Acquiring Early American Colonial Coinage is an exciting and rewarding area of the coin market. Early Colonial Money predates Federally issued coinage and is often overlooked segment of numismatics. However, these very rare items of historical significance can be acquired for fairly reasonable prices today considering their overall historical appeal.
Colonial coinage generally refers to circulation money in the British American colonies from as early as 1652 to just before the Federal Mint opened for operations in 1792. Considering that these rare tangible numismatic pieces of history have survived for hundreds of years, they make a great addition to any coin portfolio. And, because they were produced and struck in years gone by, using the era’s limited technology, they foster an appreciation for the exceptional coinage artisans of the day.
In fact, even the specimens in worn condition are highly desirable to collectors in today’s market. Since these coins are the actual money that circulated in early America at a time of great excitement and promise, it is easy to embrace the feeling of the story that these coins could tell about the time and the people who handled them.
In the very early colonial era of the 1600a, there was little need and use of coinage, because most trade was with the native Indians who had little to no use for coins. The Indians valued white shelled beads called “Wampum” and used other resources like fur and tobacco for trading. The simple barter economy of the early colonists transitioned into more of a system of commerce that resembled those in Europe, where craftsmen and merchants set up shops in villages on the Atlantic coast. The need for a more sophisticated medium of exchange demanded that coins be made available, but there was little metal for coins and no mints to produce them.
The foundation of the Americas is rooted in this early American commerce and the evolution of an accepted monetary system. The colonists were very enterprising and entrepreneurial when it came to their coinage in their fight for independence. Prior to the Mint Act of 1792, everyday business was conducted using a combination of tokens, coins, medals and even counterfeits issued by individuals and private mints, both in the new American colonies and official mints overseas. These coins were all produced from handmade dies, creating many different varieties and resulting in a simplistic beauty. Weak and uneven strikes, wear and basic design flaws are all part of the charm of colonial coins, making them popular for those who appreciate early Americana history.
Earliest of American Coinage
As early as 1615, coins were introduced on the British colony, Sommer Islands, which is now known as the country of Bermuda. Those first colonial coinage pieces were denominated in the well respected British monetary units of the twopence, threepence, sixpence and the twelvepence. Then, the first colonial coinage introduced on the mainland of America to meet the needs of a growing economic exchange is believed to have been in 1652 in Boston, when colonists of the Massachusetts Bay colony began producing crude coins. In late May 1652 legislation for new coinage was passed and a small mint was set up on the property of John Hull, a Boston Silversmith. Records of this numismatic milestone show that ironmaster, Robert Saunderson, provided the tools and dies to mint those legendary colonial coins. The twelvepence equaled one shilling and twelvepence coins are typically termed shillings.
The first coins minted in the American colonies were the “NE” series which were originally produced between June and October 1652 and are excessively rare today. The coins had a fancy “NE” as an abbreviation for New England on the obverse, and Roman numerals III, VI, or XII to represent three, six, twelve pence on the reverse. The original NE coins were easily counterfeited, so there was obviously a need for a more complex design. The next iteration of Massachusetts coins featured different trees on the center of the obverse and were about a fifth larger in comparison with British money.
The earliest of the tree series is the “Willow Tree” piece, minted in small numbers between 1653 and 1660, and often double and triple struck, making the coins hard to read. Next, from 1660 to 1667, was the “Oak Tree” shilling and its subdivisions, including a small two-pence, followed from 1667 to 1682 by the “Pine Tree” coins, which are among the most famous of all early Colonial American coins.
Independence and Money
Obviously, 1776 was a momentous year for the thirteen American colonies, as delegates to the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, sending notice to England and the rest of the world that the colonies would submit no longer to outside governance and interference. One of the great problems facing the new Continental Congress was financing the war effort. Soldiers needed food, clothing and weapons, all which were in very short supply. Since trade was cut off with Britain, so too was the colonies’ principle source of hard money.
Supplies of silver and gold were quite scarce in the colonies and the only coining metal available from domestic mines in any reasonable amount was copper. In the initial enthusiasm of independence in 1776, several states made post-colonial copper coinage.
New Hampshire was the first of the States after the Declaration of Independence to coin copper. In 1776, William Moulton was assigned 100 pounds of copper to coin. The obverse featured a tree and the inscription, “American Liberty.” The reverse featured a simple harp, which was thought to be taken from one of the Continental Currency notes.
Massachusetts produced an attractive copper coin, on which the obverse displayed a pine tree, as a symbol of a Cambridge, Massachusetts patriotic society, The Sons of Liberty, and it is inscribed “Massachusetts State.” The reverse is a seated figure, similar to Britannia, which was typical of the copper coins circulating and would ease acceptance. The date “1776” is below and the inscription reads, “Liberty and Virtue.”
In recognition of the solidarity of the colonies and their assumption of the right as a sovereign entity to coin their own monies, plans were made to issue a Silver Dollar. Continental Dollars are rich in American symbolism, using designs provided by Benjamin Franklin, the famous printer and statesman, and David Rittenhouse, a scientist and mathematician who later became the first Director of the U.S. Mint.
The coins were struck in pewter, brass and silver, with the majority of the dollars coined for circulation in pewter, but their low intrinsic value led to a general rejection by the American people. The silver and brass pieces may have been planned as dollars and pennies, but the purpose of the pewter coins is less clear. They may have been struck as an emergency measure after the lack of bullion prevented a silver coinage.
Nova Constellatio Coppers
In 1782, a private coinage venture was undertaken to mint copper coins using a new design known as the Nova Constellatio. Among the various pre-Federal copper coinages, the Nova Constellatio varieties are some of the most popularly encountered and frequently collected.
13 rays and stars, representing the 13 states, with the legend around the coin reading in Latin, ”Constellatio Nova,” meaning “New Constellation,” in reference to the new nation. The reverse has the letters “U.S.” surrounded by a wreath and the Latin mottoes, “Libertas and Justita,” for “Liberty and Justice,” with the 1783 date at the bottom of the coin.
The Nova Constellatio coppers were struck in large quantities in England, without a denomination, and dated 1783 and 1785. There were only a few 1786 examples, all which were struck in 1785 and some in 1786, valued at only one half-penny. Even though these coins were struck overseas in England, they were the first circulating coins to bear American imagery and inscriptions of the new nation.
The King of Colonials
The undisputed darling of colonials, if not the entire rare coin market, is the exceeding rare and historic gold colonial produced by New York City silversmith, Ephraim Brasher. Recognized as the “King of Colonials,” the Brasher Doubloon is truly a spectacular Americana rarity. Created when the states were being united by constitution, it was the first gold coin with a distinctly American design struck to the weight and purity standard that would later be adopted for U.S. gold coins. It is a genuine rarity with high monetary value, and is one of the greatest numismatic historical legends because it represents the first gold coin struck for the nascent United States. In fact, the Brasher Doubloon records the early design concepts discussed in Congress for U.S. coinage. There are but seven known 1787 Brasher Doubloons, and the designer’s “EB” punch-mark makes them even more legendary. The finest graded specimen is the Discovery Coin, graded NGC MS63, insured for $10 million. The obverse design of the Brasher Doubloon shows an eagle holding an olive branch in one claw and arrows in another to symbolize that the United States wants peace but is ready for war. There are 13 stars around the eagle’s head representing the original 13 colonies, and the obverse motto is E PLURIBUS UNUM, meaning Out of Many, One.
Although only one of the greatest collections in the world can hold that one legendary piece, many collectors can appreciate this important numismatic milestone in history by owning a pure gold Brasher Doubloon Novodel tribute production by master engraver and coiner Ron Landis, founder of the Eureka Mint, where they were minted on an antique screw press.
States began placing restrictions on the circulation of deficient coppers, and in 1789, a general discrediting of all copper coins led to an economic crisis. Congress was aware of the coinage problem for some time but was determined to solve the problem. The Federal Constitution was ratified in March 1789. The new Constitution directed more power to the central government, including the right to coin money and to regulate the value.
Even though the states were forbidden to mint coins, individuals were permitted to make money of their own design. These private coiners enjoyed one last opportunity to be privileged to mint the first authorized national coins. Congress, still laboring under the Confederation government, voted on April 21, 1787 for a coinage of copper cents.
The first coins issued by the authority of the United States were the “Fugio” Pieces. The legends of these coins have been credited back to Benjamin Franklin, with the coins having many references including the “Franklin Cent,” but also have been called “Sun Dial,” “Ring” and “Mind Your Business” cents.
A sundial is depicted on the obverse with the sun above it. The legends “Fugio,” which means “I Fly,” and “Mind Your Business,” is accompanied by the date 1787. The reverse features 13 interlocking rings, with the legend, “United States,” and the motto, “We Are One.”
Ultimately it mattered little that the contract for this coinage went unfulfilled, since the public largely rejected the coppers anyway. Their distinctive design, adapted from the 1776 Continental dollars, was simply unfamiliar to many illiterate Americans who found it comforting to handle coins that were widely recognizable. Regardless, Fugio Cents are highly desirable today!