A Look at the History of Spanish Reales and Their Role in Colonial America

Updated: Jul 21

The Spanish real was a monetary unit of currency used within Spain and several other countries across the world, for several centuries. There are two distinct kinds of Spanish reales, the real de plata, which was made of silver and the real de vellon which was made of billon, an alloy comprised of 60% copper and 40% silver. This article focuses specifically on the real de plata or Spanish silver real. Spanish silver reales freely circulated throughout most parts of the world and were the predominant form of currency in practically every country, in the entire civilized world, from the late 15th century until well into the 19th century. In the world's history, there has never been another coin to have been so widely used, by so many different countries, within every hemisphere, for such a significant length of time. I don't believe that anyone can rightly dispute that the Spanish reale hasn't justifiably earned its title as a form of international currency.

Spanish reales were first minted during the 14th century under the direction of the King of Castile and Leon, known as Pedro the Cruel. When the Spanish Empire first introduced the real to the world, it was at a time when Spain's power in the world went unquestioned. As time went on, Spain's grip on power began to decline. The real however remained in high demand and continued to be used internationally. Even as Spain entered a period of economic disaster, the real began its era of greatest popularity. It's somewhat puzzling as to why Spanish reales continued to prosper even after Spain experienced a period of economic uncertainty and its power within the world greatly declined. Generally speaking, that's just not how things usually work out. A currency usually prospers simultaneously with the nation that produces and controls it. That was not the case with the Spanish real. Spanish reales became virtually independent of Spain, the empire that produced them, due to the strong international demand for them. For centuries, Spanish reales were famous throughout the world, known by all, a coin that was instantly recognized and identified. They served as a standard by which other coins were measured up to due to their consistency in weight, silver content, and purity.

So how exactly is it that the Spanish real became an internationally valued, some might even say cherished, coin? Before the discovery of the massive amount of silver found in Spanish American territories there was simply just not enough silver anywhere to supply the world with large volumes of silver coins. The sudden wealth of silver flowing from the Spanish America's into Spain was definitely a necessary factor in the reale becoming a coin that was used internationally. Without the massive amount of silver that Spain acquired, Spanish reales would not have become a form of international currency. They just wouldn't have. Like with anything else, you can't meet the great demand without a sufficient supply. Spain would have never been able to meet the demand for an international silver coin of such magnitude solely from its own domestic supply of silver. However, having the capability to supply the world with a massive amount of silver coins does not necessarily guarantee that a coin will become internationally accepted by the community. The coin or currency must also have a stable, high value that can compete with other coins in the same market. Spanish reales were valued over other silver coins due to their purity, silver content, and weight.

The colonists in America depended on Spanish reales to provide an adequate supply of coins for monetary transactions. Even in the English colonies, where the official currency was the English pound, Spanish reales were still the most popularly used coin of that time period. Spanish money was critically important to the economic stability of colonial America. Historians estimate that close to half of the coins in circulation in colonial America during the 17th and 18th century were Spanish reales. In the year 1645, the colony of Virginia declared the Spanish real their standard form of currency. The first authorized coinage by the English royal patent for the American colonies was the American plantation token. On its obverse side its value was stated not in English currency but as 1/24 of a Spanish reale. 1/24th of a Spanish reale is equivalent in value to one- and one-half farthings. The fact that it was marked as such tells you something about the popularity of the reale and its importance in colonial America. I believe that they marketed the American plantation token in such a manner with the hope that it would improve the colonist's acceptance of it. The American colonists really genuinely preferred Spanish reales over other coins that were available.

There were two major types of the Spanish silver reales, the cob coin and the milled coin. The earliest of reales, cobs were crudely made by flattening strips of heated silver and punching coin blanks from them by hand. The blanks or planchets were then hammered individually by dies. The process was imprecise to say the least. The coins were struck, weighed, and then hand trimmed to the correct weight. If a cob coin was overweight, the minter just simply clipped part of it off until it was the correct weight. So, the size and shape of Spanish reale cobs were usually, always irregular. They were always, however, the proper weight and purity and that's all that really seemed to matter to the Spanish officials and people who used them as currency. Cobs were valued by their weight and not by what the coin actually looked like. I suppose that's probably a good thing too, because who actually likes the look of an irregularly shaped coin, with only a partially visible design, that was crudely manufactured?

The crude made cob coins were replaced by more modern minting technology. Milled reales were made by rolling silver into sheets of uniform thickness and then punching out coin blanks or planchets. The milled style reales were struck on large screw presses. This technology made a much better-looking coin. It was also a more efficient process.

The design of the Spanish real has greatly changed over the years. It has taken on various appearance changes over its history as successive Spanish kings have altered its design and occasionally it's weight and value. Every time a new king took over the crown, changes were made to the coin, sometimes it was just a change of name or a change of the portrait. Other times the changes to the coin's design were more significant. The hemispheres between pillars, royal arms, Jerusalem cross, shield, pillars and waves, king's bust, and crowned arms between pillars are some of the major design elements found on Spanish reales. The designs on Spanish reales, if you can see them, certainly are beautiful.

The hemispheres between pillars design is quite detailed. Spanish 8 reales with the hemispheres between pillars design are often referred to as pillar dollars. On the coin there are two pillars with overlapping globes in the center and water beneath. There is a Spanish royal crown above the two globes. This design has the inscription "VTRAQUE VNU M", over the image of the Spanish crown, which means both are one. The pillars on the coin bear the words "PLUS ULTRA" meaning more beyond. The pillars are often referred to as the pillars of Hercules since people believe that the design symbolizes a portal to both worlds that is approached through the sea beneath the two globes. They say that the Spanish crown and the phrase "VTRAQUE VNU M" symbolizes the linking of the old and new worlds together.

The royal arms design is paired with the hemispheres between pillars design. It has a crowned shield with four quadrants. Within each of the four quadrants there are lions and castles. This particular design is almost always on milled coins but you can find the pattern on a few cob coins as well.

The Jerusalem cross design is sometimes a plain cross and at other times it has foils around it. Castles and lions appear in the angles of the cross. Cob reales with this design element date back to before the 1600's and up to the early 1700's.

The shield design is often paired with the Jerusalem cross design. There is a multi-element shield on the center of the coin. It represents all of the territories under Spanish control. This design element is commonly found on cob reales. With cob coins, usually only part of the design is visible due to the fact that cobs were always cut down to the correct weight after there designs were already pressed into them.

The pillars and waves design is also frequently paired with the Jerusalem cross design. It has a pair of pillars with waves and two horizontal lines forming a tic-tac-toe like design. This design is often found on cob reales and the design is usually just partly visible.

The king's bust designs are found on milled reales. Coins with this style design are not as old in age. They have one of the king's names, spanning from Carol III to Ferdinand VII, and the bust of the different Spanish king's likeness on them. Reales with this design element range in date from 1759-1833.

The crowned arms between pillars design is always paired with the king's bust design. It has a pair of pillars on each side separated by a crowned shield that has lions, castles, and the Fleurs-de-Lis design inside the shield. Some people have suggested that the money symbol design ($) is based from the Spanish reale. It's been pointed out that the design of the ribbon wrapped around the pillar is rather similar looking in nature.

All reales may also have subtle differences such as mint marks or assayer's initials. Mint marks are important because they tell you the origin of the coin. Spanish Reales were minted in Spain and several of the Spanish territories. Mint standards were set by the Spanish crown. Assayer's initials are marked on the coin to signify that it was inspected for proper weight and purity and who inspected it. Usually their initials appear as two or more letters and are prominently displayed on the coin. Below are a couple of charts that show some of the different mint marks you might see on Spanish reales you find.

The Spanish silver real came in the denominations: 1/4 real, 1/2 real, 1 real, 2 reale, 4 reale, and 8 reale.

The 1/4 real or cautorillo is a tiny little coin, smaller in size than even an American half dime. Its value was equivalent to 1/32 of a dollar or 3.125 cents. During its time of use it had a relatively high purchasing power. 1/4 real don't get dug up all that often. Finding one is actually pretty darn rare. The Spanish Empire minted 1/4 real. The 1/4 real pictured above is technically not a Spanish real, but a Mexican real. It was minted in Mexico, in the year 1844. Mexico gained it's independence from Spain in the year 1810.

The 1/2 real is about the same size as a modern-day dime. It measures approximately 18 mm diameter. The value of the 1/2 real was equivalent to 1/16 of a dollar or 6.25 cents. Speaking strictly in terms of aesthetics, the milled 1/2 real is pretty small in size and the designs on it are rather detailed so it kind winds up having a crowded feel to it, don't you think?

The 1 real is similar in size to a modern day one cent memorial coin. It measures approximately 20 mm in diameter and is equivalent in value to 1/8 of a dollar or 12.5 cents. I feel like the milled 1 real are still kind of on the small size for the amount of details that they have crammed onto them. In its day the 1 real was also often referred to by the colonists as 1 bit.

The 2 reale is roughly the same size as a US quarter and its value was equivalent to a 1/4 of a dollar or 25 cents. At the size of 25 mm in diameter the beauty of the bold designs on the milled coins really start to pop. The 2 reale was the most commonly used denomination. 2 reales were often referred to as 2 bits by the colonists. You may have heard the expression 2 bits used in reference to a US quarter. Some people still use the term today. The term was derived from the Spanish coinage system. There is an old chant that uses the term bits. You may have heard it or even chanted at a high school football game. It goes like this: "2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits, a dollar, all for our team, stand up and holler".

4 reales are approximately 33 mm in diameter. They're a little larger in size than a US half dollar. They were valued at 1/2 of a dollar or 50 cents. When it comes to metal detecting, the Spanish 4 reale is practically impossible to find. I'm not really sure why that is but they are rarely ever dug, by anyone. There's just not a whole lot of them left around I guess.

The 8 reale was the largest denomination of Spanish reales made and is the largest in size of all the denominations at approximately 38 mm in diameter. It is similar in size to a US Morgan silver dollar. During its time, its value was equivalent to one dollar. It was often referred to as 8 bits or pieces of 8. If you ever watched the film series the Pirates of the Caribbean then you have heard the term "pieces of 8" used. The Spanish silver dollar or pieces of 8 were an extremely sought-after coin during its day.

In 1776, upon the recommendation of Thomas Jefferson, the Spanish 8 reale became the official dollar of the American colonies. The Spanish 8 reale is often referred to as America's first silver dollar and it sort of technically was. Of course, there are some that make the argument that it cannot be America's first silver dollar simply because it was not minted by the United States government. The Spanish 8 reale was the American dollar of its day though. Spanish reales were the most popular form of currency used in America during colonial times. It was an important coin that is synonymous with the United States independence and the colonial era. Spanish reales were essentially the foundation for the US monetary system. It is believed that the 8 reale is the basis for the US silver dollar coin.

Spanish reales, especially the 8 reales were sometimes cut or sawed into halves, quarters, or eights. Despite all the stories you hear about Spanish 8 reales being cut into pieces of 8 by merchants or store clerks to make change, historians say that the coins were generally re-cut by the local government, jewelers, or private or official mints, not the merchants. They were re-cut in order to meet the local demand or need for smaller denomination coins. Cut or fractional coins were legal tender and accepted. They often times were stamped with an additional tax mark or assayers mark.

Pistareens should not be confused with reales. The name is sometimes used interchangeably with genuine 2 reales. They are completely different coins though. Pistareens are a Spanish silver coin valued at the worth of 2 reales. They are somewhat different in design and their weights and fineness showed variations. They also contained 20 percent less silver than a 2 reale. Pistareens were first issued by a rival claimant of the Spanish throne during the Spanish wars of succession. They were extremely unpopular in Spain and were shipped by the boatloads to America. Pistareens never became legal tender in the United States but they did circulate with other coins and were used in monetary transactions. Merchants accepted them at the value of 20 cents up until 1827 when their value fell to 17 cents.

The United States mint was established 10 years after the Revolutionary War ended and the decimal coinage system was introduced. At first the United States was only producing a limited amount of silver coins so people still relied heavily on Spanish reales as a source of hard money. Having dual coinage systems in place was initially probably very confusing for the people, I’m sure. I read that people often would complain when they received US silver coins in their change rather than Spanish silver reales. The people felt cheated and rightfully so I suppose. The decimal system fell short to what folks were used to. For example, a half dime was worth only 5 cents where as a ½ reale was worth 6.125 cents and a dime is only worth 10 cents where as a 1 real was worth 12.5 cents. Plus, the silver reales contained a higher percentage of silver content than silver coins the US were minting. It makes sense that people would prefer what they were used to and if you’re going off of just silver content alone who wouldn’t want the coin that had more.

Over the course of history people have put holes into coins for a variety of reasons. Defacing Spanish reales was highly frowned upon. Many merchants refused to accept reales with holes in them or they would take them in at a cent or so less than their face value. The coins silver content meant everything. Sometimes shysters or dishonest individuals would fill the holes in reales with lead, nickel, or tin.

US government officials became concerned about Spanish reales during the Jacksonian period. By that time period a great deal of the Spanish reales in circulation were well worn and very light in weight. Also, Spain was no longer supplying the US with newly minted silver reales, instead they were shipping worn coins to us. On February 21, 1857, a law went into effect and all foreign coins ceased being legal tender in the United States. Some might say that it was the end of an era.

Spanish reales are a rather unique coin. They have a history like no other coin in the world. You could go as far as even saying that they are one of the most, if not the most, legendary coins history has ever seen the likes of. Legendary is a word that you often hear get thrown around. In my opinion it is a word that seems to be frequently overused. As a result, the word's meaning seems to lose some of it's value. So I hesitate to use it, but the Spanish real really is indeed quite legendary. Becoming truly legendary is no simple task. Spanish reales exceeded everyone's expectations, including my own. Spain never expected the real to become a coin that was used internationally, for centuries. I don't think the early colonists really expected to value, rely on, and appreciate Spanish reales to the extent history suggests that they did. And I certainly did not expect to find their history so interesting. They touched people's lives, impacted generation after generation, and left behind their mark in history. The coin achieved something uniquely spectacular when it became a form of international currency that was used for centuries, all around the world. The thing all great things have in common is that they significantly change the way things were before them and they impact things after them. Spanish reales did just that.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article and viewing all the photos. Thank you to everyone who shared photos! If you have pictures of the Spanish reales you have found or acquired that you would like to share you can post a photo or leave a comment in the section below. Have a great week!

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