Colonial coins refer to all coins in circulation in the British American colonies before the U.S. Mint opened for business in 1792. These include coins minted in the colonies of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, as well as Vermont, even though Vermont did not become a state until 1791. The phrase “colonial coins” also encompassed coins from other countries that were used in the colonies, including coins from Spain (reales), the Netherlands (daaldes), and Britain (shillings and pence).
The first true colonial coins, struck in Massachusetts between June and October of 1652, bear nothing more than the letters “NE” for New England on the obverse, with Roman numerals on the reverse to designate the value—III was worth three shillings, XII was worth 12 shillings, and so on). The silver in these coins often came from other coins such as Bolivian reales, secured in trades for everything from rum to timber. Silversmith John Hull was the mintmaster of these first coins, initially paid one shilling threepence for every 20 New England coins he produced.
The Willow Tree coins followed in 1653, named for tree design on its observe. Then came the Oak Tree (1660-1667) and Pine Tree (1667-1682) coins. Of these, the Pine Tree shillings are most accessible to collectors today. Curiously, most of Pine Tree coins are dated 1652, despite the fact that they were minted more than a decade later. According to the late Richard Doty, who was the Smithsonian’s Coin and Currency Curator for a quarter century, the backdating was due to the fact that the King of England was legally the only one with the right to mint coins in the colonies, but in the 1650s, the monarchy lacked a head of state, literally—King Charles I was publicly beheaded in 1649, and England’s throne remained empty until Charles II took it in 1660.
American Plantation Tokens, on the other hand, were struck in 1688 with the permission of the King James II—these coins were made of tin. In 1722, an Englishman named William Wood, who also produced coins for Ireland, issued brass half-penny, penny, and twopence “Rosa American” coins, with the permission of King George I, whose bust is featured on the obverse. Beginning in 1773, Virginia got official halfpennies, most of which were minted out of copper.
Other colonial coins of note are the Lord Baltimore coins that circulated in Maryland from 1659 to around 1700, and the St. Patrick farthings and halfpennies that were struck for the colony of New Jersey after 1682.
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