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Roger Burdette: A Cynical Use of U.S. Coins

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..

WARNING: This brief article contains language that is historically accurate but can be found offensive today.

Pierce M. Butler, along with brother John, inherited a large Georgia rice plantation from their grandfather in 1822. This included 10,000 acres of rice and cotton land and almost 1,000 slaves. Pierce lived in Philadelphia leaving the plantation management to others. Between 1822 and 1856, he squandered about $700,000 plus his income from the plantations, and creditors began forced sale of his assets.

Pierce Butler.
Pierce Butler.

In 1858 he was selected by the president of the United States to serve on the government’s annual Assay Commission of U.S. coins at the Philadelphia Mint and was present for the coinage trials. There’s no record of him doing anything during the Commission’s meetings, but that was not unusual for the time.

In March 1859, creditors brought to sale all of the slaves from Butler’s plantations. These were sold over a two-day period at the Ten Broeck, a race track near Savannah, GA. A brief quotation will impart the flavor of the tawdry sale:

The room in which the sale actually took place immediately adjoined the room of the negroes, and communicated with it by two large doors. The sale room was open to the air on one side, commanding a view of the entire Course. A small platform was raised about two feet and a-half high, on which were placed the desks of the entry clerks, leaving room in front of them for the auctioneer and the goods…

The buyers, who were present to the number of about two hundred, clustered around the platform; while the negroes, who were not likely to be immediately wanted, gathered into sad groups in the back-ground, to watch the progress of the selling in which they were so sorrowfully interested. The wind howled outside, and through the open side of the building the driving rain came pouring in ; the bar down stairs ceased for a short time its brisk trade; the buyers lit fresh cigars, got ready their catalogues and pencils, and the first lot of human chattels was led upon the stand…

After the sale, in appreciation of their work and devotion to him, Pierce M. Butler personally presented – in his gloved hand, of course – each freshly sold slave four new quarter dollars – one dollar in silver, total. These coins had been procured fresh from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia and sat in two canvas bags of $500 each on a table next to the former owner. As author Mortimer Thomson (aka “Q. K. Philander Doesticks”) wrote in his 1859 description of the sale in Savannah, Georgia:

Leaving the [Ten Broeck] Race [Course] buildings, where the scenes we have described took place, a crowd of negroes were seen gathered eagerly about a white man. That man was Pierce M. Butler, of the free City of Philadelphia, who was solacing the wounded hearts of the people he had sold from their firesides and their homes, by doling out to them small change at the rate of a dollar a head. To every negro he had sold, who presented his claim for the paltry pittance, he gave the munificent stipend of one whole dollar, in specie; he being provided with two canvas bags of 25 cent pieces, fresh from the mint, to give an additional glitter to his generosity.

Thus, the ignoble gentleman, took in $303,850 for flesh, and paid out to the same 436 chattel the generous sum of $436 in brand new U.S. coins.

[NOTE: The quotation is from 1859 and entirely routine for that era. I was unable to learn when Butler acquired the bags of quarters or if they were bought direct from the Mint or a Philadelphia bank. –RWB]

* * *


Thompson, Mortimer, “What became of the slaves on a Georgia plantation? : Great auction sale of slaves, at Savannah, Georgia, March 2nd & 3rd 1859. A sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s journal.” 1863. Originally published in the New York Daily Tribune, March 9, 1859, p.5, as “American civilization Illustrated. A Great Slave Auction.”

Kemble, Frances Anne. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1863. (Frances Kemble was the former wife of Pierce M. Butler.)

Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

Library of Congress.

National Archives and Records Administration.

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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