Colonial State Coppers

Have you ever dug a State copper? During the Confederation Period, in the 1780's, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York all issued coins. The coins in the cover photo, pictured above, were all dug by ESMDA club member Wil Comensky. These coins frequently get classified by historians and collectors alike as colonial state coppers. I have always found it interesting that the term colonial is used to describe these state copper coins. One would tend to think that term colonial would be used strictly in reference to those coins that were issued prior to the British American Colonies gaining their independence. But that's not really the case. The specific date or year when the colonial era ended exactly is often debated. The Declaration of Independence which is dated July 4, 1776, proclaimed America's independence. It is viewed by many that from that point onward the British American colonies were well no longer colonies. I think one could make the argument that the year 1776 was the end of the colonial era. The Revolutionary War however didn't end until the year 1781, with the Battle of Yorktown. So I suppose one could also make the argument that the colonial period didn't end until the end of the Rev War. In the year 1783, The Treaty of Paris was signed which recognized the United States of America's independence from all countries. The treaty of Paris sort of in a way made America's independence official. For that reason, many people consider the year 1783 as the end of the colonial period. Now however actual Statehood didn't begin until the year 1787 though, when Delaware became the first state ratified under the US Constitution. So is the official end of the colonial period when statehood began? Or maybe the official end of the colonial period is actually the date when the last of the 13 original colonies became a state?

I don't have the answer as to when exactly the colonial period ended. I think you could make a rather strong argument depending on which ever way you viewed the end to be. Most historians it seems typically use the term colonial coinage when referring to money that circulated in the American colonies from as early as the year 1607 to right up until the year 1792, when the US Federal Mint opened for operations. Whether you personally consider these state copper coins to be colonial or not, they still are a wonderful example of America's early economic history.

During the 17th and 18th century, there was an extreme shortage of small change in America. There simply just wasn't enough money to go around. The colonists and merchants needed coinage specifically smaller denomination coins to conduct their daily transactions. There were not enough coins in circulation to cover the value of all the goods and services that were available to be bought and sold and that was huge problem. During this time period there were many different types of coins in circulation as well. British coins, Spanish coins, other foreign coins from places like Portugal, France, and Germany, as well as coinage issued by the individual colonies themselves. Paper currency issues were also thrown into the mix. The paper money was usually viewed with some serious distrust. The colonists would use whatever coins they could get their hands on. Typically though it was British copper coins that were used for small change and Spanish silver and gold that were used for larger transactions. During this time period, the monetary system was highly dysfunctional. Even simple transactions would often require complicated and cumbersome mathematical calculations. To conduct these transactions it was necessary to have knowledge of all the different coins values and weights.

These issues related to the monetary system didn't just disappear when the American Colonies gained their independence. The lack of smaller denomination coins in circulation persisted to be a continuous issue. In the 1780's, during the Confederation Period, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Vermont issued government approved copper coinage and New York issued copper coinage that was unauthorized by government. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York issued these coins to help combat the lack of money that was in circulation at the time.

Connecticut State Coppers

On October 20, 1785, the General Assembly of Connecticut authorized the production Connecticut copper coins and granted the establishment of a mint under the direction of the General Assembly. Connecticut coppers were produced between the years 1785-1788. While these Connecticut coppers were authorized, they never became legal tender. Their design was styled after a British Halfpence. They were similar in size as well as design and circulated at the same value as a British Halfpence. On their obverse side you will find the bust of a man wearing a laurel wreath. The figure sometimes faced to the left portraying King George II. At other times the figure faced to the right portraying King George III. There were two major designs; the draped bust and the mailed bust. On the obverse side is the legend "Auctori Connec" which means by the authority of Connecticut. The reverse side of the coin has a seated female figure that closely resembles the British Britannia. It depicts the emblem of liberty with an olive branch. The reverse side has the date and legend "Inde Et Lib" which means Independence and Liberty.

The basic design of the coin never really changed. Beyond their rather simple design, Connecticut Coppers vary quite a bit though. More than 350 die combinations have been identified. There are at least a 126 varieties and 26 distinctively different bust styles. We know that there were at least six different mints that produced Connecticut coppers. The metal dies often got damaged or became broken. As a result they were frequently replaced. The common hubs allowed for a lot of the design to be transferred from die to die but hand engraving of each die was necessary to enrich the details and design. Subtle and some more noticeable differences from coin to coin are the result of many different dies having been used.

These coins have a rather complex minting history. It would take way too much time to discuss it now. If you are interested in learning more I list a few great reference books at the end of this blog. Connecticut coppers circulated widely. It's not uncommon to find them in states other than Connecticut. They were gladly accepted into circulation. The contracts required that the coins each weigh 144 grains. A good amount of the Connecticut coppers that ended up in circulation weighed much less than that though. During the 18th century, people were so desperate for small change that I think maybe they turned a blind eye to the coins weight. Who knows? A half penny being a little underweight is bit different than say a Spanish 8 reale being underweight.

Counterfeiting coins was a common problem at the time. Counterfeiting coins was a lucrative operation for the dishonest. Counterfeiters would cast coins that looked just similar enough to pass off into circulation. They would mix the more expensive copper with cheaper metals to produce coins. These coins were usually lightweight. Occasionally though the cast counterfeits with a high lead content would actually be heavier than the real coins but would still have a lower value of worth.

New Jersey State Coppers

On June 1, 1786, the New Jersey legislature authorized the minting of three million copper coins at a weight of 150 grains each. Two separate mints were set up. The design of the coin was mandated by the New Jersey legislation. The obverse side features a horse head and plow below it and the words "Nova Caesarea". The date on the coin can also be found on the obverse side. It appears near the bottom rim. The name Nova Caesarea was first used in the original indenture written by Charles II, in the year 1664, which specified the boundaries of New Jersey. The horse head usually faces to the right. There are a few varieties where the horse faces to the left though. On its reverse side there is a shield in the center of the coin and the legend "E Pluribus Unum". New Jersey coppers are actually the first coins to use America's national motto.

New Jersey coppers are dated 1786 to 1788. Some historians believe that the copper coins were produced up until the year 1790. No new dies were produced after the year 1788. Many of the New Jersey coppers that were produced were stuck over Connecticut coppers, Irish Halfpence, and other coins.

The New Jersey copper coins all share the same motif and same distinct look. There are however many different known varieties. A lot of the early copper coins are rich in variety due to cracked dies, die breaks, die rust, different die engravings, imperfect or unusual planchets, and misstrikes. The public readily accepted these copper coins into circulation. New Jersey coppers traveled around a bit too so it's not really uncommon to find them in other states.

Massachusetts State Coppers

In the year 1786 the Massachusetts government gave some serious consideration to the production Massachusetts coppers. The Massachusetts government believed it would be more profitable to set up a government owned and operated mint rather than contracting out the production of copper coins to private minters like the other states used. They established a mint in October of 1786 and minted Massachusetts Coppers in 1787 and 1788.

The obverse side of Massachusetts coppers has the figure of a Native American man holding a bow and arrow and the word "Commonwealth". The reverse side of the coin has the image of a spread winged eagle, the legend "Massachusetts", and the date. The denomination of the coin can also be found on the reverse side on the eagle's breast. Massachusetts coppers were well struck and made from good quality planchets. They were well received by the general public and stayed in circulation for decades.

Massachusetts coppers are also unique in that Massachusetts was the only of the mints creating these state copper coins that conformed to the federal resolution establishing the decimal ratio of a 100 cents to a Spanish Milled dollar. The Massachusetts mint produced half cent and one cent copper coins. The half cent denominations were contracted to weigh 78.75 grains and the one cent coins were to weigh 157.5 grains. The one cent coins were slightly heavier than a British Half Penny. These Massachusetts coppers circulated at less than their stated value though. The dies for the Massachusetts coppers were produced by two different gentlemen. It estimated that somewhere between 61,500-79,500 half cents were minted during the year 1787 and 90,900-93,000 one cent Massachusetts coppers were minted in 1787. In the year 1788, there were somewhere between 35,500-38,500 Massachusetts half cents minted and there were approximately 209,000 cents minted. The cost of the Massachusetts mint was far more than the government had expected. The Common Wealth of Massachusetts ordered for the closure of the mint in November of 1788.

Vermont Coppers

At the time that Vermont coppers were issued Vermont was an independent republic and not yet a state. The republic of Vermont authorized the minting of these Vermont coppers in 1785. The Vermont coppers date from 1785-1788. The government stipulated that the weight of the coins be 160 grains. There were two major different designs. In 1785 and 1786 they minted coppers with the landscape design. The obverse side features an image of a sun peering over a ridge and a plow. Around the rim are the legend " Vermontis Res Publica" and the date. The reverse side of the landscape design on Vermont coppers depicts an eye in the very center with 13 short rays and 13 long rays. The reverse side also has the legend "Stella Quarta Decima" which means the 14th star. It is a reference to Vermont's desire to become the 14th state.

In 1786 Vermont changed the design of their coppers. They redesigned the coin so that it would look more familiar. There no evidence regarding who requested the design changes. The new design imitated the coinage of England and has a portrait of King George II on the obverse side and a seated figure on the reverse side. There is also a variety with a boyish bust with a distinctively oversized head that faces right. This style is often referred to as the baby head variety. The bust variety Vermont coppers have the legend "Auctori Vernon" on their obverse side and the legend "Inde Et Lib" which is an abbreviation for independence and liberty, on its reverse.

New York Coppers

New York coppers were never authorized by the government. Several different design types that carry New York legends were privately minted and distributed in NY. There was not much enthusiasm from the NY legislature in regards to coinage proposals. The NY pieces are distinctive and their symbols and legends have historical meanings. There are a few major types of patterns for NY coinage minted during the 1780's.

The Non Vi Virtute Vici coppers are date 1786. They have a bust of a man on their obverse side and a seated figure on their reverse side. There are two versions one with a large head and one with a small head.

Another type of pattern is the Nova Eborac coppers. They have a bust of a man wearing a laurel wreath on their obverse side and a seated liberty figure on their reverse. These coins are dated the year 1787. There are a few varieties of this pattern; a large sized bust, a medium sized bust, and some with the seated figure facing to the right.

Another variety of NY coppers minted in the year 1787 are the Excelsior coppers. Excelsior means ever upward or always rising and is the motto of NY. There are four major varieties of the excelsior coins. One excelsior variety has the NY Coat of Arms on its obverse and a large eagle on the reverse. Another excelsior variety has the bust of George Clinton on its obverse and the NY Coat of Arms on its reverse. There is also an excelsior variety with a Native American figure on the obverse and the NY Coat of Arms on the reverse and another variety with a Native American figure on the obverse and a large eagle on the reverse.

Colonial Virginia Coppers

On May 20, 1773 the Virginia Assembly authorized the minting of a Virginia Halfpenny coin. These coins were minted in London. Five tons, approximately 670,000 coins, arrived in New York aboard a ship named Virginia on February 14, 1774. These coins weren't put in to circulation until about a year later.

Virginia Halfpenny coins have the bust of King George III on their obverse side and an image of the shield of Virginia on their reverse side. There are many different varieties. These coins circulated throughout the state of Virginia primarily. Virginia Halfpenny coins are not state copper coins although they wind up being categorized as such quite often. These Virginia coins are really cool pieces of history for sure. They were the first and only colonial coins authorized and produced in Britain for use in an American colony. These Virginia pieces have the rather unique claim to fame being that they really technically are the only true American colonial coins to ever exist.

People frequently refer to all of these coins as state coppers. Even the Virginia coins which were minted earlier, prior to Virginia receiving its Independence get classified as such. These Virginia coppers are not state coppers at all though. I think it's highly interesting that we use the term "State" when describing these coins. When these copper coins were designed and first minted Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont were no longer colonies anymore but they also were not states yet. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York all became states at some point during the time frame of when these coppers were being minted. Vermont did not become a state until years after these copper had stopped being made.

There is some really great information out there about these coins, the different varieties that were made, and the history behind their minting. I find their history fascinating and I think it's actually pretty incredible the amount of information we know about these coins. At the end of this blog you will find a list of reference books. If you're interested in learning more about these coins and their history you should really check out some of the different reference books listed below. Have a great week!


Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins by Q. David Bowers

The Early Coins of America by Sylvester S. Crosby

New Jersey State Coppers History, Description, Collecting by Roger S. Siboni, John L. Howes, A. Buell Ish

The state coinage of Connecticut by Henry C. Miller

A Descriptive List of the Coppers Issued by Authority, for the State of Connecticut For the Year 1787 by Thomas Hall

The Copper Coins of Massachusetts by Hillyer Ryder

The Copper Coins of Vermont, and Those Bearing the Vermont Name by Tony Carlotto

The Coins of Colonial Virginia by Roger A. Moore, M.D.

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