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Colonial Coins – The Connecticut Coppers

By Thomas K. DeLorey – Courtesy of Harlan J Berk

For a small State, Connecticut has played a large role in the field of colonial American numismatics. Besides being known for its wealth of pre- and post- Revolutionary paper issues, its most famous coins are the Higley Coppers of 1737-39 and the Connecticut Coppers of 1785-89.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The Higley coppers were issued by Dr. Samuel Higley and his heirs, using virtually pure copper from a mine they owned near Granby, CT. Higley’s first token issue bore the picture of a deer with the inscription THE. VALVE. OF. THREE. PENCE. on one side, with three crowned hammers, the date 1737 and the inscription CONNECTICVT on the other. It is arguable as to which side should be considered the obverse, but common usage calls the side with the deer the obverse.

The next issue used the same obverse plus a similar reverse with I AM GOOD COPPER replacing CONNECTICVT. Perhaps someone objected to the use of the name of the state on an unauthorized private token. Someone certainly objected to the value Higley placed on the piece, which was no heavier than an English half pence of the period and sometimes lighter, and his third issue saw the deer side changed to VALVE. ME. AS. YOU. PLEASE. A second die saw VALVE spelled as VALUE. Both include the Roman numeral III beneath the deer, thereby hinting at the value that Higley hoped they would pass at.

Higley died in 1737 while escorting a load of his copper to England, and the mine was taken over by his brother, John. John was presumably responsible for a fourth issue that paired the Deer/III obverse with an undated reverse that bore a hatchet with the inscription J. CUT. MY. WAY. THROUGH., and a similar issue that bore the date 1739 below the hatchet. A sixth issue paired the undated hatchet die with an obverse that bore a 12-spoked wheel and the inscription THE. WHEELE. GOES. ROUND., but it is not known if this issue predates or postdates the 1739 issue.

All of the Higley pieces are very rare today, according to legend because they were popular among goldsmiths as a source for pure copper suitable for alloying gold. For an interesting but probably apocryphal legend regarding the supposed reason why Higley valued his tokens at three pence, see “The Early Coins of America” by Sylvester S. Crosby (1875 and reprints).

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

Throughout the Revolutionary War, ordinary citizens in the 13 American colonies plus the independent (from 1777 on) Republic of Vermont were forced to conduct day to day commerce either via barter or by means of a large assortment of rapidly depreciating bills issued by the Continental Congress and by the 14 states themselves. Besides the fact that the legitimate issuers of these bills had no hard currency to redeem them, several of the issues were counterfeited by the English to help destabilize the rebel economy, just as British notes were counterfeited by the German government in World War II.

Some Spanish-American and French silver brought in via trade with the Caribbean and the wartime grants from our anti-English ally was occasionally encountered, as well as a smattering of British and German silver spent by Royalist and Hessian mercenary troops for goods and supplies. However, the vast majority of our small change supply was the flood of counterfeit and lightweight British half pence privately made in England, and dumped upon its errant children with the tacit approval of the Crown. These pieces were generally some 20 to 25% underweight relative to the English standard, to the detriment of the recipient who had no other choice but to take them or lose a sale.

Connecticut was the first of the 13 original States to authorize and have issued a coinage in its own name after the War, when it gave the Company for Coining Coppers (CCC) a license to make money on October 20, 1785. This was entirely within its rights in accordance with the Articles of Confederation, which were ratified on March 1, 1781. The delay in exercising this authority was somewhat understandable when one considers that British troops did not complete their evacuation of American soil, at New York harbor, until Dec. 4, 1783, and the economy at the end of hostilities could probably not have supported a mint.

According to the petitioners for this contract, the people of Connecticut were simultaneously enduring “a great & very prevalent scarcity of small Coin in this State,” while at the same time “our late Enemies … are countirfeiting (sic) in vast abundance … (English copper half pence).” For the compleat text of this petition and of the bill which resulted from it, see “The Early Coins of America” by Sylvester S. Crosby (1875 and reprints), pp. 207-210.

Presumably this meant that there was no shortage of counterfeit small change in circulation, but rather a great shortage of genuine small change. The same could have been said of England itself during this period, which due to an unrealistic monetary system was eventually forced to rely upon the series of tradesmen’s pieces known as Conder (for their cataloguer) tokens for its own small change in the latter years of the 18th Century.

The Connecticut legislature apparently hoped to drive the counterfeit British half pence out of circulation by offering the people a full-weight (or reasonably close) alternative. The independent Vermont Republic had attempted to do the same thing earlier in 1785 for the same purpose, but as Vermont, which had broken away from New York in 1777, did not become part of the United States again until 1791 as the 14th State Connecticut can be called the first State to issue coins on a technicality.

Two of the petitioners, Samuel Bishop and Joseph Hopkins, were members of the State Assembly, and had been among the many signers of Connecticut’s October 11, 1777, fractional currency issue. This may explain why the bill passed in only two days time, if the deal was arranged before the bill was even introduced. In Chicago, this is known as clout.

The two, plus John Goodrich and James Hillhouse, originally proposed to make their coins to “the standard & weight of British half pence commonly called coppers…”, which at the English standard of 46 pieces to the avoirdupois pound (7,000 grains) would have given them an average weight of 152.17 grains.

However, for some reason (clout again?), the legislature authorized their CCC to make “…Coppers, not to exceed the amount of Ten Thousand Pounds lawful money in Value of the standard of Brittish half pence, to weigh Six penny weight (or 144 grains) …” This was significantly less than the Confederation standard of 157.5 grains adopted on July 6, 1785, which was later used as the standard for the Fugio cents of 1787 and aimed for with varying degrees of success on the Massachusetts cents of 1787-88.

For an excellent history on the state coinages of this era, the reader is enthusiastically referred to “Money of the American Colonies and Confederation” by Philip L. Mossman, copyright 1993 by the American Numismatic Society. Some of the historical information given there cannot be found in an otherwise well-stocked numismatic library, and the charts giving relative values and weights for the different monies in circulation in America at the time are extremely helpful.

The “Ten Thousand Pounds” provision would theoretically translate to 4.8 million pieces, assuming the traditional English system of two half pence per penny, 12 pence per shilling and 20 shillings per Pound. However, various states valued halfpence at anywhere from 12 to its own shilling to 24 to the English shilling, and while Connecticut never adopted an official ratio it is stated in Crosby that the Connecticut coppers were estimated by the Connecticut government at 18 to the shilling. This would convert to 3.6 million pieces. Five percent of all struck pieces that were approved by a commission set up to oversee the coinage were to be paid to the State as its commission for authorizing the coins.

The mint was quickly established in New Haven, CT, and Abel Buell was hired to engrave the dies. Buell had been convicted many years before of fraudulently altering 1762 Connecticut 1 shilling and 2 shilling, 6 pence notes into 30 shilling notes, and at that time had had part of his ear cut off and the letter C (for counterfeiter) branded on his forehead. However, he still had a good reputation as a mechanic and as an engraver.

The coins were required by their authorizing act to bear a man’s head and the inscription AUCTORI CONNEC (By the Authority of Connecticut) on one side, and a seated figure of Liberty holding an olive branch plus the inscription INDE ET LIB (Independence And Liberty) on the other. The earliest pieces struck by the CCC followed the letter of this law, but in such a way that the mailed bust facing right that appeared on them bore a striking resemblance to the George III (1760-1820) half pence they were supposed to replace. This was done to increase the chance that people would accept the new issue, a lesson that Vermont learned the hard way when its innovative first issue design was rejected by an illiterate public.

The figure on the reverse bore a similar resemblance to that of personification of BRITANNIA found on the reverse of the English copper coins of the era, which were in turn copied from the designs found on Roman coins struck the Emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and others to commemorate the conquest of the land Britannia. One minor difference seldom noted is that instead of a shield bearing the Union Jack, the shield Miss Liberty sits on bears the emblem of three grape vines. In vino, veritas, I guess.

Buell was able to impress most of both the obverse and the reverse dies from raised hubs, a technique the U.S. Mint did not perfect until 1836! Some hand finishing of the dies was still necessary, however, giving the variety collector something to look for.

Walter Breen stated in his “Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins” that the CCC had issued 1,407,000 pieces before it was dissolved on June 1, 1787, but as this figure appears to have been calculated from the weight of the pieces issued it is somewhat suspect. Also, it does not account for other Connecticut coppers struck by other parties, usually clandestinely, both before and after that date.

It is one of the delicious ironies of this series that rather than driving out the counterfeit English half pence, the Connecticut coppers inspired the counterfeiters to make copies of the Connecticut pieces as well, to such an extent that in 1786 the man’s head on the coins was reversed and remodeled so that it resembled that of King George II (1727-1760) instead of George III. The counterfeiters of course quickly began imitating these coins as well.

Over the next four years many different styles of heads facing either right or left were engraved by various official and unofficial engravers, sometimes with the legends spelled correctly and sometimes not, and sometimes muled with older reverse dies and sometimes struck from blundered dies such as 1787/1877! To date there are 355 different die combinations known, including the counterfeits which are collected along with the genuine coins, if not already more.

Many of the heads bear colorful nicknames, such as the “African Head,” the “Hercules Head,” the “Muttonhead” and the “Boxer Head.” Many of the dies show the inscriptions misspelled, either through the use of wrong or broken punches. If I did not collect Honduras by die variety, I would probably collect Connecticut.

The standard for listing the varieties of Connecticut coppers is “The State Coinages of New England” (1920) by Henry C. Miller and Hillyer Ryder, supplemented by the Early American Coppers club in 1975. As both of these are difficult to obtain and not easy to use, a new volume would certainly be a godsend to the collector and the cataloguer.

Breen devoted 14 pages in his Encyclopedia to classifying what he felt were 145 significant die varieties or groupings of the Connecticuts, breaking them down by the year of issue, who issued them, which design was used and who most likely engraved them. Many dies have been identified via the hubs and punches used to make them as having been struck at private mints in Morristown, NJ, Newburgh, NY, North Swansea, MA and perhaps New York City.

Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries

The last colonial associated with Connecticut is the 1787-dated AUCTORI PLEBIS token, but only because the obverse bears a head facing left that resembles some of the head left Connecticut pieces and the first word of the AUCTORI CONNEC legend. The reverse bears a female figure seated with her right hand on a globe and her left elbow on an anchor. A crowned British lion crouches behind the globe.

The reverse inscription bears the motto INDEP ET LIBER, similar to the Connecticut INDE ET LIB. Although the overall fabric is typical of the Conder tokens of the 1790s, the date and the inscriptions seem to have been copied in part from a Connecticut copper. Thus the Connecticut coppers meant to drive lightweight British imitations from our shores may have inspired the production of yet another one.

About the Author

Tom's career began with Coin World in the early 1970's where he became editor of the "Collector's Clearinghouse" before joining the staff of the American Numismatic Association, holding the position of senior authenticator for its certification service from 1981-1984. A prolific writer, Mr. DeLorey is the co-author and technical editor of several books and contributing editor to many numismatic periodicals. His efforts have earned him the ANA's Heath Literary Award on three occasions, the Wayte and Olga Raymond Memorial Award twice, and two Numismatic Literary Guild awards. He is a contributor to both the Guide Book and Handbook of United States Coins, as well as other standard references. He also remains a consultant to the ANA Authentication Bureau.

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