Early American Coins: the Pinetree Shilling


When people think about American money, they think about the coins and currency that are probably sitting in their wallets right now. It never occurs to many people that there weren’t always dollars and quarters, nickels and dimes. But, of course, American money has a history like every other tool out there, and before there was U.S. currency people still used money to buy and sell things. What did they use?

While every July 4th we celebrate Independence Day, it’s important to remember that the American colonies weren’t a country, per se, until after the Revolutionary War was well under way and delegates to the Second Continental Congress drafted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and then went back to their own colonies to see it ratified. This finally occurred in 1781. Remember, the war ended in 1783, and this needed to occur in order to manage military and monetary affairs, as well as to solicit the support from foreign countries needed to win the war.

Still, the colonies considered themselves largely independent even after 1783, and they all had their own monetary histories and systems. For instance, the word “dollar” originates with the Dutch word “leeuwendaalder,” referring to a coin minted in the Netherlands. Its name means “lion dollar.” The Dutch had settled New York (originally New Netherlands) and their culture, values, influence remained strong there for centuries. English money was used to trade elsewhere, as were Spanish dollars (which were simple slugs of silver often shaved down or adulterated with other metals), and, even earlier, wampum.

Generally speaking for a group of people to create money, it has to have a need for it, the technology to produce it, and metal available to coin it. Early settlers didn’t have very many coins. They bartered or traded amongst themselves when their villages were small, and in New England they often used wampum, or shell beads, once their societies grew larger and more complicated trade was necessary.

The lack of inherent value of wampum and the unstable value of Spanish dollars led leaders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to create their own solution. In 1652 the colony began producing its own silver coins in the Boston mint house in the denominations of three pence, six pence, and one shilling. These are known by numismatists as pine tree shillings because on one side of the coin was a pine tree. They were all printed with 1652, the year of the Boston mint’s founding, so we refer to them as 1652 shillings no matter when the were actually coined.

While minting coins in Boston was a popular choice among the colonists and they were glad to have a more stable coinage to use, it created political problems as only the crown had the authority to print money, so what the Boston mint was doing was illegal. Unfortunately, there was no crown to appeal to for a solution as England had overthrown and killed its king, Charles I, and Oliver Cromwell was ruling as Lord Protector. When Cromwell was overthrown, Charles II began demanding that the mint close. He was not overly fond of Puritans and their independent ways.

Nine years later, in 1661, there were enough of the historic pine tree shillings in circulation that the Massachusetts Bay Colony repealed the wampum law, which required people to accept up to a specific amount of wampum as payment for goods and debts.

And that is (only part of) the story of money in early Massachusetts, which like all other stories involving coins and currency, involves our ancestors trying to get away with something and sometimes succeeding.

If you would like to locate pine tree shillings for your collection, we at Grand Rapids Coins would love to assist you in meeting that goal. Contact us today to start your search.

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