Coins of Colonial America: Beginnings

When we think of early American coinage we have to broaden our definition of what we traditionally call “American”. It’s important to keep in mind that the United States mint in Philadelphia didn’t commence production of coinage for circulation until 1793, yet the North American continent was being populated by European settlers since the mid 1500’s.

Foreign coins made up the bulk of metallic currency available in what would become the United States prior to the establishment of the Mint. In the 17th and 18th centuries, small change consisted primarily of British copper pence, halfpence, and farthings. Since it was against British law to export silver and gold to the colonies, this medium originated from the Spanish American mints of Mexico, Peru, and Chile for the most part. Coins from Portugal, France, Holland and elsewhere were also represented, though on a smaller scale.

In everyday transactions Spanish silver was the most accepted currency. These were denominated in reales, with 8 reales being equal to the Spanish dollar. Divided into eighths (or bits), one reale was equivalent to 12 1/2 cents. Gold was rarely seen in colonial America but when encountered, would most likely hail from Brazil (the joe) or Mexico (the escudo).

Spanish silver was so prevalent that throughout the early 1800’s it was still much more common as pocket change than the Bust and Liberty Seated coins produced by the Federal mint!

The story of our own national coinage began out of necessity in 1652 in Massachusetts. We’ll pick up there in Boston, population 3000.

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