Have you considered collecting early American coins? Since there were relatively few coins minted either in or for the American colonies, they may not be as accessible as Lincoln wheat cents, but they have a rich history attached. In this blog we will examine the Baltimore coins and the very rare Baltimore penny.
Colonial Coins Are Diverse
What we consider colonial coins are all the coins in circulation in the British colonies before the creation of the U.S. Mint in 1792. The original 13 colonies were settled by different countries and some of these territories were ruled by the Dutch, the Spanish, or the French before finally being taken over by the British. The coinage used throughout was both very diverse and scarce. A few colonies tried to mint their own coins. The British frowned on this, but in some cases, including Boston during the reign of Cromwell, colonists did succeed in creating their own money.
The Baltimore Coins
The Colony of Maryland was ruled over by several Lords Baltimore. The second Baron Baltimore, Cecil Calvert, had a four-coin set made, including the first copper coin to circulate in America. This is referred to as the Maryland penny. The other three coins were made of silver. They were a shilling, a sixpence, and a groat. Nicholas Briot designed samples of each in 1659 and had them minted in London and then sent to Philip Calvert, Lord Baltimore’s brother and Maryland’s Secretary for approval.
On the obverse of all the Baltimore coins is a portrait of Lord Baltimore looking left with the words "Caecilius, Dns: Terrae-Mariae" (Cecil Lord of Mary's Land). On the reverse of the silver coins is an escutcheon with the Baltimore arms. The shilling coin has the Roman numerals “XII” on it, the sixpence coins has “VI,” and the groat “IV.” The groat silver coin came in two types: one with a large portrait and shield and one with a smaller version.
The Lord Baltimore penny has a different reverse with a duke’s coronet crown and two pennons flying in the center with the words "Denarium Terrae-Mariae" (Denarius of Mary’s land) surrounding them.
When these samples were made, Britain was somewhat in flux. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, had only just died in September of 1658. In fact, Calvert himself had temporarily lost control of Maryland to a group of Puritans with a desire to wipe out royalist loyalties in the colonies. He regained control and forced the Puritans to surrender power to his chosen governor, Josias Fendal, in March of 1658. Then he put his plans for a new currency into motion.
Up until 1659, the chief currency in Maryland wasn’t even a coin, it was tobacco which was plentiful and in demand, so people bartered for goods with it. Baltimore planned to mint the coins in London and sell them in Maryland as a money making venture for himself as the coins were between 20-25% below sterling weight. He may have assumed he had the right to mint them as Lord Proprietor. Coining privileges were included in Virginia’s charter.
The Baltimore coins were probably produced at the Tower of London mint. After the first minting, the Clerk of Irons discovered what Lord Baltimore was doing and ordered an arrest warrant for him. Lord Baltimore defended his actions before the Privy Council who were concerned that he was minting coins below the standard weight and exporting them. He was able to secure their permission but not the permission of the Maryland colonists at this time.
In 1660 Philip Calvert became governor of Maryland, and in 1661 the Maryland Assembly passed an act establishing a mint in the colony. Also included in this act was the definition of the coinage to be minted and its value relative to English currency. The intended mint never opened, however, as the Council determined the charter of Maryland did not include the privilege of coining. Maryland - unlike the Boston Mint which had taken the position that it was easier to apologize after the fact than to get permission from the Commonwealth - complied.
Since 1659, however, Lord Baltimore had been minting large quantities of the silver varieties in London and shipping them to Maryland. They were already in circulation. In 1662 the Maryland Colony passed an act that required every head of household to exchange 60 pounds of tobacco for 10 shillings of Lord Baltimore’s coins for each taxable person in the household. We don’t know how many of these silver coins were used, but it appears they were in circulation for about a decade. The copper coins were never put into circulation and only two of them are known to exist today.
While it’s unlikely that regular collectors will ever locate their own Baltimore penny, there are other Baltimore coins - the shillings, sixpences, and groats - still in existence. If you are passionate about American coins, you might want to hunt down one of these pieces of American history and claim it for your own.