ANT 412 - Historical Archaeology

Coins, Tokens, and Colonial Economies

Spanish-American Half-Reale of 1770

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Introduction Many thanks to Brian Cornwell (ICGS) for his donation of colonial tokens for our class laboratory.


Last update: 16 August 2004


Remember mercantilism? For a nation to be prosperous, according to this philosophy, it had to have a positive balance of trade as measured in gold and silver. In other words, more gold and silver had to go in than went out.

This philosophy also had important implications for and impacts on the circulation of money in the colonies.

Colonial economies were routinely disadvantaged by the policies of home governments, whose only interest in the colonies was as sources of raw materials (fur, grain, wood, sugar, cotton, opium, etc.) and as markets for their own manufactured goods. Consequently, they did not generally encourage colonies to develop their own industries.

As a result, whenever money went to the colonies (as pay for troops stationed there, for example), most of it ended up shipped straight back again, even on the same ship, to pay for imported goods, such as pottery from Staffordshire, metalwork, clothes, some kinds of tools, and most of the fashionable things that colonial elites would want. This left the colonies chronically short of coins or any other kind of money to use in local economies.

Coin Shortages  

In addition, home governments did not consider it their responsibility, until very late in the game, to provide for their colonies' coinage needs. Actually, they didn't even consider it their responsibility to supply coins at home. Believe it or not, the Royal Mint in London, for example, only minted silver and gold coins when somebody brought gold or silver to the mint and asked to have it converted into coinage, or when they needed money for their own needs (such as paying troops in their armies). Consequently, some years they minted almost no coins at all. Essentially, coining was a kind of tax on bullion; the government required its citizens to convert bullion into coin, and they took part of the gold or silver that got minted as tax, while the Royal Mint also took a small portion as a fee to pay for the cost of minting. This fee was called "seignorage."

However, even though they were not interested in supplying their citizens' coinage needs, they also made it illegal for anyone else to mint coins; it was a royal prerogative only. If you minted your own coins, that was considered counterfeiting, and there were severe penalties, including execution. Apparently when the famous physicist Sir Isaac Newton was Master of the Royal Mint around 1700, he took great delight in tracking down and executing counterfeiters.

As you might expect, all these policies and economic conditions led to severe shortages of cash to circulate in colonies, and not just here in Canada. Some official British coinage did circulate in the Canadian colonies, most of them worn, copper halfpennies of George III, but occasionally also the large, heavy 1797 "cartwheel" coins by Boulton & Watt. However, local governments and merchants in the colonies almost continually had to find some way to relieve the problems that coin shortages caused.

"Cartwheel" penny of 1797

One result of the government's neglect of citizens coinage needs was that the colonies had to make do with absolutely anything they could get as coinage. Consequently, many kinds of coins (and even non-coins) circulated in the colonies, which required everyone to know the exchange rates.

 Exchange Rates and Currency  

Another expedient was to manipulate exchange rates in an attempt to keep coin in the colony. What they usually did was to establish rates that

1) were fairly easy to calculate and remember, but also

2) overvalued the coins locally, in an attempt to keep them from flowing out of the colony.

Consequently, the "official" currency of the colonies, even when it looked like "sterling" currency - "pounds," "shillings," and "pence" (Lsd) - was different. For example, one set of exchange rates was called "York currency" (originally the rate that pertained in New York, but also popular in the early 20th century in Upper Canada and Montreal), while another was "Halifax currency," originally used in Nova Scotia, but later widely adopted (at least unofficially) elsewhere in BNA. Values locally read, for example, "two shillings currency," or "two shillings York currency." Where "York" or "Halifax" is not specified, you need to know what kind of currency a document means (generally standardized in each colony). Halifax currency valued the Spanish-American dollar (or 8 reales) at 5s, while York currency valued it at 8s. Back in England, it was only worth 4s 6d.

As you already saw in an earlier class, some of the paper scrip (privately issued paper notes, something like IOUs) showed their value in several currencies simultaneously, which is one source of evidence for what these exchange rates were, although we also have lots of archival evidence for colonial edicts on exchange rates.


Foreign coins formed the bulk of real "specie" in the 18th and early 19th-centuries. English, French (including ones left over from old New France), Portuguese, Spanish, and later US coins were very common in circulation in colonial British North America. One of these, the Spanish (and later Mexican) 8-reale piece ("piece of eight" or "Spanish dollar"), so dominated the coin scene that it later became the basis for our later dollar-and-cent monetary system.


French Ecu, 1642, reverse


Spanish-American 8 reales of 1803, reverse
 Private Tokens  

In addition, in spite of the anti-counterfeiting laws, many people tried to evade them by issuing private "tokens." These were coin substitutes and, because they usually weighed less than genuine coins, their issuers made a small (and sometimes large) profit by importing them. A lot of such tokens were made in Birmingham, England, and other places, for use in England, Ireland, the Canadas, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Caribbean, among other places.

Slogans on the private tokens often expressed local sentiments about economic issues and the coinage shortage itself, such as "Ships, Colonies, and Commerce" (also a reference to Napoleon's defeat), or "Pure Copper Preferable to Paper."


Anonymous "Ships" Halfpenny Token


Molson Brewery Halfpenny Token


Halfpenny Token perhaps commemorating the HMS Shannon's capture of USS Starr in 1814


Lesslie Token, 1822

Some were designed to look a little similar to British coins, while being just different enough to make it more difficult for counterfeiting charges to stick.

Although some were originally imported to one or two colonies in particular, many of them spread far from their original point of import through trade. Consequently, just as you could expect to find Spanish and US coins in Ontario sites, you will also find tokens that were supposedly for Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island.

Really crude tokens - usually really crude counterfeits of English and Irish coppers - circulated in the 1830s, and these are usually called "Blacksmith tokens," distinctive for their poorly cut dies and especially for their typically reversed designs.

Blacksmith Token

Hudson's Bay Company 5-cent token
 Government Tokens  

The early US States similarly suffered from lack of coin, and some of them took it upon themselves to mint coins both before and after the American Revolution. Some of these, not to mention many of the later federal US coins, are sometimes found on historic sites in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes.

Massachussetts Cent of 1787

By the 1830s, many colonial governments in what is now Canada wanted to do something more substantial to relieve the shortage of coin, which was stifling their economies. One way to do this was to authorize a bank to issue bank tokens on their behalf. Thus the Bank of Montreal and Quebec Bank issued "tokens" (effectively coins) for Lower Canada, later Canada East, and the Bank of Upper Canada issued ones for Upper Canada/Canada West.

New Brunswick Penny


Nova Scotia Penny, 1832

Even by the 1830s, some Provincial governments began to issue coins in their own names, often minted at the Boulton & Watts' Heaton Mint in Birmingham to a standard just as high as that of official British coin. Because they were not technically allowed to issue coin, however, they inserted the word "token" or "currency" into their legends, even when the home government unusually saw the light and actually authorized them to mint them. Modern collectors usually refer to these coins as "regal tokens" because they usually show a portrait of the reigning monarch on their obverses, very much like the one on ordinary British coin. Most of these continued to be in local pound-shilling-pence currency (sterling or Halifax currency standards), but there was a lot of agitation for an official switch to decimal currency (dollars and cents) at the same time, and dual accounting was common.

By the late 1850s, some of these Provincial governments finally were able to convince the home government in London to authorize true local coinages. Thus the Province of Canada (constituting much of what is now Ontario and Quebec) issued copper cents and silver 5, 10, and 20 cents in 1858. After 1867, the Dominion of Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia) continued to use the colonial coins until its own issue of decimal coinage appeared in 1870.

Province of Canada 20 cents of 1858
 Scrip, "Bons," & Banknotes  

Shortage of coin also led to paper substitutes. Already, in New France, governors had to resort to the practice of paying expenses with playing cards with a signed promise to pay written on the backs. They redeemed these when the annual ship arrived from France with specie (coins) to pay these expenses. In 1719, the French Crown banned the use of "card money" but extreme need caused the practice to recur in 1729, and it continued until the British conquest in 1760.

Some English colonies at this time were resorting to the use of low-denomination paper money, or "scrip" to pay their expenses. These were typically unpopular, as the public wanted real coin, and consequently scrip was frequently discounted (circulated for less than the stated value).

Massachusetts Two-penny note of 1737

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some BNA businessmen, particularly in Montreal, issued small private scrip that are usually called "bons" because of the words "bon pour" (good for ...) that often appear in their inscriptions.

During the War of 1812, British offficers in the Canadas needed money to buy supplies for their troops, and Sir Isaac Brock resorted to issuing paper money called Army Bills.

But chartered banks also appeared by the 1820s, and these banks gained a large portion of their profit by the issue of banknotes. That is because banknotes, by promising redemption in coin at some later date, essentially constituted interest-free loans to the bank. Periodically, colonial (and later the Canadian) governments passed legislation to control banknote issues, specifically requiring them to keep reserves of cash (i.e., gold or silver coin) on hand to ensure that they could redeem the notes. Otherwise, there was always the danger that the public would lose out when banks went bust (bank failure was a common event in the 19th century).

Bank of Upper Canada $1 (5 shillings)

The chartered banks continued to be the main issuers of paper money in Canada until 1935, when the Bank of Canada was founded and began to issue all of our paper currency. Prior to this date, the Canadian government only issued $1 and $2 bills (called Dominion of Canada notes). Many of the old chartered banknotes are still redeemable, but you'd usually get more for them as collectors' items.

Needless to say, you are unlikely to find any paper money or scrip on an archaeological site (apart from inside the walls of a standing building, perhaps). Not only do they not survive well when buried, but most of them were destroyed (burned) when the banks redeemed them or they were withdrawn from circulation.

 What can Coins & Tokens tell us?  

In addition to documenting many of the changes noted above, coins and tokens can contribute the following kinds of information:

  • Absolute dating information (but with caution: tokens were sometimes intentionally misdated to evade laws and often circulated for many decades)
  • Intensity or distribution of trade between different regions
  • Approximate locations of political/economic borders (laws and exchange rates tend to keep certain coins mainly within borders of either issuing state or state where the exchange rate is most favourable)
  • Exchange rates (designed to attract certain coins or discourage others)
  • Tokens of private businesses (including banks) document the business names and often the proprietors, locations, and nature of the business
  • Pictures on tokens record details of buildings, ships, agricultural tools and other hardware
  • Designs and slogans on tokens record political views, major political events and people's views of those events
  • Prevalence of counterfeits and "blacksmith tokens" can provide clues to shortages of small change

Cross, W. K., ed. (2000). Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Colonial Tokens. Charlton Press, Toronto.

Heckscher, Eli F. (1955). Mercantilism. revised, second edition, edited by Ernst F. Söderlund. George Allen and Unwin, London, 2 volumes.

Johnson, M. (1996). An Archaeology of Capitalism.

Magnusson, Lars (1994). Mercantilism: The Shaping of an Economic Language. London: Routledge.

McCullough, Money and Exchange in Canada to 1840. Dundurn Press, Toronto.

McCusker, John J. (1992). Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook. University of North Carolina Press.

- (2001). Mercantilism and the Economic History of the Early Modern Atlantic World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Munro, John H.A. (1973). Wool, Cloth, and Gold: The Struggle for Bullion in Anglo-Burgundian Trade. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. (Good background on mercantilism and on how monetary instruments were manipulated [through coin debasement, for example] to control balance of trade).