Counterfeiting for Freedom in Colonial America

tags: money, early American history, Counterfeiting

A notice in the Virginia Gazette from October 1752 announced the capture of four men in North Carolina accused of making their own doubloons, pistoles, pieces of eight, and half pistereens: a practice called coining. Despite the notice’s small size in the newspaper, coining could have quite large implications for the monetary regime and consequences for those who attempted it. Among the conspirators were Daniel Johnson (alias Dixon) “a Chymist, or Doctor,” Patrick Moore “a Taylor by Trade,” and William Jillet “a Blacksmith,” who had set up their forge in a swamp about thirty miles upriver from New Bern, the colony’s capital at the time. The coastal basin around New Bern featured meandering streams and low-lying swamps bisected by the free-flowing Neuse River that connected Pamlico Sound to points inland. A swampy area described on later maps as the Dover Swamp lay to the west along the river’s southern bank and was known to be difficult to navigate, muddy, and full of mosquitoes. Such an area offered the coiners a secluded place beyond state auspices to do the work of making and testing coins—including shaving and melting metal, applying corrosive mineral acids, and rubbing, biting, and polishing the coins—yet one still connected to riverine travel routes. 

Coining entailed producing metallic currency that would pass at face value despite lacking the full amount of silver or gold in favor of some combination of base metals such as copper, brass, or lead. “Bad Money,” as the sheriff called it. Coining differed from other eighteenth-century monetary crime, such as clipping or shaving, because it resulted in a new coin rather than altering a preexisting one. In this case, the coiners endeavored to make Spanish gold and silver coins in a range of values rather than any British silver coins. Given the scarcity of coin across the British North American colonies those pistoles and pesos would have been just as useful, if not more so, than any pounds or shillings. North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century experienced an acute specie shortage (meaning of both paper and metallic currency) adding further incentive and opportunity to pass bad money. Credit and barter systems helped facilitate trade in the absence of specie, but cash was still needed for some tasks including inter-imperial trade, settling debts, or paying taxes. In such cases, colonists lacking British coin relied on Spanish, Portuguese, French, and other foreign coin in addition to the paper legal tender issued by colonial governments. Perhaps the coiners set out to produce something familiar enough in the Spanish coins but not so familiar as shillings or pounds that might have been more easily identified as spurious. Either way, their enterprise offered the prospect of profiting from the variability, complexity, and scarcity of colonial currency. 

Depending on one’s relationship to the monetary regime, coining could either appear a heinous offense that threatened the ruling order by undermining public trust in its currency, or a creative solution to the shortage of specie across much of the Atlantic world. Capital statutes passed in England from the 1690s to 1742 made many monetary crimes, including coining, punishable by death. In 1749, only three years before Johnson was apprehended, the North Carolina Assembly enacted three statutes from England that classified coining and clipping as capital offenses. Previous punishments for counterfeiting, forging, altering, defacing, or knowingly passing counterfeit bills in the colony had included two hours in the pillory followed by having one’s ears cut off. At the same time, counterfeit coins became integral to day-to-day economic life, sometimes in blatant violation of British law following Parliamentary statues passed in 1751 and 1764 prohibiting further issues of legal tender paper money in the continental colonies.

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