The Old State House in Boston has been undergoing renovations, and two time capsules have been found in it. The first, laid away in 1901, was found inside the head of the gold-plated lion atop the building and was opened in October 2014 to reveal letters and business cards from Massachusetts politicians, and multiple newspapers from that great age of newsprint. The contents of the second capsule, which was found under a foundation stone, were just revealed to the public.
This second capsule is by far the more exciting. It was placed under the State House on July 4, 1795 by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, among others, to commemorate the impressive 20th anniversary of American independence. A rundown of the capsule and all of its contents is here, but we want to focus on one particular item in it: a “1652” pine tree shilling.
This humble coin was one of the first revolutionary acts to take place in English America, but merely one in a string of stands for independence made by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
In colonial America—from its beginnings in 1607 right up to independence—actual money was scarce. There were no mints in North America to mint coins. (Paper money as we know it did not exist.) In most colonies, there was either no metal to coin, or, as in Virginia, metal was available but the colonists did not have the wherewithal to mine it. Colonists had to rely on coins coming from England, usually via the Caribbean, where trade was strongest. Items called “Spanish dollars” were used most often as currency. These were not real coins produced in a mint. They were round slugs of silver with no markings that were quickly cut in New Spain so they could be sent to Spain and melted down for different purposes, from silverware to coins. But since these “cobs”, as they were called, were made of silver, they were hijacked in the Americas to be used as currency. As with all coins through human history, they were clipped: someone would trim the edges of the coins to make them slightly smaller, save the trimmings, and melt them down to make more coins for themselves. This meant that the value of the Spanish dollar was unreliable—one might weigh 3 ounces while another weighed 5. On top of that, counterfeiters would reproduce Spanish dollars by mixing silver and alloy. No one could be sure if their Spanish dollars were really worth what they were supposed to be worth. In New England, it was far more reliable to use wampum, which American Indians manufactured to strict standards of quality. Wampum was the most valuable currency in colonial America for many decades in the 1600s.
But Europeans still valued silver, too, and all that suspect Spanish silver coming into North America was causing enormous economic problems, so the MBC came up with a solution. In 1652, the General Court (Massachusetts’ elected legislature) ordered that the colony would begin producing its own silver coins. Here is part of that order:
…all persons what soever have liberty to bring in unto the mint house at Boston all bullion plate or Spanish Coin there to be melted & brought to the allay of sterling Silver by John Hull master of the said mint and his sworn officers, & by him to be Coined into 12d : 6d : & 3d pieces which shall be for form flat & square on the sides & stamped on the one side with N E & on the other side wth the figure XIId VId & IIId— according to the value of each piece, together with a privy mark—which shall be Appointed every three months by the Governor & known only to him & the sworn officers of the mint.
The denominations represented in Roman numerals in the order are threepeence, sixpence, and one shilling. The coins are known as “pine tree shillings” because they had an image of a pine tree on one side. Trees were a major export from the MBC, as the huge trees of North America made perfect masts for ships. All coins read 1652, to mark the year of the mint’s founding, which is why they are referred to today as “1652” shillings even if they were minted in 1662, 1673, etc.
The people of Massachusetts were willing to bring in their shifty Spanish dollars and bullion that had no practical use value to be melted down into MBC coins at the new mint. Indeed, they brought in silver bars, candlesticks, jewelry, and other items that were of no use to them and had likely been brought over with the emigrants from England for fear they might be stolen or lost track of by their agents and/or relatives.
The Boston shilling, as the coins came to be known, was enormously and immediately popular, and began circulating throughout North America, much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts government. The whole point of minting its own coins had been to keep silver money in Massachusetts to steady the economy. But the coins were flowing out of the MBC to other colonies, which meant that Massachusetts wealth (its people’s silver) was accruing in and enriching Virginia, New Amsterdam, and New France.
Its mint caused political problems for the MBC as well. Minting coins was something only a royal government had the authority to do. Colonists in America had absolutely no authority to mint coins—only the king of England could grant that. In 1652, of course, England had no king: Charles I had been executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, and the country was being governed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector. Remember how the pine tree shillings had an image of a pine tree on them? This was in place of an image of a king, which had always been on English coins. The establishment of a Puritan government in England led the Puritans in Massachusetts to believe that they had a good chance of getting away with establishing their own mint, and for eight years, they did. But when Charles II came to the throne in the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy (after Cromwell’s death and his son’s short stint in office) the renegade mint eventually came under attack from London. Charles II had no love for the Puritans who had executed his father, and he lent a friendly ear to those in his government who hated the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular as a hotbed of treason and independence. These royal agents visited Boston in 1665 to “review” its laws and statutes, and demanded that the General Court of the colony change 26 of them to fall in line with British law. One of the demands was to immediately stop production at the mint.
The MBC resisted, sending two “very large masts” to the royal navy as a gift in 1666 and another shipload of masts two years later. (Charles II’s government was of course very wrapped up in government at home after 11 years of the Protectorate and the religious upheaval the Restoration caused, so the efforts to bring Massachusetts to heel took a back seat to more pressing matters during this time.) More masts were delivered over the years and this sufficed to keep the mint running while colonial agents tried to win permanent and official royal approval, pleading the colony’s loyalty to the king. They argued that the coins only grew the colonial economy, which could only mean more goods and profits flooding into England at a time when the country’s finances were precarious. But that argument was used by the crown against the colonists: to recover from its depression, the English economy needed to control its coinage, and issue and enforce the use of one English currency throughout its dominions.
Boston kept its mint open despite the mounting problems it was facing. In 1675-6, the devastating civil war known as King Phillip’s War weakened the economy and destroyed political unity in New England. Bickering between New England colonies after the war, which included appeals to London for mediation, contributed to the crown’s decision to revoke Massachusetts’ charter in 1684. The colony was no longer politically independent. It had to accept a governor appointed by the king rather than voted by representatives of the people. The mint was closed. Massachusetts would continue to struggle for independence, and one of the ways it did so was to begin printing paper money in 1690. It was the first government known to have established a paper currency in the history of western civilization.
But that’s another story. We keep our eyes on the pine tree shilling. It’s clear why one was saved, and placed with great pomp and ceremony into the time capsule in 1795. The pine tree shilling represented an early strike for American independence. It represented the Puritan commitment to independent government, and the role of Massachusetts in opposing royal political interference and control. Pine tree shillings were prized by Americans who knew them. With the pine tree shilling found in the time capsule now on temporary display, more Americans can learn about them.
The plan is to return the capsule to the State House foundation with its original contents, and items from 2015. The pine tree shilling that is now seeing the light of day for the first time in 220 years will return to the darkness of history. But one day it will be unearthed again, and it seems that nothing we could add to that time capsule today will outweigh the importance of that small coin, and when it is unearthed again it will steal the show once more.