By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
How, as a trade-based colony belonging to the world’s greatest maritime empire, did the Massachusetts Bay Colony begin striking the first hard currency in North America?
As discussed in my article on the Knights of Malta’s right to strike coinage, I find this monetary aspect of state-building fascinating. Since the act of “uttering false coinage” was “associated with lèse-majesté or high treason”, what could possibly motivate the early New England colonists to begin minting their own coinage?
Firstly, unlike the more profitable English colonies of Virginia and Barbados, which built their fortunes on tobacco and sugar, Boston instead built ships and facilitated trade. By not producing any salable goods, Massachusetts relied on the “invisible” nature of shipping. The production of all Boston’s goods amounted to savings in the cost of trade, instead of earnings, for England. Prominent English merchant Sir Francis Brewster described Boston and greater New England as “that unprofitable Plantation, which now brings nothing to this Nation.”
Fifty years after the first coins were struck at the Boston Mint by Captain John Hull, local businesses still relied on a fascinating mixed economy. In a 1704 journal, local teacher and businesswoman Sarah Kemble Knight discussed how, due to a lack of hard specie, “musket balls, wampum, corn, livestock, and a variety of debt instruments—both transferable and non-transferable—served as money” in the Bay colony. This was after Hull, who, according to the extant records, produced up to ₤25,000. At 20 shillings per pound, Hull struck approximately 500,000 shillings at the Boston Mint before his death in 1683.
By 1652, England had just emerged from its brutal civil war. With internal tensions still high, the English were not as focused on policing their colonies, and the always independent-minded New England colonists seized the opportunity to further their political agenda as an “autonomous entity”.
Almost four thousand miles due south, at the Spanish Royal Mint in Potosí, another series of events began to occur which pushed Massachusetts authorities into the business of minting coins: the Great Potosí Mint Fraud of 1649. Due to a complex system of minting contracts and silver trading, the Potosí authorities began illegally lowering the quality and quantity of the silver content in their coins. This fraudulent debasement of the Spanish cob coinage continued until the coins lost an estimated 25% of their face value. Add to this the fact that Spanish coins were both “foreign” and “bore mark[s] of a catholic monarch”, and the Massachusetts colonial authorities quickly lost confidence in the Spanish currency.
Overlaid on top of these international geopolitical upheavals, most coins in circulation were simply too large a denomination for everyday commercial transactions. An endemic problem for practically all pre-modern history, most people simply “endured” and turned to a barter system instead. For example, a century earlier in 1500s Florence, the smallest silver coin was the grosso, which had the economic power to “purchase five liters of wine, a kilogram of olive oil, or pay an entire month’s rent for a single working man.”
While Spanish coins could be chopped into eight smaller pieces, the fragments were rarely precise, and it was impractical to run a full-scale economy on privately created fractional currency.
After considering the intertwined political, economic, and religious complexities, and seeking a viable solution, the colonial government approached John Hull and Robert Sanderson, the only two skilled silversmiths in the colony. The General Court proposed that the two men “weigh, assay, and stamp all silver coins for authenticity and value.” When this proposal was dismissed as impractical, the Court returned to the men with the plans for a new mint in Boston. This facility would buy plate silver as well as reclaim low-grade foreign coins, refine the metal, and then strike coins to match the English denominations. As such, the denominations of these early coins were as follows: 12 pence (a shilling), sixpence, and threepence. The denominations were denoted on the reverse with the roman numerals XII, VI, and III.
According to the Mint Act of May 27, 1652, the coins were initially to be “flatt & square.” This is possibly a reference to an early use of fiduciary money by the city of Bristol. With permission from the Crown in 1577, Bristol city officials struck square farthing tokens from lead, tin, and other materials. These non-specie coins were struck to fulfill the needs of local traders. However, the Boston Mint was striking coins from specie, and perhaps this was why the General Court quickly shifted to the more commonly accepted round shape for their coinage.
Initially, the coins were simple in the extreme. The obverse design consisted solely of an NE for New England stamped roughly at 12 o’clock and the reverse featured the roman numeral denomination. The two dies were purposely misaligned in order to preserve the designs and not damage the dies. While these coins are not dated, all extant examples were struck for only a few months and ended before October 1652. As a result, they are extremely rare, with only an estimated 40 surviving examples. Due to the “plain and unembellished” nature of the design, coin clipping quickly became a problem and this design was soon abandoned.
To combat this, the General Court decreed on October 19, 1652, that a new design be implemented. On the obverse, this second series displays a roughly engraved willow tree with the legend MASATHVSETS IN around the rim. On the reverse, the date 1652 and roman numeral denomination are ringed by the legend NEW ENGLAND AN. DOM, with AN. DOM referencing “Anno Domini” or “Year of our Lord”. Due to difficulties in producing the necessary dies and presses, the first Willow tree coin of any denomination wasn’t struck until 1654.
In 1660 or 1662, it is unknown which year, the Willow Tree coinage was replaced by the Oak Tree series. Hull shifted designs potentially because he switched from the standard hammer strike minting method to the new innovative rocker arm press. A transitional step between hammering and milling, the rocker arm press used two large curved rectangular dies mounted in a press that would impress the design on the planchets. While there are many small variations within the Oak Tree Series, the major difference in design between the Willow and Oak Tree series is the type of tree depicted.
Unlike the abrupt transitions between the NE, Willow, and Oak Series, the mint slowly introduced the Pine Tree series. In fact, the “spiny branches” variety of Oak Tree shilling is extremely similar to the Pine Tree design. Additionally, the Pine Tree sixpence used the same reverse die as the Noe 20 and 22 varieties of Oak Tree sixpence. The most common of the first four types, these coins were struck until the mint closed in 1682.
The most current theory of how these early coins were made states that the designs were struck onto strips of silver, and then cut out and weighed. If underweight, the pieces would be melted down and restruck.
Why are almost all of the early Tree coins dated to 1652? Some people believe that it was to commemorate the foundation of the Boston Mint. It is, however, more likely that it was done for plausible deniability. The colonial authorities would be able to argue that they only struck coins during the interregnum and were not breaking the king’s law.
All early colonial coinage is rare, with pieces regularly auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars. In their lowest grades, the NE shillings are worth $45,000 to $80,000 and in high grades, can regularly hammer for more than $250,000. Willow Tree shillings are similarly priced with lower grades valued between $35,000 to $50,000 and high grades between $150,000 and $300,000. Oak Tree shillings are much more affordable, with the low grades between $1,000 and $3,000 and high grades $50,000 to $100,000. For the most common of the types, Pine Tree shillings also cost $1,000 to $3,000. But in high grades, they usually sell for $30,000 to $50,000.
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The Big Problem of Small Change – By Thomas J. Sargent and François R. Veld
“The World in a Shilling: Building the City-State’s Political Economy” – From the book The City-State of Boston by Mark Peterson
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).