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Massachusetts Silver Coinage of the 17th Century: An Introduction

Massachusetts Silver coinage

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #392

A Weekly Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Massachusetts Silver coins were the first home-grown coinage of the British-American colonies. Minted in the Boston area, they circulated for more than a half-century.

The original 13 states of the United States of America were colonies of Great Britain before the declaration of independence in 1776. Much earlier, in 1652, the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law authorizing the establishment of a mint to produce silver coins, which were minted for about three decades.

Massachusetts Silver coins of the first design, ‘NE’ type coins, were produced for just a few months. ‘NE’ indicated ‘New England’. These were followed by Massachusetts Silver coins with intricate designs. The last genuine Massachusetts Silver coin was minted in 1682 or 1683.

‘NE’ type Massachusetts Silver coins lack ‘dates’; there is no indication on the coins as to the year in which they were made. Three denominations were authorized and struck in 1652: Twelvepence, Sixpence and Threepence coins.

12 pence equaled one shilling in the English monetary system. Twelvepence Massachusetts Silver coins were termed shillings as well, as Massachusetts Silver coins were intended to be consistent with the system in England.

It is certain that NE type coins were struck before Willow Tree type coins at the same mint in Massachusetts. Circumstantial evidence supports the theory that Willow Tree coins were minted from 1653 to 1660; Oak Tree type coins were minted from 1660 to 1667; and Pine Tree type coins were produced from 1667 to 1682. It may very well be true that just ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree Shillings and no other denominations were minted from 1675 to 1682 or ’83.

While Willow Tree, Oak Tree and Pine Tree coinage have intricate designs, the NE coinage had the simplest design of any widely accepted American or European coins of which I am aware. On the front, a small percentage of the surface is occupied by two raised letters, ‘NE’, inside an odd shaped indentation. On the back, a small percentage of the surface is occupied by Roman numerals indicating the face value of the respective coin in pence.

On both sides of NE type coins, the vast majority of the surface is just blank metal. While these are not the most attractive of all North American coins, they are extremely rare and they have a great deal of historical significance. Also, many toned nicely, with creamy brown, russet, and especially blue-gray hues. In most cases, NE Shillings are more appealing when viewed in actuality than they appear to be in published images.

The absence of a date on NE coinage is an anomaly. Sizable numerals of the year “1652” appear on all dated Massachusetts Silver coins except the Oak Tree Twopence coins, which are dated “1662”.

In May 1662, the Massachusetts government authorized Twopence coins for the first time thus increasing the number of denominations in production to four. So, however irritating to government officials in London, the “1662” date was employed to connect the new denomination of Massachusetts Silver with the new law or legislative order that authorized it.

Massachusetts SilverThe Massachusetts Mint, which was sometimes called the Boston Mint, was founded and owned by John Hull and Robert Sanderson. Earlier, they established the first silversmith partnership in the British colonies of North America.

The shilling was the standard monetary unit. Massachusetts Silver coinage was required and intended to contain less silver than British coinage of the same respective denominations. There was a shortage of coins and there were many counterfeits of European coins in circulation in Massachusetts.

Officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony sought to discourage people from taking the coins from New England and bring them to old England or elsewhere. Each Massachusetts Twelvepence coin (Shilling) was thus specified to weigh significantly less than the specified weight of an English Shilling of the same time period.

The Massachusetts legislature and “General” Court “established a standard of 72 grains of .925 fine sterling silver to the shilling, which represented a 22.5% reduction of the English standard of 92.9 grains per shilling. By minting coins of lesser weight it was hoped they would not be exported out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, states researcher Louis Jordan in an online book published by the University of Notre Dame.

These were thus subsidiary coins, not bullion items. The face value of each Massachusetts Silver coin was significantly greater than its precious metal value if they were valued by merchants and consumers at par with coins of England.

First Coins of America?

A prevailing theory is that Massachusetts Silver coins were minted from June to October 1652. The NE type coins were then criticized by business people. Because these have minimal design elements and were far from being perfectly round, corrupt individuals could and did easily clip or shave the edges to obtain small amounts of silver. Also, the minimal design elements did not reveal much about the nature and origins of these coins. Merchants and traders were not always comfortable with them. The Willow Tree, Oak Tree and Pine Tree coinages feature the Massachusetts name, various design elements, and additional words.

While the NE type Massachusetts Silver coins were struck in 1652, coins of the Spanish Empire were first struck in Mexico starting in the mid-1530s. The coins of Lord Baltimore were probably not struck until 1658 or 1659 and may not have reached Maryland before 1660. It is known that many Lord Baltimore coins of the era were struck in England. While it is not certain that all of them were struck in the Britain Isles, it is likely that they were. There is no evidence of a mint operating in the colony of Maryland in the 1600s.

The first coins of Bermuda are relevant. Bermuda was then and is now a British possession, the last remaining British colony in the vicinity of the U.S. At some point between 1503 and 1506, the captain of an official Spanish ship, Juan de Bermudez, saw the islands of Bermuda. He did not land on any of the islands, though he carefully reported his finding.

Bermudez is fairly credited as having discovered Bermuda, and the government of Spain named the islands after him. Even so, the British referred to Bermuda in the 1600s as the “Sommer Islands”. Admiral Sir George Sommers collected information about the islands while there in a special capacity in 1609. I discuss much of this history in another article.

The Bermuda coinage of 1615 and/or 1616 was probably minted in England, though possibly it could have been struck in Bermuda (Sommer Islands). Unfortunately, almost all of the surviving Sommer Islands coins have corroded to a substantial extent, and it is difficult to hypothesize as to the appearance and physical structure of the coins when they were struck. Were they hammered (that is, made by hand with a hammer), or were they struck with a screw press?

Sommer Islands (Bermuda) Twelvepence (Shilling), Sixpence, Threepence and Twopence coins are all undated. The Eric Newman Collection had an amazing set of these.

Bermuda was never really linked to the United States or associated with the culture of North America. For much of the history of Bermuda, the main purpose of the colony was to host a British military base, as Bermuda had strategic importance in military terms.
Massachusetts Silver coins are directly related to the U.S, while the coins of Bermuda are hardly related at all. The ongoing mintage of Massachusetts Silver was indirectly made possible by the so-called “English Civil War”, which really involved all of the British Isles, not just England. This war lasted, approximately, from 1642 to 1651. In my article about NE coinage, the connection between the English Civil War and Massachusetts Silver is discussed.

It suffices to say here that, after the Parliamentarians defeated the monarchists, American colonists in Massachusetts perceived an opportunity to mint coins because there was then no reigning king to punish them for doing so. From 1649 to 1653, the Parliamentarians were struggling in their efforts to govern England.

The general belief at the time was that the parliamentarians and the rebel leader Oliver Cromwell were minimally interested in the colonies in North America. No one thought that they would prosecute or even investigate American colonists for minting coins.

It is worth repeating that, except for the NE coinage and the Oak Tree Twopence, all Massachusetts Silver coins are dated “1652”, even coins minted in 1682. Many people in the 17th century were aware that these coins were backdated. The main point of the “1652” date was to avoid offending the king after the monarchy was restored in England in 1660.

In European culture over most of the last 1,000 years, the coinage of silver or gold coins was a royal prerogative. It was illegal for local governments, colonies or private firms to commence silver or gold coinage without royal approval.

For many years, the government of King Charles II ignored Massachusetts Silver coins. It was believed that 98% of them being dated “1652” was a factor that contributed to the coins being ignored by the government in England. Few Massachusetts Silver coins traveled to England, anyway.

For multiple reasons, King Charles II did eventually become angry at the colonists in New England. The king revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter in 1684. Coinage was not then a central issue, but the laws authorizing and regulating the minting of Massachusetts Silver coins were negated by the revocation of this charter.

Design Types

Christopher Salmon, MD, has demonstrated that Willow Tree coins were hammered, as were NE type coinage. Essentially, they were struck with a hammer; no kind of machine or mechanical apparatus was employed. In ancient times and in medieval Europe, however, hammered coins were made with blanks that were heated before striking. In contrast, Salmon maintains that the blanks used for Willow Tree coins were kept ‘cold’, and thus often required three or four blows to bring about the design elements.

Massachusetts Silver Willow Tree

It is even more curious that Dr. Salmon theorizes that all the Oak Tree coinage and all the large size Pine Tree coins were struck on a rocker press, a rarity even in past eras. This point is discussed in my 2015 article on Willow Tree coinage. Dr. Salmon’s book on Massachusetts Silver coinage was published by the American Numismatic Society (ANS) in 2010.

‘NE’ type coinage and Willow Tree coins are very expensive. Beginners and veteran collectors who have not studied Massachusetts Silver coinage should start with relatively less expensive coins. After buying a few Massachusetts Silver coins and viewing many of them, collectors should formulate a strategy, which incorporates their own respective interests and financial constraints.

It makes sense to collect these by type or by readily apparent variety before even thinking about all the subtle variations. Because the steel required to make quality dies was then rare, the life of each die was prolonged by lapping, re-engraving fading design elements, and other means. So, two Massachusetts Silver coins that were struck from the same pair of dies may have very different die characteristics if one of the dies was notably re-worked for the purpose of making it last longer.

An interested collector may wish to begin with Oak Tree coins and Pine Tree coins. Many collectors enjoy acquiring just these and do not feel compelled to seek Willow Tree or NE type coins.

Oak Tree Coins

Oak Tree Threepence coins are extremely scarce. A decent piece might cost from $5,000 to $1,000, depending upon sharpness, planchet quality, surface quality, originality, luster and toning, among other factors. In April 2013, Heritage sold an attractive Oak Tree Threepence that had been “bent” for $3,055.

Massachusetts Silver Oak TreeA Very Fine grade Oak Tree Sixpence would probably retail in the $5,000 to $7,500 range. Back in 2011, when market levels were higher than they are now, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-25 Oak Tree Sixpence for $6,325. The obverse of this coin, however, is missing much detail due to a striking irregularity.

Very Fine grade Oak Tree Shillings could sell for prices ranging from $4,000 to $8,000. Enough survive, though, such that a collector can view many of them before pursuing one that he or she finds to be particularly appealing. Natural russet and dark green tones are often found on Oak Tree Coinage.

The ‘Spiny’ Oak Tree variety is rare and curious. A ‘Spiny Tree’ does not cost a vast fortune. In January 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded EF-45 ‘Spiny Tree’ from the Ted L. Craige Collection for $8,225.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded EF-40 Pine Tree Threepence for $3,172.50. A coin of the same variety with better color would be worth more, though one that is not nearly as well struck may not be worth nearly as much.

Multiple, Very Fine grade Pine Tree Sixpence coins can be purchased for less than $4,350 each. In February 2017, the Goldbergs auctioned a neat Pine Tree Sixpence, apparently featuring natural toning. It was PCGS-graded as VF-30 and realized $3,525.

Pine Tree Coins

There are two types of Pine Tree Shillings. One type was struck on much wider, prepared blanks (planchets). In other words, the diameters of the ‘Large Size’ Pine Tree Shillings are substantially greater than the diameters of ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree Shillings.

In the past, it was frequently thought that all Pine Tree coins–and probably all Oak Tree coins, too–were struck with a screw press. In 2010, Dr. Salmon rocked the coin community by putting forth evidence and well reasoned arguments that ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree Shillings were the only type of Massachusetts Silver coinage struck with a screw press!

Massachusetts Silver Pine Tree‘Large Size’ and ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree Shillings were not intended to differ markedly in weight. The ‘size’ here refers solely to the diameter, as far as I know. The ‘Small Size’ Shillings were struck on thicker blanks.

Planchets are prepared blanks. It does not seem that the blanks were seriously ‘prepared’. For Massachusetts Silver, ‘blank’ or flan might be a more appropriate term than planchet.

Although accounts by leading researchers are unclear as to the nature and details of the contracts awarded and/or government directives to Hull and Sanderson over the years, it is clear that the final contract was awarded in 1675 and was written to last for seven years. Earlier, there were directives or “contracts” regarding the mint in 1660, 1662 and 1667.

It is very plausible that changes in design types stemmed from changes in government policy rather than decisions by Hull and Sanderson. Indeed, it is likely that the ‘Small Size’ (really smaller diameter) Pine Tree Shillings were struck between 1675 and 1682 or so. This time frame was suggested by Sydney Noe, who wrote multiple, detailed articles about Massachusetts Silver for ANS publications in the 20th century.

Did the last contract terminate production of threepence and sixpence coins? Evidently a contract or government directive in 1667 ended the twopence denomination. The details regarding the acquisition of a screw press may be fascinating.

At the August 2017 ANA Convention, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-30 ‘Large Size’ Pine Tree Shilling for $3,760. The CAC sticker on this coin must have been placed before 2015, as CAC ceased accepting submissions of colonial coins in December 2014.

In March 2017, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded VF-25 ‘Small Size’ Pine Tree for the same amount, $3,760. More so than with 20th-century coins, there are many variables that may affect the market value of a Massachusetts Silver coin. Planchet and striking quality vary widely, as does toning and surface quality. The nature and extent of past cleanings are relevant. Some coins have almost zero contact marks, while others of the same type are full of scratches. Still others have been repaired or surgically modified. The nature and extent of mint-caused imperfections vary widely, too.

Some collectors, albeit a small number, build sets by variety and die state. Several varieties are so rare that just two to eight are known. The auction and Internet-sale prices cited here are represent relatively low costs for Massachusetts Silver coins. Rare varieties, rare types, extremely well struck coins and/or uncirculated coins all may cost substantially more than prices cited in this discussion.

In regard to Oak Tree and Pine Tree types, it is practical for collectors to seek to buy pleasing, Very Fine grade Massachusetts Silver coins, with attractive natural toning, for prices ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 each. ‘NE’ and Willow Tree types are dramatically more expensive. A type set, however, of just Pine Tree types may be really neat and fun to build.

It is exciting to collect Massachusetts coins made during the late 17th century. The roots of the U.S. were then very small and growing in an amazing manner.

© 2017 Greg Reynolds


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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