Colonial and Early American Coins and Currency

The field of colonial and early American coins comprises issues produced in America by various individuals, states, and others prior to the adoption of federal coinage in 1792, coins struck in foreign countries and imported for use in America, and tokens and medals honoring President George Washington. Most of these were struck in copper, but some were produced in silver, pewter, brass, and other metals.

Among pieces struck in the United States, no series is more famous than that of Massachusetts silver, which commenced with the NE (for New England) coinage of 1652 and continued through the Willow Tree, Oak Tree and Pine Tree types made as late as 1682 (but nearly all were dated 1652, for the British crown did not want the colonists to produce coins, thus the fiction was maintained that no pieces were coined after 1652). Struck from hand-engraved dies and using crude equipment, Massachusetts pieces are fascinating to collect.

Higley three pence copper coins were produced by Dr. Samuel Higley and his brother John circa 1737-1739 using native ore taken from a mine near Granby, Connecticut. All Higley pieces are rarities today.

During the period 1785-1788 various states produced copper coins, usually by private contract with various individuals, although Massachusetts operated its own mint (and discontinued it when an audit revealed it cost two cents to produce each one-cent piece!). Issues of Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York are eagerly collected and exist in many die varieties.

Fugio copper cents, minted in 1787, were produced under a contract led by Congress and thus may be the first official United States coins made for general circulation, although the 1776 Continental Currency dollar, usually seen in pewter but also known in brass and silver, may have been an official government issue, but no documentation has ever been located.

Pieces struck abroad for use in the American colonies include the Rosa Americana issues of 1722-1724, struck by William Wood, acting under a patent from King George I; the 1773 Virginia halfpenny bearing the portrait of George III; circa 1796 Kentucky tokens; and numerous others, including the 1783 and 1785 Nova Constellatio coppers made in Birmingham, England, on the order of Gouverneur Morris, who undertook the distribution as a business venture.

Coins and tokens honoring George Washington have always been popular with collectors. Most bear dates from 1783 to 1795 and were made in England, although several varieties were produced in America.

Sources for information: The Colonial Newsletter, published by the Colonial Newsletter Foundation, provides a forum for new discoveries, historical information, and other aspects of early American coins. The popular Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4) is a forum for timely articles and news.

Books describing die varieties and giving other information include The State Coinages of New England, by Henry C. Miller and Hillyer Ryder, which describes Vermont and Massachusetts copper coins by Ryder numbers and Connecticut coppers by Miller numbers; a series of books by Sydney P. Noe describing silver coinage of Massachusetts; The Fugio Cents, by Alan Kessler, an expansion of an earlier work by Eric P. Newman; .Dr. Edward Maris A Historic Sketch of the Coins of New Jersey; W.S. Bakers Medallic Portraits of Washington, originally published in 1885, and vastly expanded and updated by Russell Rulau in 1985; and one of the finest reference works ever produced for any area of coinage, The Early Coins of America, by Sylvester S. Crosby, 1875.