A Brief History of Colonial Currency in America
Part 1: Early Tales From Wampum to the First Mint
Buffalo nickels, Steel Wheat pennies, Mercury dimes, Standing Liberty quarters, Franklin half-dollars, and the Gold Indian Quarter Eagle are some of the coins that captured my attention as a curious kid. The silver content, wear, and scarcity enamored me. There’s a warmth and softness to silver coins that is hard to duplicate. I‘ve been around long enough to remember a time when you could pop into your local bank and find silver coins that you could freely exchange.
While I am a novice numismatist, I love the history and lore that surrounds our U.S. currency. It's fraught with intrigue, ingenuity, forgery, hearsay, corruption, and our founding fathers had a big imprint on its existence. It’s a deep, deep rabbit hole, but one I was willing to go down. So, I decided to write a multi-part blog, starting with the little-known Hull Mint coinage, which was created 140 years before Congress passed the Coinage Act in 1792 and opened the Philadelphia Mint.
Before we get into the actual Hull-minted specie (“specie” refers to money in the form of coins), I thought we’d first go back to the early 17th century when the English colonists were making their plans to sail to America.
Settling in the New World
Of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower that landed on Cape Cod, MA, on November 21, 1620, there were 50 men, 19 women, and 33 young adults and children. Forty-one were true saints, who were religious separatists seeking freedom from the Church of England. The term “pilgrim” didn't come about until the early 1800's. The others were considered common folk — or “strangers” by the saints — and included merchants, adventurers, craftsmen, indentured servants, and orphaned children.
THE LANDING OF THE PILGRIMS
“The Landing of the Pilgrims,” Henry A. Bacon, 1877.
The Mayflower Compact, an agreement drawn up on the ship prior to landing, would bind the saints and strangers together to ensure they would abide by the same laws in the new colony.
Once the colonists arrived in America, their plans, in theory, were fairly straightforward: They would live under the English government while being able to worship freely in their separate church. Without the capital to establish a new village in America, they agreed to be funded by The Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. This investor group, chartered by King James I, had a goal of colonizing parts of the eastern coast of the New World. The investors would provide the colonists safe passage and provide them with tools, clothing, and other supplies. In turn, the colonists would work off their debt in the form of natural resources such as fish, timber, tobacco, and fur. The Mayflower Compact was signed, and America, as we know it, got off the ground.
The Early Systems of Legal Tender
This system of legal tender the colonists and investors agreed to was, in essence, the same form of currency that would last decades in the colonies. If you took a stroll down to the local butcher, blacksmith, or trading post, you were most likely trading services or goods like beaver skins or musket bullets, instead of coins. If your trade involved anything agricultural — tobacco, Indian corn, a delivery of chickens, sugar, rice, to name a few — this was called “country pay.” These items were given a value, making it easier and more fair to trade. In 1631, the value of corn was fixed at six shillings a bushel. In 1634, beaver was the best exchange to send to London, and by 1650 it was nearly as good as gold. One year later, in 1635, the General Court enacted a provision ordering that one full bore musket bullet was worth one farthing (one-fourth of an English penny.)
Wampum: The Colonists’ First Currency
Another form of payment with an interesting story was wampum or wampumpeag (or “peage” for short, which was often used in colony records). Wampum was made of seashells, primarily whelk, mollusk, and quahog shells. These shell beads were very laborious to produce. It took a real artisan to carefully carve, polish, and bore a small hole through the center of each bead with a stone drill. The shells were then strung together with rawhide leather or a plant fiber for convenience in trading. Wampum came in many forms, from necklaces to headpieces to belts, all of which had a fixed exchange rate.
The Fort Stanwix Treaty Belt, 1700’s, Rome, NY
The belt of wampum delivered by the Indians to William Penn at the "Great Treaty" under the Elm Tree at Shackamaxon in 1682.
Wampum was introduced to New England in 1627 by Dutch settlers in New York who traded with Native Americans. It was legal tender in New England from 1637 to 1661 and currency in New York until 1673. In Delaware and New Jersey, the rate was set at six white wampum, or three black or deep purple wampum, to one penny. The darker beads were rarer than the white beads and worth more, which led people to dye the white beads and dilute the dark beads’ value. Regarding the abundance of “counterfeit shells,” it is also noted that some Indians passed "stone and other materials" as if it was wampum. This was the start of counterfeiting and forgery that would soon run rampant in the colonies.
Wampum Belt made long before the French, Dutch and English explorers made their way to America.
F.O.C. Darley, Trading with the Europeans, date unknown.
In the new colonies of Virginia and North Carolina, colonists had a somewhat easier time with tobacco. It was their prime crop, and they could trade it in the villages and send it back to England in exchange for goods. But the tobacco leaves had durability issues, so they soon substituted tobacco warehouse receipts for the actual tobacco. These receipts acted as promissory notes, and since the bearer of the receipt had a claim on that exact amount of tobacco, the receipts circulated like currency.
In 1629, King Charles I granted a charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which included the authority to make and use a seal. It featured an Indian holding an arrow pointed down in a gesture of peace, and the unlikely words "Come over and help us," emphasizing the missionary and commercial intentions of the original colonists.
Johannes Vingboons, 1664. An early picture of New Amsterdam made in the year when it would swop ‘ownership' and become New York City.
Bookkeeping Barter System
You can imagine how confusing this “bookkeeping barter” system must have been. Each town's shopkeepers had to continually alter the numbers in their books depending on crop yields and their coinciding exchange rates with goods. Not to mention, tobacco and wampum in circulation would fluctuate widely, making them an inadequate form of legal tender.
Loading the Tobacco on the James River for export to England during the 1600’s, Etching circa 1830’s.
The Introduction of Coin Money
To have a functioning economy, the colonists were forced to turn to other forms of money. Thankfully, in time, Spanish, Portuguese, and French coins appeared in the colonies due to trade with the West Indies.
The most famous of these coins was the Spanish Dollar, worth eight Spanish reales (“real” translates to “royal” in English). It was also known as Pieces of Eight because it was made by cutting the real into eight pieces or “bits.” The Spanish Dollar is the coin upon which the original United States dollar was based, and it remained legal tender in the United States until the Coinage Act of 1857.
Another Spanish coin that made its way to the English colonies was the Spanish Cob. Silver deposits were quite plentiful in the Spanish colonial territories, which led to an increased demand to export silver to Spain. Starting in the mid-16th century, the Spanish mints began to produce irregular coinage called “cobs.” “Cob'' comes from the Spanish word "cabo," which refers to the “end.” In this instance, the minter would clip off the silver bar’s end and use a red hot stamping die to pound the design into the cob. Most cobs were stamped with the Catholic church’s cross on one side and the coat of arms of Spain on the other. Eight was simply the coin’s denomination in “reales.” The cobs’ size, shape, and impression varied, but they were always the same weight.
Great example of an early 17th Century Spanish Cob 8 Reale.
The Spanish Dollar soon became the unofficial national currency of the colonies. With 26.96 grams of pure silver, the Spanish dollar was also the most trustworthy coin the colonists knew. But it could also be very easily “clipped,” “chiseled” or “sweated.” “Sweating” coins involved shaking them in a bag until there was enough metal dust to collect and pass off at full value. Soon every merchant had scales and monocles to inspect their coinage.
Very nice example of the highly collected Spanish Reale "Royal," or presentation type from 1657.
Counterfeiting had some pretty barbaric consequences. Here's just one example from August 8, 1679:
Peter Loephilin was accused of making rash speeches in Boston and was arrested a few days later on August 12th. While searching his belongings the authorities discovered silver clippings, a crucible, a melting ladle and a strong pair of shears. Loephilin was convicted of clipping coins and sentenced as follows: he was to be confined in the pillory (a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which an offender was imprisoned and exposed to public abuse) for two hours and was to have both ears cut off, additionally he was to pay a £500 fine or about £35K today.
Despite being the unofficial currency at the time, Spanish Reales were still too rare to meet the needs of the economy. To add to their scarcity, they were exported as payment to England since King Charles II stopped recognizing wampum as a monetary system in 1660.
Consider the sentiment of the moment. England, in the midst of a civil war, has its guard down. The English colonies are dealing with exchange rate chaos, a coin shortage, and rampant counterfeiting. The Massachusetts General Court may have sensed an opportunity when, in 1652, it made an audacious decision to go above English hierarchy and establish a mint in the colonies.
The First Mint Established in the New Colonies
It called on the respected Boston silversmith John Hull and his partner Robert Sanderson to establish a mint on Hull’s property, located at present day Downtown Crossing near Boston. The Coinage Act of 1652, a law authorizing the establishment of a mint to produce silver coins, was born.
Here’s an account from John Hull himself in his diary from May 1652:
“Upon occasion of much counterfeit coin brought into the country, and much loss accruing in that respect (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. ... I chose my friend, Robert Sanderson, to be my partner.” (Pg. 51)
As compensation, Hull and Sanderson received one shilling for every 20 coined, a contract that made them both quite wealthy. Joseph Jenks, a master ironsmith, is believed to have produced the wrought iron rollers to roll out the molded sterling strips, crucibles, ladles, and stamping dies and punches for Hull Mint. The steel punches were used to cut out the blank silver planchets and the steel stamping dies were used to directly impress letters and numbers onto each of the coins. All of these tools were likely produced at Jenks’ factory 10 miles from the Hull Mint at Saugus Iron Works in Saugus, MA. This factory still stands today and is open to the public.
Before the Hull Mint could strike their first coins, they needed raw materials that were difficult to acquire. Silver sources were never in ample supply or of the correct fineness. This compelled Hull and Sanderson to melt down silver coins from Spain, Mexico, and the West Indies.
Historians agree that many coins that found their way to the colonies were plundered by pirates from Spanish galleons in the West Indies. A diary entry from the notorious privateer Admiral Henry Morgan suggests this. In 1668, Morgan received a commission from Sir Thomas Modyford the Governor of Jamaica “to draw together the English privateers and take prisoners of the Spanish nation.” The pretext of this request was rumors of an intended invasion of Jamaica by the Spaniards. Morgan and his fellow privateers (also known as “pirates” or “freebooters”) were let loose. At the time, Jamaica was a Colony of England (1655–1707).
On one occasion, Morgan wrote in his diary in 1668: “In coin alone the spoil is said to have amounted to two hundred thousand pieces of eight, which was divided among the freebooters….” Morgan and his crew of privateers were just one of the many who likely were responsible for Spanish Pieces of Eight finding their way to the new colonies.
The Minted Coins
Hull and Sanderson minted three New England (NE) “tree” coins: the Willow Tree, Oak Tree, and Pine Tree shillings. For over 30 years, the Hull Mint struck three denominations of silver coinage — the threepence, sixpence, and shilling. All of the Hull Mint coins are dated 1652 except for the 1662 Oak Tree twopence. Many speculate this was done to deceive England into thinking the coins were only minted for one year.
The first coins they struck were the New England coins. The shape was to be flat and square, but it was later decided that they should be round.
The rarity and significance of the NE coins can hardly be overstated. They were the very first coins struck in the new colonies and bore no date. Interestingly, production was halted in October 1652 — only seven weeks later. The General Court quickly passed legislation to alter the design because it had become apparent that their plain design invited clipping and counterfeiting. The extremely short production period for the NE coins explains their rarity today. It is said that only about 20 are known to exist and just one of the threepence variety. Check out this fascinating post about a NE shilling that was found in 2020.
NE Sixpence from 1652. This one sold for $646,250 in 2014.
In the same month, the Hull Mint revised the design to incorporate a tree on one side and the “1652” and denomination on the other. This coin soon became known as the Willow Tree.
The border inscription on the NE tree coins reads “Masathusets,” which means “near the great mountain” according to the New York Times.
As a type, the Willow Tree shillings are rarer than their NE, Oak Tree, and Pine Tree counterparts. This example sold for $230,000.
Willow Trees were struck from 1652 to 1660 using amateurishly prepared dies and a hammer. In 1875, this led Sylvester Crosby to write in his book, Early Coins of America, “So rude, indeed are they, that it is difficult for us to believe them to have been accepted by any people except under urgent necessity for coin of some kind, however imperfect.”
In 1654, about two years into the minting of the Willow Tree coins, an ordinance was passed to keep the money in the colonies. This ordinance forbade the export of no more than 20 shillings per person upon penalty of total forfeiture. An inspector was appointed at each port to enforce it. This ordinance was necessary because Massachusetts colonists traded with people of other colonies, and the coinage was constantly being depleted.
Here is what Hull had to say about it in his diary entry from 1654:
“Each defender was decreed the loss of his whole visible estate. All contracts in kind are to be satisfied in the kind contracted, ‘or if in fault of the very kind,’ they are settled in another commodity, then the damage is to be made up.”
The Willow Tree was soon followed by the Oak Tree coinage, minted from 1660 to 1667. This change was mainly due to new technology as the previous coinage was made using a hammer strike method, which often resulted in uneven stampings. Eventually a rocker arm press was developed.
Late 17th Century Rocker Press with curved Rocker Dies in place.
The rocker arm press technique provided a more consistent quality stamp and was less taxing on the minter. The dies needed for a rocker arm press were not flat like the ones used in the hammer strike method. Instead, this method used two large rectangular-shaped dies that had the image of the front and obverse of the coin engraved on the curved faces. As the two dies were rocked back and forth, the image was cleanly pressed into the blank planchet.
17th Century forged steel Rocker Dies.
Oak Tree sixpence, this example sold for $86,250.
Cut Oak Tree Shilling, circa 1660-1667. To make change, this coin was cut to the approximate weight of a fourpence during its working life. It may be that it was originally cut to a sixpence, and then had a further twopence reduced from it to make a fourpence later on.
This Pine Tree coin was the last variety of coin minted by the Hull Mint and also saw further innovation in the way the coins were struck. Though the invention of a screw press had been around since the 16th century, it was not employed in the colonies until 1662. The more sophisticated screw press used an upper and lower die that were pressed together by turning handles attached to a large screw. This type of press was also needed because the planchets for the Pine Tree coins were thicker than previous coins minted at Hull. A direct strike from a screw press also made a sharper impression, without the unevenness or bending which often occurred with the rocker press.
17h Century Screw Press. First powered by men, then adapted for water and steam power.
Painting depicting moneyers striking coins using a Fly Press (a type of Screw Press) in a late 17th or 18th Century Mint.
17th Century Screw Press for Milled Coins.
Some historians think the image of the pine tree may symbolize the pine trees used for the mast of ships, an important export for Massachusetts. The Pine Tree coins were minted from 1667 to 1674 in a large-diameter format and after that, until 1682, on thicker planchets of reduced diameter to help reduce die wear. The Pine Tree or Bay shilling, continued to circulate in Massachusetts and neighboring colonies as late as 1776.
While not as rare as the other NE Tree Coins most coin collectors call it the “quintessential Colonial coin.” This Pine Tree (Large Planchet) Shilling sold for $92,000.
The End of an Era
The Hull Mint was finally shut down in 1682. Besides tighter scrutiny from English authorities, the narrowing gaps in value between an ounce of coined silver from Spain versus Massachusetts made it increasingly unprofitable to convert Spanish coin to local coin.
There are no records showing how much silver coinage the Hull Mint churned out during its 30-year run. However, there are ledger notes that state how much silver the Hull Mint purchased. While the mint was important to Hull, it was only one of many ventures that he was involved in. In fact, in Hull’s only surviving 320- page ledger from 1671 and 1680, there were only two pages dedicated to the mint!
Mintmaster Hull died a year after the mint’s closing on October 1, 1683. Sanderson died ten years later on October 7, 1693.
One year later in 1684, Charles II abolished the Charter of Massachusetts Bay, invalidating all of the laws of the Commonwealth including the Coinage Act of 1652 and the revaluing of Spanish silver coinage. England had successfully strong-armed the colonists again, and a new government was instituted under the royal governor Edward Andros, who took office on December 20, 1686. As Governor of the Dominion of New England, Andros was given full authority and the right to regulate the value of foreign silver.
Thus, the reign of the Spanish Dollar and all the intricate court battles regarding what an ounce and fineness of Massachusetts silver was worth versus Spanish silver would last for about 100 years.
Up next: The rise of paper money, small underground mints, and something called the Revolution of 1776.