1 16 4.6
Louis d'Or 1726-1785
authorized 125.9 .9166 115.4 20 11.8
1740 assay 126.0 .8985 113.2 20 7.0
New Louis d'Or 1785-1794
authorized 118.0 .9166 108.2 19 8.0
Escudo 1537-1772
authorized 52.2 .9166 47.85 8 8.4
Escudo 1772-1786
authorized 52.2 .901 47.0 8 6.6
Pistole 1537-1772
authorized 104.4 .9166 95.7 17 4.8
1702 assay 104.0 .9115 94.8 17 2.8
Double pistole 1537-1772
authorized 208.8 .9166 191.4 34 9.6
Quadruple pistole or doubloon 1537-1772
authorized 417.6 .9166 382.8 69 7.2
1717 assay 416.0 .9115 379.2 68 11.4
Quadruple pistole or doubloon 1772-1786
authorized 417.6 .901 376.3 68 5.0
Quadruple pistole or doubloon 1786-1848
authorized 417.6 .875 365.4 66 5.3
Moidore series 1640-1732
Moeda de ouro of 2,000 réis
authorized 83.0 .9166 76.1 13 10.0
Double moeda de ouro, doppia moeda. moidore or Lisbonine of 4,000 réis
authorized 166.0 .9166 152.16 27 8.0
1702 assay 165.0 .914 150.8 27 5.1
Dobrão of 20,000 réis
authorized 830.0 .9166 760.8 138 4.0
Johannes series 1722-1835
Half-escudo (800 réis)
authorized 27.6 .9166 25.3 4 7.2
Escudo (1600 réis)
authorized 55.3 .9166 50.7 9 2.6
Quarter-dobra (3200 réis, ¼ joe)
authorized 110.6 .9166 101.4 18 5.2
Half-dobra (6400 réis, ½ joe)
authorized 221.1 .9166 202.6 36 10.2
Dobra or Johannes (12,800 réis, joe)
authorized 442.6 .9166 405.7 73 9.2
Guinea 1660-1816
authorized 129.4 .9166 118.6 21 6.8
Barbary ducat, Arabian chequin
1717 assay 61.25 .818 50.1 9 1.3
1740 standard 53.75 .875 47.0 8 6.6
Sequin, chequin, zecchino or zacksen of Venice
1702 assay 53.75 .9985 53.7 9 9.1

Many schedules of exchange rates were printed in the colonies for the convenience of the merchants as a quick reference to the value of the foreign monies. A typical one for 1759 appeared as follows:152

A Table of COINS, as they now pass in the following Places.

England Philadelphia New York
£. s. d. £. s. d. £. s. d.
English Sixpence, 0 0 6 0 0 9 0 0 9
English Crown, 0 5 0 0 7 6 0 8 0
French Crown, 0 5 0 0 7 6 0 8 0
Guinea, 1 1 0 1 14 0 1 16 0
Spanish Pistole, 0 16 6 1 7 0 1 9 0
French Pistole, 0 16 0 1 6 6 1 8 0
Moydore, 1 7 0 2 3 6 2 6 0
Johannes, 3 12 0 5 15 0 6 6 0
Half Johannes, 1 16 0 2 17 6 3 3 0
Doubloon, 3 6 0 5 8 0 5 16 0
Spanish Dollar, 0 7 6 0 8 0
Pistareen, 0 1 4 0 1 6

N.B. Most sorts of Spanish Silver are sold in London, by the Ounce, and often varies, but seldom or ever exceeds 5s. 5d.

The par of exchange values for the monies listed in this 1759 table are identical to those from a previous 1751 almanac printed for use in Pennsylvania by Benjamin Franklin.153 This is because the rate for the Spanish milled dollar between England and Pennsylvania had stabilized at 100.00:166.67 and between England and New York at 100.00:177.78 as indicated in Table 6. The values for the Spanish dollar are represented as 90d. and 96d., in those respective monies of account. Although the weaker pistareen was undervalued here, it can be assumed that fractional Spanish coins passed proportionately. The only new coin appearing in this tabulation is the "French Pistole," the name applied to the Louis d'Or, or Mirliton, of 1723 to 1726 that was slightly lighter than its Spanish counterpart.

The 1751 edition of the exchange rate table indicated the minimum permissible weight required for each coin to pass at the determined amount. This allowable reduction from mint weight, made for circulated and lightly clipped specimens, was about 0.5% to 2.6% below the authorized weights for the gold coins listed in Table 9. In addition to this accommodation made for wear and clipping, the gold pieces enumerated in both the 1751 and 1759 almanacs are slightly lower in value than recorded in Table 9 due to the stabilization of the guinea in 1717 at 21s. 0d., when the 22 carat standard was reduced by 2.6% from £4 to £3 17s. 10.5d. an ounce, as previously related. For French crowns, the "least weight" from the 1751 almanac was 414 grains to pass at 7s. 6d., Pennsylvania money, a tolerance of 5.9% below the 1726 standard of 440 grains listed in Table 8. Except as noted, all other foreign coins in the 1751 and 1759 almanacs were rated within two to three percent of their theoretical values from the preceeding tables.154 Notable exceptions were the French and English crowns; French crowns in England were overvalued by about 4d. but correctly rated in Philadelphia and New York, whereas English crowns were undervalued in the colonies by 10d. in Philadelphia and 10. (id. in New York in their local monies of account. This inequitable differential between French and English crowns became an issue of public concern to be further discussed in Chapter Nine. Of course, there was always the option for any underweight coin to pass by weight rather than tale. In 1751 Pennsylvania money, these rates were 8s. 6d. an ounce for sterling quality silver and £6 5s. per ounce for gold.

A distinction must be made between the exchange rates for foreign coins in the colonies based on the Spanish standard as noted in Table 6, and the commercial rate charged for bills of exchange with which the colonists could make foreign remittances to pay for imported goods. While the rates which evolved in the exchange of hard money, the par of exchange, were relatively stable and frequently fixed by law, the commercial rates for the purchase of bills of exchange fluctuated more widely according to current business cycles. These variations were determined by many factors such as the availability of foreign credit, the balance of payments, and the relative supply and demand for such fiscal instruments. For example, in 1751, when specie, based on the Spanish standard, passed at a ratio of 100:166.67 between London and Philadelphia, the average prevailing price for a bill of exchange for £100 sterling was set at £169.86 in Pennsylvania money of account, or expressed as the ratio, 100:169.86.155 In this instance, it was more expensive to obtain sterling credits by buying a bill of exchange with local money of account than it was to send specie by the next ship to England to cover the indebtedness. In 1759, when market forces had reduced the commercial exchange rate to 100:153.32, it would have been less expensive to have made payments to England using bills of exchange purchased with Pennsylvania money than to have sent hard money. At any time when it became more profitable to export specie for foreign purchases than to buy bills of exchange, it was said that the "specie export point" had been reached.156 This subject will be covered in greater depth in Chapter Four where bills of exchange and other paper currencies are described more fully.

This chapter has discussed the important emphasis on the intrinsic value of the circulating currencies and their relative exchange rates one with another. If one asks why this is essential to the study of numismatics, the truth becomes immediately apparent. What we cherish in our coin cabinets today as numismatic specimens were the monies of our forebears. As money, these coins had intrinsic value as metal and monetary value as currency; if these two amounts approached parity, then the currency was successful and circulated in commerce. The Spanish milled dollar is the paramount example of such a success. When a coin became more valuable as metal than as money, as was the case for full weight English silver, then the melting pot was its certain fate. The foreign coins which circulated in the colonies did so only because they were supported by their own intrinsic worth and it is vital to the study of numismatics to have an appreciation of that value and how it was derived.

End Notes
Coins marked [*] are also listed in Table 3, having been included in the Proclamation of 1704.
Based on 62d. per Troy ounce of sterling, .925 fine, silver.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 397-98, 404; Shaw, Monetary History, p. 140.
Shaw, Monetary History, p. 140. This 20% inflation applied also to silver currency.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 405.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 397-98, 409-10. A U.S. Mint assay noted the gold content of the 1726 to 1792 Louis d'or to be considerably lower than those stated (Schilke and Solomon, Foreign Coins, p. 103).
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 395-96, 407.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 396, 408. Portuguese gold closely followed the legal standard. The moidore series was raised 20% in 1688.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 412. During the early 1700s, the guinea actually passed for 21s. 6d. (Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, pp. 154-55.)
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 67, 397.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 23.
Nettels, Money Supply, p. 162; Ernst, Money and Politics, p. 20n; Solomon, Studies, p. 35.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 67, 397.
Craig, World Coins, p. 742. The sequin was also known as the sultani, checken, checkeen, and chequeen (Solomon, Studies, p. 38). Sequin is French for the Italian zecchino, a Venetian ducat first minted around 1280. Zecchino is derived from the Spanish word, zeca, a mint, and the Arabic, sikka, a die for stamping coins.
Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 396, 408; Buttrey. ANS 1973, pp. 62-64. Réis is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish reales (royals). Moidore is a contraction of moeda de ouro, money of gold, and as a coin specifically refers to the double moeda de ouro. The Johannes or Joannes series derives its name from the monarch. King John. Theoretically the "joe" or "joannese" was the half-dobra of 6,400 réis. but in the New World this coin was known as the "half-joe" while the dobra of 12,800 réis became the "joe."
See Breen, Encyclopedia, pp. 43-58, for a complete description of coinage of the French régime in North America from 1640 to 1763.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 404; Schilke and Solomon, Foreign Coins, p. 144.
Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, p. 151.
A.S.P.F., vol. 1, pp. 91-100, quote p. 93.
Feavearyear, Pound Sterling, pp. 150-58; "Report of the Officers of the Mint About the Preservation of the Coyne," in Shaw, Monetary History, pp. 136-39; Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898. pp. 405-6.
From Father Abraham's Almanack , Philadelphia, 1759 (Solomon, Studies, p. 35).
Pocket Almanack for 1751, by R. Saunders, printed by B. Franklin, Philadelphia, 1751 (Solomon, Studies, p. 39).
The differential between England and Philadelphia for the gold coins in the 1759 table averaged 100:161.69, rather than the expected 100:166.67. This 2.98% deficiency is not significant considering allowances made for variations in weight. For New York, the average for the seven gold pieces was 100:174.45, or only a 1.9% deviation from the established rate of 100:177.78.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp.18, 185; McCuster, Studies, p. 103.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, pp. 18-24. There were other expenses associated with remitting specie abroad such as the costs of freight and insurance.

End Notes

Pridmore, Commonwealth, p. 18.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 10.
Willis, Portland .
Noe, Castine Deposit; Breen, Num 1952, pp. 7-9; Williamson, Castine.

Massachusetts and Maryland Silver Coinages


From a numismatic viewpoint, the most famous solution for increasing the pool of circulating currency in the New England area was the founding of the Massachusetts Bay mint. Its most well known product, the "Pine Tree Shilling," is familiar to many who have had no more than a passing exposure to colonial history or numismatics. The mint came into existence as a reaction to the lightweight, counterfeit and debased silver coins which appeared in New England very quickly after the initial settlements. The unreliable currency prevalent in the colonies was generally cut, clipped or otherwise underweight Spanish silver that had penetrated mainland commerce via Jamaica, which was the hotbed of piracy and military and naval operations against the Spanish. As described by Chalmers: It is at any rate certain that by the close of the first half of the 17th century light Spanish coins were being circulated from the West Indies through the Plantations of the New World. And the predominance of these light coins (and counterfeit money), coupled with the inconvenience of barter and of an inadequate medium of circulation, led the colony of New England on 31st May 1652, boldly to set about minting money for itself "of good silver of the just allay of new sterling English mony ...."1

Initially the General Court had responded to this uncertain Spanish money by passing a bill on May 26, 1652, designed to counterstamp all silver coins with a mark of value. It would be a safe speculation that some of this questionable money was from the Potosí scandal of 1648. No evidence exists that the cumbersome scheme to label each legitimate coin was ever initiated. Instead, more definitive legislation a few weeks later authorized a mint for the recoining of Spanish silver, received from the profitable West Indian trade, into a local currency.2 John Hull, a skillful silversmith, was appointed mintmaster with Robert Sanderson as his partner. In Hull's own words: Upon occasion of much counterfeit coin brought into the country, ... (and that did occasion a stoppage of trade), the General Court ordered a mint to be set up, and coin it, bringing it to the sterling standard for fineness; and, for weight, every shilling to be three pennyweight:3

The proposed coinage conformed to the newly established colonial standard of 72 grains of .925 fine silver to the shilling. An assay of Pine Tree money done at a later date at the United States Mint indicated a fineness of .926 and an average weight between 65 and 67 grains.4 Since the standard English shilling of that period was 92.6 grains, this represented a 22.25% overvaluation of the Massachusetts shilling in terms of sterling currency.

The rationale for this inflated rating was to encourage Massachusetts money to circulate only at home and escape exportation. The operation was conducted by patrons bringing "Bullian, Plate, or Spanish Coyne" to the mint where the silver was melted and "brought to the Allay of Starling mony" for which they were given a receipt.5 Spanish silver was authorized at a standard of .9305 fine and if it became necessary to increase the alloy to .925 fine prior to reminting, there was then a potential for gain. The mint was a profitable venture for Hull and Sanderson. Under their first contract with the colony, which ran from 1652 to 1667, they received 15 pence for each 20 shillings minted plus an additional allowance of three pence to cover wastage. The commission of 6.25% paid to the mintmaster and his associate was formidable, and when the expense for wastage was included, the mint fee totaled 7.5%. The amount was charged to all those who brought silver to the mint to be recoined. The effective price paid for a shilling included the cost of the intrinsic 72 grains of silver plus the mint charges which equaled another 5.4 grains, bringing the effective total value for every recoined shilling to 12.9d.6

The expense incurred in recoining silver at the mint created a significant operational problem since it became more profitable for people to export their silver than to patronize the mint. To complicate further this predicament, newly minted New England, Boston, or Bay Colony shillings7, as this Massachusetts silver was contemporaneously known, were exported as bullion to Europe where they were melted down.8 In fact, so much coin left the colony that the General Court enacted prohibitions on August 22, 1651, and May 19, 1669, which were reconfirmed on December 21, 1697, allowing for the removal of no more than 20 shillings personal expense money for any departing traveler. "Searchers" were appointed to examine persons, ships, and cargoes at the various ports and "impowered & required to search for and seize all moneys of the Coyne of this Jurisdiction" and were authorized "to breake open any chest, Trunck, Box, Cabbin, Cask, Truss, or any other suspected place or thing where they ... conceiue [conceive] money may be Concealld, & seize the same." Conviction under this new law would result in the forfeiture of the transgressor's entire estate.9

Despite the determination of the colonial fathers to confine these new coins within the bounds of their own territory, there are records that Massachusetts silver circulated widely in the mainland colonies as far south as Virginia.10 Some of the Spanish silver recoined into Bay Colony shillings returned to the West Indies where it circulated as legal tender in Barbados;11 in the Leeward Islands, legislation of September 1670 rated "all New England money at its full value in New England," and in Antigua and Nevis two years later, "pine-tree" coins were to pass at the same valuation as in New England.12 A Massachusetts shilling was officially regulated in New York in 1672 to pass for one local shilling,13 while in West New Jersey, in 1682, the value of the Boston shilling was legalized at 14d., New Jersey money of account.14 An act in Maryland in 1694 pegged New England shillings and sixpence at the same rate for sterling currency, or 15d. per Boston shilling in local money of account.15 Pine tree shillings "found their way to Canada, where they apparently passed as 12 Sols pieces."16 Based on 60 sous tournois to the écu at a sterling value of 5 Id., the Massachusetts money in French Canadian monnaie du pays, would be equivalent to 14.4d., Massachusetts currency.17

Until 1642, the Spanish eight reales was at par between Massachusetts and England, passing at 4s. 6d. in both locations. As the depression of 1638 began to engulf New England and specie became scarcer, a balance-of-payments crisis emerged as less hard money became available to pay for imported goods. The Massachusetts General Court responded to this financial emergency by overvaluing, i.e. "crying up," the Spanish eight reales to 5s., the rate which was current when the Massachusetts mint was established. Since most of the Spanish silver which arrived in New England had already been generously clipped, or otherwise relieved of a portion of its metal, full weight coins were exceptional. Typical eight reales circulating in New England were clipped down to about 15 dwt (360 grains), and in Philadelphia to about 12 dwt (288 grains).18 Sumner calculated, based on the actual cost of a Boston shilling at 77.4 grains of silver, a full weight Spanish eight reales of 420 grains could be minted into 5s. 4d. 3f. of Massachusetts money.19 The sum would be further modified depending on the assay of the Spanish silver presented to the mint. By this formula, an enterprising colonist could turn a profit of 4d. 3f. on every full weight Spanish eight reales delivered to the mint for recoinage, and even more for coins of greater purity than sterling alloy. The profit margin, of course, was proportionally reduced for the lighter, clipped Spanish silver. All potential financial advantage for sending an eight reales to the mint for recoinage was lost whenever such a coin weighed under 389.18 grains, the break-even point for the scheme. When under that weight, it would be more advantageous to pass the coin as five shillings if anyone would accept a clipped coin at full value.20

In 1672 the value of the eight reales piece in Massachusetts was "cryed-up" to 6s., a ratio of 100.00:133.33 when compared to sterling equivalence since the same coin still passed at 54d. in England. Massachusetts silver was not advanced beyond face value by this regulation although it had been proposed to increase the shilling to 14d., the sixpence to 7d., the threepence to 4d., and the twopence to 3d.21 This overvaluation of Spanish coin still did not keep silver within the colony since it was more profitable to export it than to present it to the mint for recoinage because of additional fees incident to Hull's commission. This situation is evidenced by an action of the Massachusetts General Court on October 8, 1672, which begins, "Whereas peeces-of-eight are of more value to carry out of the country then [than] they will yeild [sic] to mint into our coyne, by reason whereof peeces-of-eight which might else come to coyning are carried out of the country...."22 This Act, acknowledging that few, if any, Spanish eight reales were of full weight, contained a provision whereby all circulating Spanish silver be stamped according to its value, as determined by size, at a fee of four pence per 20 shillings. The notion to label all circulating coins with a mark of value is reminiscent of the May 26, 1652 legislation, but in neither case does evidence exist that counterstamping was ever conducted and all coins with such counterstamps are forgeries.23


Fig. 15: A genuine 1663 eight reales from the Potosí mint with a fake "NE" counterstamp.

Crosby noted that because these schemes to keep money at home, namely recoinage into Massachusetts silver, stamping with indication of weight and just value, and export prohibition, did not succeed, the final act of desperation for the General Court was to regulate the value of circulating silver. This was done on May 24, 1682, by approval of a provision which pegged the value of Spanish coins of sterling alloy at 6s. 8d. per troy ounce. Thus one ounce, 180 grains, of Spanish silver, worth 80d., was now accurately priced according to the same ratio of a Massachusetts shilling of 72 grains passing for 12d.24 Spanish silver was no longer overvalued in terms of Massachusetts money to which it was now fixed according to a weight relationship.25 Subsequent legislation in 1692 and 1697 returned the value of the seventeen pennyweight eight reales again to six shillings and also reaffirmed "that the coyn of the late Massachusetts Colony shall pass currant at the rate it was stampt for."26 However, if a Spanish eight reales of seventeen dwt (408 grains) were to pass at 6s. (72d.), then to maintain the proper ratio, the rate for all coins of sterling silver should have been proportionately advanced to 84.7d. per ounce. An interesting inconsistency is that such a proposal to increase the value of silver money to 7s. per ounce was defeated in 1696.27

The Boston mint was obviously becoming unpopular due to the relatively high fixed costs paid as commissions to Hull and Sanderson and by the fact that Spanish silver could be more profitably disposed of elsewhere. Suggestions, made from 1677 to 1680, were intended to encourage citizens to patronize the mint. These included a reduction in weight of the shilling by nine to twelve grains and a plan to abolish the mint fee entirely as was the practice at the English mint.28 None of these proposals for revitalization prevailed and the mint was closed in 1682. In addition to fiscal difficulties, the Massachusetts Bay mint was clearly illegal since minting coins was a royal prerogative denied by charter to all colonies except Virginia. Acting under whatever self-justifications they chose, the enterprising colonists took advantage of the interregnum from 1649 to 1660, when England had no monarch during the Commonwealth under Cromwell, and opened the Boston mint. An ingenuous passage written in 1684 on the subject of the establishment of the mint claimed innocence from any wrongful actions on the part of Massachusetts authorities who were unaware until 1662 that the mint was "against any Law of England, or against His Majesties Will or pleasure, till of late; but rather that there was tacit allowance & approbation of it."29 Agitation was recorded in 1665 for the abolition of the mint which was clearly an infringement on the royal privilege once the monarchy had been restored. Rather than disband the mint as the king's commissioners had demanded, the General Court, instead, hoped to appease Charles II with a gift of masts for his navy with the hope of retaining royal favor.30 At any rate, the mint continued and the second contract between Hull and the colony was negotiated in 1667. The General Court looked for some concessions from Hull and Sanderson under the second contract. Sumner speculated that the bargaining position of the partners had eroded because of the recent termination of mint charges in England which encouraged the exportation of silver to England leaving less available to the Boston mint. The second agreement left the fee arrangements unchanged, but provided that the minters pay the colony £40 within six months and £10 annually thereafter for the next seven years.31 Even in 1675 when the third contract between the Colony and Hull reduced his fee to one shilling per 20 shillings minted and the wastage allowance was set at 3d.,32 the effective value of a 72 grain shilling was 76.5 grains for anyone bringing silver to the mint to be recoined into "Boston money" including the mint fees.33 The actual value of the shilling now was 12.75d, down from 12.9d.

Even though the General Court disregarded the criticism of the king's commissioners in 1665, there remained agitation in England against the Boston mint, not so much concerning its legality, but rather the standards of weight, since the Board of the London Mint was adamant that all regal coinage conform to the same standards.34 If the Boston shilling had been made equal to the English standard, then there would have been economic chaos produced in the colonies where the parity between the two currencies would have enriched "the Landlord and Creditor, but it would ruyne the Tenant and Debtor, destroy the Trade of that Country, and bring no advantage, but loss to the King...."35 Sumner suggested that if the King's bust had been placed on the Boston coins instead of a Pine Tree, and if the coinage had conformed to the English standard, then little objection would have been directed toward the mint. Nevertheless, in 1684 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter was annulled, the issue of the mint was another charge leveled against the colony, citing that it had defied royal authority, that the silver was from pirate plunder, that the inflated value of the Boston money lowered the royal standard, and that the seigniorage was excessive.36

Four distinct periods of Boston shillings are generally recognized: the New England coinage from the inception of the mint on June 11, 1652 until October 19, 1652; the Willow Tree variety struck intermittently until 1660; the Oak Tree variety from 1660 to 1667; and lastly the Pine Tree design from 1667 until 1682 when all mint operations ceased.37 Although the mint operated from 1652 to 1682, all of the coins are dated 1652, with the single exception of the Oak Tree twopence which bears the date 1662. Traditionally it was thought that the repetitious use of the date 1652 was a ruse to obscure the fact that the mintage was continuous over a long period, and that the twopence was dated, perhaps by error, in the year it was first struck. A more accurate explanation is that all the dies for Massachusetts silver were engraved with the year in which the particular coin was authorized—the shilling, sixpence, and threepence in 1652 and the twopence ten years later.38

The initial reference to the Massachusetts silver was as "New England," "Boston" or "Bay Colony money"; the term "Pine Tree" was not recorded until the second proposal in 1680 to abolish the mint fee, just two years before the mint was closed.39 From that time to the early nineteenth century, the phrase "Pine Tree" was a generic reference to all products of the mint. Felt in 1839 illustrated "Pine Tree Money" in which he included an Oak Tree twopence, without any distinction between the Pine Tree and Oak Tree varieties.40 Prime in 1861 described the New England coinage and its successor, the "Pine-tree Coinage," with its variants "the Shrub or Scrub Oak shillings."41 Further distinction between the Oak Tree and Willow Tree varieties did not come into usage before 1867. Until that time, the Willow Tree coinage may have been considered a contemporary counterfeit due to its crude appearance. There is also an earlier reference to Willow tree money as a Palmetto shilling because of the tangled appearance of the branches.42 When Crosby published his work in 1873, the designation between the four major divisions of Massachusetts silver appears to have become firmly established.43 The die varieties were well described by Crosby and further amplified and defined by Noe from 1943 to 1952, with new discoveries still being reported.44

The initial design for the Massachusetts silver was detailed in the enabling legislation which required that the recoined Spanish money be stamped with NE on the one side and the mark of value, be it XII, VI or III on the other.45 These initials and Roman numerals were transferred to the planchets by punches rather than by dies with three different obverse and reverse punches identified for the shilling for a total of six combinations.46 The "New England" motif was changed by the General Court of October 19, 1652, when the coinage was redesigned with a single ring at the margin and another toward the center to discourage and detect clipping. The new style depicted "a tree in the center of the one side—and New England, and the yeere of our Lord, on the other side."47

Fig. 16:


(a) Commonwealth of England: 1652 shilling which was contemporaneous with the early output of the Massachusetts mint.


(b) New England (NE) shilling, dies 3-C.

The New England coinage is excessively rare but Noe was able to study 20 specimens of shillings in 1942.48 He noted that those pieces were of good weight and that the coinage was very uniform. None of those examined signaled any indication that the change to the ringed margin was necessary because of clipping, but Noe postulated that damaged pieces may not have survived or been retained as collectors' items.

Fig. 17:


(a) Willow tree shilling, dies 3-E.


(b) Willow tree sixpence.


(c) Willow tree threepence.

The pattern of the new Willow Tree coinage allowed for the detection of clipping because of the double inner and outer rings. In contrast to the rather neat "New England" style, the Willow Tree coinage was hand struck from poorly prepared dies that were free to rotate and chatter (i.e. bounce) during the process producing double or even triple impressions such that the "tree" became "a mass of confusing lines."49 The double and triple striking created jumbled legends but analysis by Noe revealed that there were only three obverse and five reverse dies (Crosby thought there were seven reverse dies) for the 36 specimens he examined. There is a total of six die combinations for the shilling50 and a single pair of dies each for both the sixpence and threepence. Both Crosby and Noe were disparaging of the Willow Tree coinage. The coins bearing this tree [willow] are so rude in conception and bungling in execution, ... as to deserve none other than a position among the experimental attempts of novices in the art of coining; unless, as has been suggested, they are to be considered as counterfeits, which to us does not appear probable. So rude, indeed, are they, that it is difficult to believe them to have been accepted by any people except under urgent necessity for coin of some kind, however imperfect.51 On the other hand, if these Willow Tree pieces were all as badly made as the ones which have been examined herein, it would not be surprising to learn that they were melted down at the first opportunity.52

Fig. 18:


(a) Oak tree shilling, Noe 14.


(b) Oak tree sixpence, Noe 22.


(c) Oak tree threepence, Noe 24.


(d) Oak tree 1662 twopence, Noe 29.

The change from the Willow Tree to the Oak Tree varieties was more than an alteration in design, since it also marked a distinct advance in minting technology as evidenced by the employment of some fashion of fixed dies and even striking. The improved manufacturing technique prompted Noe to theorize the introduction of a screw press by the Massachusetts mint since the quality of the Oak Tree series suggested to him that mechanization was now employed.53 Further research by Doty confirms that a simple rocker press was used for all Oak Tree pieces and the early Pine Tree series, the screw press being employed at a later date for the small planchet Pine Tree money.54 The surfaces of well preserved coins, minted by a rocker press, may show a characteristic sinusoidal warping. Parallel bends in some specimens, previously attributed as so-called witch pieces, are actually artifacts caused by the passage of the silver planchet between the opposing dies.

Within the Oak Tree series appeared the only Massachusetts silver coin dated other than 1652, namely the 1662 Oak Tree twopence, whose production probably began in that actual year.55 The enabling legislation stipulated that during the first year of production, £50 worth of the new twopence were to be minted for every £100 of silver coined, and for the next six years, £20 for every £100.56 This rather ambitious minting schedule was accomplished with a single pair of dies which survived six recuttings without any significant breaks.57 The added longevity for the twopence dies resulted from the fact that less internal stress occurs within dies which impress smaller, thinner planchets than within those used with larger planchets. The working life of dies is also extended whenever planchets are annealed, or softened by heating, prior to striking, since the metal is rendered more malleable. In the case of the Massachusetts mint, it remains unknown whether the annealing process was ever used.58

Fig. 19:


(a) Pine tree shilling, large planchet, Noe 1.


(b) Pine tree shilling, small planchet, Noe 16.


(c) Pine tree sixpence, Noe 33.


(d) Pine tree threepence, Noe 36.

The transition in design from the Oak Tree to the Pine Tree emblem was gradual. Spiney branches appeared on the Oak Tree shilling now designated Noe 14 (see fig. 18a), and a common reverse was shared by three Oak Tree sixpence, Noe 20 to 22, and one Pine Tree sixpence, Noe 32.59 The change from the Oak Tree to the Pine Tree motif is thought to have occurred in 1667 when Hull's second agreement with the Colony was ratified.60 The early Pine Tree shillings were struck on large planchets in a rocker press, but the later small planchet issues were minted by a screw press with occasional evidence of double striking. It has been surmised that the small planchet Pine Tree shillings were introduced in 1675, the year when Hull's third and last contract was signed.61 The final agreement ran until 1682 when the mint was closed; Hull died the following year and Sanderson survived another ten.

There is little information on the quantity of "Boston" coins minted over the 30 year span of the mint, except that it was a formidable output. Felt noted that "the products of its [the mint's] operation were long current in our country. Down to the Revolution of our Independence, they were often seen, and passed readily in business transactions, with other coin."62

An interesting collection of Massachusetts silver was salvaged from the 1711 wreck of the H.M.S. Feversham . Of the 92 specimens recovered, all but 2 were shillings and the census was as follows: 1 New England shilling, 4 Willow Tree shillings, 27 Oak Tree shillings, and 54 Pine Tree shillings, 2 sixpence, and several cut pieces. It is tempting to speculate that this was the appoximate ratio in which these four styles of shillings circulated as a currency in the early eighteenth century. Certainly in the twentieth century, these proportions are in the order of magnitude in which they appear in auction catalogues. Of particular interest were the few' Pine Tree shillings which had been cut into fractional pieces, a practice very common with Spanish silver.

Contemporary records speak of counterfeit Boston money and those people who attempted to defraud the public by debasing the currency.63 The earliest documented account was the 1674 conviction of John du Plisse who fabricated Massachusetts silver from pewter. A 1683 report from Pennsylvania and New York described counterfeit Boston, Spanish, and other coins in circulation. Current evidence suggests that the Noe 4 New England sixpence,64 and the Oak Tree sixpence coins, Noe 15, 18,65 and 19,66 are forgeries, as are the Pine Tree shillings designated as Noe 13, 14, 31, and possibly 12. These pieces are about 65% normal weight and were intentionally made to appear heavily worn and severely clipped and as such masqueraded as widely circulated coins to obscure their true origins.67 There are numerous other contemporary counterfeits and later day fabrications of Pine Tree money illustrated by Noe and other more recent writers.68 It is clear that these questionable pieces are not the work of Hull and Sanderson since the crude design of the tree and the amateurish style of the lettering differ substantially from the genuine products. Two recent discoveries have reported fabricated Massachusetts silver coins struck over Spanish American one real pieces. One is a counterfeit Pine Tree shilling struck over a 1781 Mexican one real,69 and the second is a New England sixpence over a similar host coin, dated 1772 or later.70 The sixpence is a Noe 4 variety, a combination whose authenticity has been the subject of controversy. Now that these dies have been implicated in an obviously contrived situation, Noe 4 is confirmed as a forgery, a conclusion first reached by Newman in 1959 based on other evidence. The problem is to determine which of these coins were contemporary counterfeits made during the last half of the seventeenth century to masquerade as legitimate specimens and which are modern forgeries produced to deceive unwary collectors.


Fig. 20: Contemporary counterfeit pine tree shilling, Noe 13 (34.0 grains)

It is not surprising that money as famous as the Massachusetts Pine Tree coinage, used in an inclusive sense, has developed its own lore and legends. One famous tale is that John Hull became so rich from his minting operation that when his daughter, Hannah, married Judge Samuel Sewall in 1675,71 her dowry was her weight in Massachusetts silver, some 10,000 coins.72 Such a sum would place the young bride's weight at almost 103 pounds, avoirdupois, or £500 in Massachusetts currency, a tidy sum in its day. This would be equivalent to Hull's commission for the manufacture of 160,000 shillings. Another account of this event states that the dowry was some £30,000, obviously not calculated from Hannah's weight!73

Another popular story is told of the visit of Sir Thomas Temple, the Royal Governor of Nova Scotia, to Charles II in 1662. The anecdote continues that as the two were discussing the affairs of New England, including the illegal mint, the Governor presented the monarch some Massachusetts silver. "Seeing a tree on one of the pieces, Charles inquired what sort of a tree that was. The immediate reply, it was the royal oak, which preserved his majesty's life.74 Such an answer brought the king to good humor, and induced him to hear the pleas which the governor made in favor of our colony."75 Although quoted by some as a "ridiculous story,"76 it does emphasize the fact that the Massachusetts mint, although illegal, operated for many years with royal knowledge and indifference.

It has been popularly promoted that New Englanders, during the latter half of the seventeenth century, carried bent silver coins to protect themselves from the evils of witchcraft, a frenzy which had engulfed Massachusetts. Such bent and restraightened coins are called "witch pieces" and it is reported that some still show the teeth marks as an indication of how they were doubled. It is now known that these bends were the result of the rocker press in which the Oak Tree and large planchet Pine Tree shillings were minted. While silver, usually a symbol of purity, has been used in various cultures as a protection from evil and witchcraft,77 the first recorded mention of the bent silver coin superstition in American numismatic literature is credited to Noe in his 1952 monograph.78 While the story of the bent silver "witch pieces" needs authentication from contemporary sources, it is ironic that the presiding judge at the Salem witch trials of 1692 which condemned 20 persons to death, was none other than Samuel Sewall (1653-1730), Hull's son-in-law. The Judge, a very prominent citizen, was a diarist whose commentaries on contemporary Massachusetts are a valuable resource.79

Noe suggested that the "crooked sixpence" mentioned in the nursery rhyme, "There was a crooked man ..." could have been a witch piece.80 While the point is suggestive, another interpretation proposes that Charles I was the "crooked sixpence" and the rhyme refers to granting religious and political freedoms to Scotland.81

When first organized in 1652, the purpose of the Massachusetts mint was to supply silver coins of sterling fineness for local commerce since even at that early time "uncertain" money was finding its way into the colony. The new silver pieces were reminted from Spanish coins obtained from the West Indian trade. To ensure that this "Pine Tree" money, generically speaking, remain truly local and not be exported, it was undervalued at 72 grains of sterling to the shilling which did not include an additional mint cost equivalent to another 5.4 grains. Neither this reduced value nor stiff penalties imposed for exporting the money out of the area prevented the Massachusetts silver from circulating widely. Although the mint costs were eventually reduced, the population were still not persuaded to take their money there to be reissued as "Boston" money. Despite some vague suggestions to revitalize the mint, it was closed in 1682 for what appears to be a combination of economic and political reasons.

End Notes

Chalmers, British Colonies, pp. 8-9.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 29-43; Nettels, Money Supply, p. 171; Hull, Diaries, pp. 145, 383; Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 29-35; see also Massachusetts Coinage, an early general reference on Massachusetts silver.
Hull, Diaries, pp. 118-19, 145.
Essex Inst. Hist. Colls., vol. 1 (1859), p. 125; An assay from 1660 in Massachusetts recorded that the shilling, sixpence, and threepence were equal in "allay" "to his majesty's silver coin of England" (i.e. .925 fine) but 22½% lighter ( Massachusetts Coinage, p. 303).
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 88-89.
Sumner, Coin Shilling, pp. 249-57. This calculation does not take into account that when .9305 fine Spanish American silver was brought to sterling alloy, there was some further potential for profit.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 54.
Del Mar, History, p. 78.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 70-71, 79, 101-2; Hull, Diaries, p. 290.
Hoober, Num 1953, p. 1145.
Carothers, Fractional Money, p. 30.
Chalmers, British Colonies, p. 64. A Leeward Islands Act of September 24, 1670, legalized "... all New-England money at its full vallue [sic] in New England."
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 289.
Spilman, CNL 1974, p. 472; Gladfelter, TAMS 1974, p. 173.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 132.
Breen, Encyclopedia, p. 17.
McCusker, Money and Exchange, p. 282. From the 1640s to 1727, the par exchange between France and her American colonies was 100 livres tournois (monnaie de France ) to 133.33 livres colonial currency (monnaie du pays).
Sumner, Spanish Dollar, p. 614.
Sumner's calculations (Yale Rev. 1898, pp. 254-55) are as follows:
420/72 = 5.833 or number of shillings per eight reales
5.833 × 5.4 gr. mint fee per coin = 31.5 grains mint fee per eight reales
31.5/72 = 0.4375 of a shilling expense × 12d. value of a shilling = 5.25d. expense
5.833 shillings per eight reales = 5s. 10d. less expense of 5.25d. = 5s. 4d. 3f. per eight reales when reminted as Massachusetts silver.
Sumner stated that an eight reales "fresh from the mint was 420 grains [and] assumed to be of sterling alloy." His calculations disregarded that the legal Spanish-American silver standard until 1728 was .9305 fine and not sterling quality of .925 fine. Since the Spanish silver would have been assayed and then adjusted prior to minting, either the colonist, taking his money to the mint for reissuance as Massachusetts silver, or the mintmaster could have gained a little in the process. If the Spanish silver were of greater alloy than sterling, then there could have been a loss.
Sumner calculated that for 5 shillings at 72 gr. = 360 gr. plus a 7.5% mint fee (for the total weight) = 389.18 gr. It could be reasoned that each Pine Tree shilling actually cost 77.4 gr. × 5 = 387 grains. This 387 grains was the break even point for the eight reales to be recoined.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 106.
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 41-42; Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, p. 258; Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 80-81, quote p. 80.
Wild, CNL, p. 257; Newman, Samaritan, pp. 62-63.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 81-85. In these instances, the value is given for silver calculated at sterling fineness so the actual purity, or fineness, was inconsequential. Examples of such computations are in Appendix 3. This rate of 12d. per Massachusetts Bay shilling, does not accomodate for the mint charges of 0.9d.
By establishment of the weight criterion, the problem of underweight eight reales, which typically varied anywhere from 12 to 15 dwt, was satisfactorily circumvented. This legislation failed to recognize that individual coins could be of unequal fineness, either greater or lesser than sterling alloy, and also disregarded the fact that the additional fees imposed by the Boston mint effectively increased the value of Massachusetts money. Sumner commented (Yale Rev. 1898, p. 261) that this law was not very effective.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 99-100. The net effect of this change either suggests that accommodation was now provided for the mint charges for the Massachusetts money, or that Spanish silver was again overvalued. The reference is made to the "late Massachusetts Colony" since the royal charter was revoked in 1684.
Crosby. Early Coins, p. 99.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 108; Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, pp. 259-60. Sumner calculated that if the Massachusetts shillings had been reduced from 72 to 62 grains, and the mint fees proportionally decreased to 3.875 grains, then a Boston shilling would effectively be worth 65.875 grains. At this new theoretical weight, a full weight eight reales would be convertible to 6s. 4.5d. when reminted as Bay shillings, but otherwise as the original Spanish coin it would pass for only 6s.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 76.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 76-78, 82.
Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, p. 257; Crosby, Early Coins, p. 78.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 81-82.
This includes the commission of 3.6 grains and the 0.9 grains allowance for wastage.
Nettels, Money Supply, p. 172; Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, p. 254.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 91-94, quote p. 92.
Del Mar, History, pp. 76-77; Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, p. 261, 261n. The seigniorage (the excess between the monetary and bullion value of a silver coin which becomes revenue to the government) for the royal mint was 3.5%, whereas Hull and Sanderson received a 6.25% commission under the 1652 contract and 5% under the 1675 agreement.
Taxay, Catalogue, pp. 4-6. The precise date of 1660 separating the Willow Tree and Oak Tree coinages must be viewed with caution, since this date is derived by calculating backwards from 1682 (Michael Hodder, personal communication, Dec. 2, 1986). See Wild, CNL 1969, p. 259.
DeLeonardis, Num 1988, pp. 670-71; Michael Hodder, personal communication, Dec. 2, 1986.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 54; Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 108-9.
Felt, Massachusetts , illustration facing p. 38.
Prime, Coins, pp. 3-4.
Noe, Willow Tree, pp. 15-16.
Noe, Willow Tree, p. 46.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 43-65; Noe, Willow Tree; Noe, Oak Tree; Noe, Pine Tree; Bowers, Coinage History, pp. 105-11; Picker, Studies.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 31.
Noe, Willow Tree, pp. 7, 28. There now have been described six die combinations for the shilling (Michael Hodder, personal communication, Dec. 2, 1986).
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 35; Hull, Diaries, p. 119. The suggestion was also raised that the device on the Pine Tree money actually represented the Scriptural Cedar Tree from the prophet Ezekiel and the double ring meant Independence and Growth (Essex Inst. Hist. Colls., vol. 1 [1859], p. 126).
Noe, Willow Tree, p. 6.
Noe, Willow Tree, p. 17.
There have been described to date six die combinations (Michael Hodder, personal communication, Dec. 2, 1986).
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 46.
Noe, Willow Tree, pp. 19-20.
Noe, Willow Tree, pp. 24-29.
Doty, Massachusetts ; See also Schenkel , lot 5505 for the commentary by Michael Hodder (personal communication, Dec. 2, 1986).
Noe, Oak Tree, pp. 10-12, 22-23.
Sumner, Yale Rev. 1898, p. 256; Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 73-74.
Newman, Samaritan, pp. 29-34, 68; Michael Hodder, personal communication, Dec. 12, 1986.
Noe, Willow Tree, p. 28.
Noe, Oak Tree, pp. 8-9, 20, Plate V; Noe, Pine Tree, p. 40.
Noe, Pine Tree, pp. 6-8.
Noe, Pine Tree, pp. 7-8.
Felt, Massachusetts , p. 49; Hull, Diaries, p. 306.
Glaser, Counterfeiting, p. 12; Scott, Pennsylvania , p. 1; Scott, New York , pp. 2-3.
Pollock, RCR 80, p. 50.
Taxay, Catalogue, p. 5.
Newman, Samaritan, pp. 45-50, plate V.
Picker Studies, pp. 86-87; Taxay, Catalogue, p. 6.
Noe, Pine Tree, pp. 423-47, plates VII, VIII; Noe, Willow Tree, pp. 50-55, plate II; Picker , pp. 21-22.
Trudgen, CNL 1984B, pp. 896-99. Trudgen speculates that this coin, discovered by Robert Vlack, was the product of Machin's Mills in the late 1780s.
Pollock, RCR 80, p. 50.
Wish, Sewall , p. 10.
Reit, Collecting, p. 39; Crosby, Early Coins, p. 98; Prime, Coins, p. 4; Hull, Family, p. 275.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 33.
The "royal oak" makes reference to an event in September 1651, when the royalist forces in support of Charles II were defeated by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, and the king fled for his life. The newly-crowned sovereign took refuge in the branches of the large oak of Boscobel while soldiers searched in vain for him in the woods below (Dickens, History, pp. 267-68; Guizot, England , vol. 3, p. 147).
Felt, Massachusetts , pp. 38-39; Crosby, Early Coins, p. 75.
Ruding, Annals, vol. 1, p. 416.
Folklore, p. 1012. One English superstition held that witches could change themselves into hares which could only be shot with a silver bullet or a crooked silver sixpence (Radford, Encyclopedia, p. 261).


Encouraged by the example of his northern neighbors, Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had a silver coinage of shillings, sixpence, and groats, minted in England for use in Maryland some time before October 1659.82 This money bore the bust of Lord Baltimore on the obverse facing left and on the reverse a crowned lozenged shield with the Latin legends, "Cecil Lord of Maryland," and "Increase and be Multiplied." Although the weight of Maryland silver was 75% of the English, or 69.82 grains for the shilling, it was of sterling alloy.

The Maryland charter of 1632 did not specifically permit the coinage of money, but the second Lord Baltimore assumed this right. An action was initiated against his lordship by Richard Pight, Clerk of the Irons of the Tower Mint, which caused Calvert to be arrested as a "false coiner" by an order of October 4, 1659, and summoned to appear before the Privy Council. The indictment charged "that Cecill Lord Baltimore and diverse others with him, and for him, have made and transported great Sums of mony and doe still goe on to make more." The warrant commanded the seizure of Lord Baltimore and his colleagues together with their coins, coining "stamps, tooles, & Instruments." The following day. Lord Baltimore appeared before the Council where it was learned "that a great quantity of Silver is coyned into peeces of diverse rates & values, and sent into Maryland by the Lo. Baltimore or his Order." His lordship was ordered to attend a meeting of the Committee of the Council for the Plantations who were given the responsibility to investigate and report "the whole business."83

There are several reasons why Lord Baltimore's coinage provoked official displeasure. As noted in the Privy Council minutes, his lordship was exporting specie out of the realm which was against the law. In 1658 and 1659, England was approaching insolvency which would have prompted authorities to plug any drain of hard money from the country.84 Secondly, the coined money "of diverse rates & values" did not conform to the standards of the Tower Mint. While Maryland silver was sterling in quality, the weight fell short of Tower Mint issues. The fact that Lord Baltimore assumed the royal prerogative of coinage and even dared place his bust on the money would have been less offensive to the Privy Council, since these events occurred during the interregnum of the Commonwealth when there was no reigning monarch. Apparently a compromise must have been reached between Calvert and the Privy Council since there is no record of any disciplinary action and his coinage continued to circulate.

Fig. 21: Maryland Silver


(a) Lord Baltimore shilling, Breen 64 (64.2 grains).


(b) Lord Baltimore fourpence or groat, Breen 74 (21.7 grains).

The total coinage placed in circulation was in the vicinity of £2,500. This is implied from a Maryland law of April 12, 1662, requiring every "Householder and Freeman in the Province" to exchange 60 pounds of tobacco for ten shillings of the new silver money.85 Although colonial records indicate that a mint was authorized in 1661, there is little doubt that all this coinage is of English origin. The few copper pennies known to exist were probably patterns, never produced in significant numbers.


Massachusetts and Maryland silver coinages share some common features. Both were currencies created for the want of a domestic, circulating medium, having originated without any precise legal authority during the period of the Commonwealth. A major difference was that Boston money was locally minted over the span of many years from clipped, worn Spanish silver, while Maryland money was minted by contract for a few months in England.

England had "refused to allow separate colonial mints on the grounds that all the money of the Empire should conform to one single standard,"86 but such conformity was an unacceptable alternative for the colonists since it would devastate creditor-debtor relationships. In both colonies, their respective monies were of sterling alloy but significantly lighter than their Tower Mint counterparts. The reduced weights of the colonial monies were necessary because of the inherent inequities between colonial and metropolitan exchange rates and monies of account. Had the colonial and Tower shillings been of equal weight, then the bullion price for the Massachusetts and Maryland issues would have far exceeded their commercial value of 12d., thus ensuring a immediate trip to the melting pot and subsequent export.

Unlike Massachusetts money, there are no existing records to indicate that Maryland silver ever circulated outside the province. In a manner similar to Massachusetts, Maryland also forbade the export of foreign specie coins, including Massachusetts silver, outside their colony, except for the payment of "protested Bills of Exchange."87 These currency regulations, designed to keep circulating gold and silver at home and to "cry up" its value, together with the issuance of domestic coinages, were similar actions by both Massachusetts and Maryland to provide and maintain an adequate store of money for local use.

End Notes

Noe, Pine Tree, p. 19. Noe gives no source other than the statement, "We are told ...."
Wish, Sewall , passim; Starkey, Devil, passim.
Noe, Pine Tree, p. 19n.
Mulheim, Rhymes, p. 78.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 123-32; Taxay, Catalogue, p. 7; Craig, Mint, p. 376; Hoober, Num 1962; Breen, Encyclopedia, pp. 18-19; Norweb , pp. 232-38.
Crosby, Early Coins, pp. 129-30.
Andrews, Colonial Period, p. 53.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 128.
Nettels, Money Supply, pp. 278-83, quote p. 280.
Crosby, Early Coins, p. 132.

Colonial Paper Currency

In spite of England's mercantilist policies and the repressive actions of the Board of Trade, the North American economy grew and prospered. Even though the colonists complained loudly and frequently that they did not possess all the specie they thought necessary, and small denominational coins were subject to cyclical shortages at best, domestic and foreign commerce did proceed through the use of alternatives to hard coin or by the manipulation of exchange rates. The final method to be described for the expansion of the domestic money supply was the employment of four varieties of paper currencies: (a) commodity notes against warehoused goods; (b) bills of exchange; (c) bills of credit based on anticipated tax revenues; and (d) bills of credit, or land bank notes, issued by public loan offices. The first alternative was quasi-public in scope, the second was a more private or individual contract, whereas the latter two options were public in that the notes were issued by governmental authorities or private institutions. As previously stated, all of these schemes to augment the currency supply were not mutually exclusive, but while they were introduced successively, several operated simultaneously since one plan was not abandoned before another system was initiated. This chapter will summarize the introduction, use, and refinement of these several genera of paper currency.1 The large emissions of paper currency by the Continental Congress and colonies during the Revolutionary period is a subject to be covered in Chapter Six.


"Store house" or "commodity notes," were issued as receipts when marketable goods were consigned to official warehouses. Tobacco notes of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas typify these warehouse receipts which circulated as money among the merchant class and were more convenient to handle than the commodities themselves. These notes were secured by the market value of the goods against which they were issued, but because of the potential for deterioration of tobacco, such notes had an eighteen months' restriction as a circulating medium.2 Newman makes the interesting observation that the Virginia currency issue of July 11, 1771, was actually emitted to fund the colony's obligation for some of its tobacco warehouse receipts given for stored tobacco which was subsequently destroyed when a public warehouse was flooded.3 This use of warehouse receipts was described by Benjamin Franklin as follows: The Usages [i.e. customary transactions agreeable to all parties] in Buying and Selling Merchandises, are much the same as in Europe, except that in Virginia the Planter carries his Tobacco to Magazines, where it is inspected by Officers, who ascertain its Quality and give Receipts expressing the Quantity. The Merchants receive these Receipts in Payments for Goods, and afterwards draw the Tobacco out of the Magazines for Exportation.4


Fig. 22: A £5 Virginia TOBACCO NOTE OF JULY 11, 1771. This non-legal tender "Tobacco" note was issued by the colony to pay for tobacco destroyed by floods. Since 1730 Virginia had provided public warehouse receipts for stored tobacco and these certificates circulated as currency. When the stored tobacco was lost in floods, the colony was obliged to raise money to compensate the holders of receipts for the damaged commodity. The note pictured is a counterfeit (Newman, Paper Money, p. 435). Courtesy Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society.

Warehouse receipts, or tobacco notes, were usually issued for a minimum of 950 lbs. of tobacco making the payment of a small debt very inconvenient with this medium. In earlier days, small parcels of tobacco were carried about making it "incredible that such bulky material was actually lugged into the courthouse to pay taxes and fees ...." Later there developed "transfer" tobacco notes to accomodate these smaller consignments of tobacco deposited with officials, and as such, the receipts for these smaller portions became a kind of circulating medium. "To date, no specimens of 'transfer' tobacco notes have been located."5

Initially, tobacco was all important for large domestic payments and overseas transactions as described in Maryland in 1708: Tobacco is their Meat, Drink, Cloathing, and Money: Not but that they have both Spanish and English Money pretty plenty, which serves only for Pocket-Expences, and not for Trade, Tobacco being the Standard of that, as well as with the Planters and others, as with the Merchants.6

As other commodities gained in economic importance and the tobacco market became more volatile, this money, based on commodity receipts, became less important, particularly in Virginia, where paper bills of credit appeared after 1755.7

End Notes

For a complete treatment of public paper money, namely bills of credit and land bank notes, the reader is referred to Newman, Paper Money. This work is the standard reference for paper money of the colonial period.
Hoober, Num 1953, p. 1151; McDonald, Origins, p. 389.
Newman, Paper Money, p. 435.
Smyth, Franklin , vol. 9, pp. 235-36.


The negotiable "bill of exchange" was another form of individual, or private, paper currency which saw limited circulation among colonial merchants and was the chief payment method of foreign debts for imported goods.8 "The bill of exchange, basically a negotiable instrument for the transfer of money, became a form of money itself when it circulated for a while before being presented for payment."9 Such a bill was created when a colonial merchant purchased a draft from a second party who had foreign credit and through this vehicle the merchant could pay for his goods in the foreign market. In its simplest form, a Boston merchant contracts to buy cl