England’s American colonies were perennially short of hard money. Under the policy of Mercantilism, which predominated throughout the colonial period, whatever gold and silver coin that American merchants received in trade tended to flow back toward Europe in payment of taxes and duties. The mineral riches discovered during the 19th Century were as yet unknown, so the opportunity to coin precious metal in North America was limited almost exclusively to Mexico.
One exception to this limitation was found in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Being the primary American port during the 17th Century, Boston was the receiving point for a great deal of gold and silver from Europe and Latin America, with the West Indies being a particularly rich source. This enabled the Massachusetts legislature to become the only entity during that early period to authorize a domestic silver coinage. While such action would normally violate the king’s exclusive prerogative to coin money, a loophole opened up during the 1650s. Following his loss to the Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War of 1642-49, King Charles I was executed and a Commonwealth rule declared.
Massachusetts established a mint in Boston during 1652. It was operated by mint master John Hull, who received in payment an allowance of one shilling and three pence for every 20 shillings coined. When this proved to be overly generous, the figure was lowered, but it nevertheless remained a lucrative arrangement for Hull and his assistant, Robert Saunderson.
The design of the first issue was overly simplistic, featuring just the denomination on one side of the coins and the letters ‘NE’ (New England) for the other. Easily clipped and counterfeited, this issue was almost immediately discontinued in favor of one depicting a tree on one side and the date 1652 and denomination on the other. These main devices were enclosed within a circle of dots, around which were inscribed the requisite legends. The tree side, commonly considered the obverse, typically carried the legend IN MASATHVSETS, while the reverse with its date and denomination featured the words NEW ENGLAND • AN DOM (in the year of our Lord).
The coins produced were the threepence (III), the sixpence (VI) and, in the greatest numbers, the shilling or twelve-pence (XII). The date 1652 was retained for the entire series of coins, even though these were made for 30 years. Some have speculated that this was done to maintain the deception that all such coins were made just in one year, thus avoiding royal ire once the monarchy was restored in 1660. More likely is that this date simply reflected the year of authorization by the colonial government. The only exception in the entire issue of Massachusetts silver coins is the 1662-dated twopence (II), this being its date of adoption.
The tree appearing on these coins was never identified as to type by the Massachusetts lawmakers, nor is it identified on the coins themselves. Numismatists, however, have come to label the successive issues as Willow Tree (1653-60, Oak Tree (1660-67) and Pine Tree (1667-82) based on their general appearance. Early Pine Tree coins were very thin and of large diameter, as were the previous issues, but the later Pine Tree pieces were smaller and thicker.
The wonderful collection presented here includes a nice representative sampling of the Oak Tree and Pine Tree series in superb condition. The 1662 twopence is the variety with a Small 2 in its date. The sixpence features the word IN on its obverse, this portion of the legend alternating from one side to the other at the die-cutter’s whim. Concluding the Oak Tree issues is a magnificent shilling of the variety with IN seen at the bottom of the obverse. At MS-66, this example is the finest certified by NGC (8-10).
The later Pine Tree issues are the ones most often seen, as the earlier pieces were often recoined into successive types. Leading this series is a near-gem threepence of the variety without pellets flanking the tree. The Pine Tree sixpence in this collection is superbly struck, though with its obverse a bit off-center. This coin does have the flanking pellets. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is the amazing Pine Tree Shilling. The finest certified by NGC (7-10), it is also of the pellets variety and a coin of simply astounding quality.
More than a century would pass before Massachusetts again coined money. The prevalence in circulation of foreign gold and silver coins provided for the young nation’s hard money needs during the 1780s, but there remained a chronic shortage of small change. What remained after America’s independence was heavily worn (and often counterfeited) halfpennies of the English type, and these proved to be as much a nuisance as an asset. Massachusetts, now fashioning itself a Commonwealth, authorized a coinage of copper cents and half cents to be produced by Joshua Witherle. Dated 1787 and 1788, these were skillfully manufactured and were easily the most finely executed of the various pre-federal issues which flooded the country between 1783 and 1790.
The examples presented are absolute gems, both representing the finest of their types certified by NGC (7-10). Each is from the 1788 emission. The half cent displays a very sharp strike and rich, glossy brown surfaces with just a hint of mint red. The cent, which is of the variety having no period after MASSACHUSETTS, retains much of its original coppery red color, which splendidly accents its legends and devices. Indeed, it is the only example of this issue certified by NGC as MS RB.