Before the United States of America came into existence in 1776, a significant amount of coinage was struck in North America. Many of the coins struck during this era are crude and simple, but they played an important role in the 17th and 18th century. While not necessarily the most intricate or complex in terms of design, these colonial coins are nonetheless extremely historic and desirable.
As a general rule, the term “colonial coinage” is applied to all issues struck in what is now the United States prior to 1792 (when the first United States Mint opened for production). The term “colonial coin” can be a misnomer, as it’s sometimes used to describe coins struck after the colonies became states. The basic rule of thumb is that “federal” coins were produced by the US government while “colonial” coins were issued by individual states, colonies or other entities.
The first coins struck in the thirteen colonies were made in Massachusetts. They were made in Boston in 1652 and, to say the very least, are extremely primitive. They are essentially blank round silver discs with the letters “NE” (for New England) crudely engraved. Shortly thereafter the designs were modified with oak, willow and pine trees added. The newer versions have a little more aesthetic appeal, but the designs are still extremely basic. While lacking in sophistication and complexity, these Massachusetts colonials are extremely popular among collectors.
Later in the 17th and 18th centuries, the colonies of Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey would begin to strike coins too. The vast majority of these were in copper or bronze; silver and gold coins were scarce in the Americas and, when seen, were usually of foreign origin. If a colonial American ever saw a silver or gold coin, it was most likely Brazilian, Spanish or French. Even some of the copper coins that circulated in the thirteen colonies were made in England or Ireland.
Even after the United States declared its independence in 1776, it took another 18 years before the federal government officially opened a mint. In the meantime, some of the states (like Connecticut, New York and Vermont) struck their own money for day-to-day commerce. In addition, Congress authorized a few temporary and experimental coins. For example, the copper “Fugio” cents of 1787 were authorized by the United States but were struck by an outside entity.
Finally, in 1792, the first United States Mint was established in Philadelphia. Short on staff and metal, it released very few coins in its first year of existence. In fact, there is a legend that George Washington donated his silver service so that half dimes could be struck. In 1793 the Mint began releasing copper coins, followed by silver in 1794, and then followed by a small quantity of gold in 1795. This largely ended the colonial coin era; by the late 1790s virtually all coins made in the United States were struck under the federal government’s authority.
As a category, colonial coins are fascinating mementos of America’s earliest days. While somewhat simple and primitive, they are nonetheless among the most historic of North American coins. These pieces are steeped in history, yet many can be had for a reasonable amount. Wildly expensive colonial coins do exist—some have sold for millions at auction—but quite a few can be had for well under $1000. Perhaps no other segment of the numismatic market offers so much history for so little money.