The earliest American money was that used by the Mound Builders and Indians. The Mound Builders used money made of lignite, coal, bone, shell, terra cotta, mica, pearl, carnelian, chalcedony, agate, jasper, native gold, silver, copper, lead and iron. Some of these pieces were of workmanship superior to that shown by the Indians subsequent to the time of the builders of mounds. These pieces were usually round and bore sometimes curious dots, circles, squares, crosses, etc., with cabalistic or hidden meanings. Some of these marks correspond to a startling degree with those on relics of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and people of later times. Frank C. Higgins, the well known expert on ancient symbols, has discovered remarkable instances of similarity between these rude markings and many found in the monuments, scarabs, tablets, cylinders, pottery and other implements of the ancients, together with satisfactory explanations. The similarities are so many that there is little doubt that certain sell defined religious and other customs of these mound builders were disseminated throughout the world. These beliefs and teachings were at times betrayed by these curious diagrams, squares, circles and dots. Dickeson himself says (Page 37, Aboriginal Coins) that "They often present a striking analogy, in form and design, to the ancient Egyptian, agreeing in shape and ornament with the Egyptian and Etruscan relics-exhumed from their sepulchral homes." These early coins were frequently found on opening small oblong oval mounds in the Mississippi Valley. The first specimens of this kind were found in a small mound in Vidalia, Concordia Parish, La., in 1844. They consisted of 43 small pieces, round and flat, of lignite, coal, shell and jasper. With them was found a large male skeleton. They were about an inch in diameter and several bore dots, other horizontal dashes extending almost the entire length. It was supposed the mound was of the Tensaw tribe of Indians. A great number of these coins were found about 1864 in a small mound on the border of the Miami River in Ohio, the largest coin being perforated with sixteen holes, and the others were indented with from five to eight parallel lines. Other objects were found, with figures of the Sun, diamond shaped or ornamental design.
The bone money was made from the tusks and ribs of the "mastodon gigantum," the enameled portion of the teeth of the alligator, and from the bones of the car and cat-fish. Great quantities of the latter have been unearthed. In the Grave Creek mound, near Wheeling, W. Va., six hundred and fifty pieces made of ivory, resembling button moles, were found with skeletons.
The ancient shell money is found in almost every mound. The coins were made from small spiral shells, the fresh water clam and even the conch shell. Some of these were as large as two and a half inches in diameter.
Also there was a terra-cotta coin, a round piece of clay tempered with bone, and also with ferruginous matter. The composition was found to be: silex, 51, aluminun, 19, lime, 19 and iron, 21 parts. Mr. Elder has at present a fine collection, exhumed from the Rembertis mound, which was recently washed away from its location on the Savannah River, in Elbert County, Georgia. This was the last of the noted mounds which stood close together on the Savannah River. Some of these pieces, which are usually of disc shape, bear curious markings, These markings occur also on the bricks and stones found in Central America and upon the dressed skins of the present Indians, thus establishing a connection between the Aborigines of the Isthmus and those of the early inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley. A human hand shown on one of these coins suggests the early Roman quadrans, which bore a hand.
Stone money occurs frequently in these mounds. They vary in material from jasper to common slate or sand-stone. These occasionally bore curious markings, the design of the sun, etc., giving some little glimpse into their religion. Other marks evidently referred to the Deity. I note on one the correct portrayal of the Egyptian Key of Life. The crinoid, or fossil lily was occasionally utilized. The gold money is interesting. Specimens have been found in Louisiana and Mississippi. Dr. Dickeson opened a mound in 1845, at Fort Rosalie, near Natchez, Miss. Another of very fine gold was found in Ross County, Ohio, lying in the palm of the hand of a skeleton. Another, marked piece, was found in Perry County, Ohio, in 1846, which bore two rude figures, a man and a bird, and four foot-prints of the latter. Both faces of the piece were alike. The silver money was similar to the gold, and many bore similar curious devices. The copper money was often inscribed also. Sixty pieces of it were found in the Grave Creek Mound. In addition, rings of copper have been found which curiously resemble the early ring money of Great Britain.
Wampum, a bead made from the clam, periwinkle, conch and other shells, has been used ever since the time of Columbus, and is still used by some of the American Indian tribes. The early Dutch, French and British colonists used and manufactured it in their dealings with the Indians, from whom they first received it.
It was easy for the early white traders to adopt this crude form of money for exchange, because coined money, was then very scarce in America. Hides, tobacco, grain, wampum, powder, fish, and even lead rifle bullets were for a time used by them for exchange mediums. Even the court of Massachusetts ruled in 1637 that "Wampum should pass at six for a penny for any sum under 12 D (Pence)." The same court in 1640 ordered that "White wampum shall pass at four a penny and blue at two a penny, and not above 12 D at at time except the receiver desire more." This law was repealed in 1661. The first money made by these settlers was in 1634 when the court passed that "It is ordered that muskett bullets of full boare shall passe currently for a farthing apiece, provided that noe man shall be compelled to take above 12 D at a tyme in them." Wampum had several names. The Dutch called it "Seawant" and "Zewant", the French, "Porcelaine", and the Indians "Sewan." The writer has seen a quantity of various sized white porcelain beads, with a few scattering red beads, which were unearthed from California mounds. These were evidently of very early French origin, and may have had some bearing on the above French name, "Porcelaine." Wampum was not easy of manufacture, hence the Indian who was able to go to the sea-shore to find his conch and periwinkle shells and who worked tediously with them until they were of the required size and shape, well earned the small value at which they passed for barter.
The early Indians accepted the white man's wampum, and doubtless many a New York family's fortune was assured through the acquisition of valuable pelts and other property, for which wampum was given. It is easy to imagine how such as the Hudson Bay Trading Company got its foundation.
The powerful Indian chiefs wore belts or strings of wampum. Every important treaty was sealed by exchange of wampum belts or strings. Sometimes these belts bore devices picturing the treaty in hand. It was the guarantee of the good faith of a transaction. There was a great variety of this wampum. Each section of the country, each nation of Indians had its peculiar wampum. The early wampum of the Five Nations was sometimes very small, some of it was polished to a brilliant surface. Of the early New Jersey and New York wampum, or Dutch Wampum, the purple colored was the most valuable, and it is still the rarest of the Eastern wampum. The Dutch wampum was made of the Sea-conch and the Mussel shells, the latter being used for the purple wampum. This wampum was polished and of perfectly rounded design.
The white man's wampum was the best made, as he had more improved tools than the Indian to manufacture it with. The great labor and patience required by the Indian to make his wampum accounts for the fact that no Indian is known to have become rich through the making of it. The shells used in Carolina came from the coast and were of unusual hardness. After all, how similarly died the Egyptian, the Greek, the Roman and the Indian. The objects used by them in life were buried with the Egyptians to do the work of the departed in the next world. Ten thousand of these little statuettes were found buried with an Egyptian of influence. The poor Indian evidently did not believe that all things were free for his use in the "Happy Hunting Grounds," and buried his wampum with him.
In 1641 the New York Colony declared that "all coarse wampum, well strung, should pass six for a stuyver, and the well polished beads should be valued at four for a stuyver." Even wampum was counterfeited, and the Colonial Governor of New Amsterdam took measures to stop this. The Plains Indians used pipe wampum, or beads of unusually great length. The Navajo used mostly round circular wampum beads of various colors, also there is a very valuable and rare turquoise bead wampum, of which the writer has seen three strings. These were of New Mexico and Arizona Indian workmanship, and of the unusual size and shape used by the Navajos, viz. small and circular. This was strung on thong and in this type we have the most valuable of all the Indian money. Coarse wampum was used by the natives of Africa, Japan and Mexico. Cowrie shells were frequently used by the African natives and Chinese, as well as by the American Indian tribes. The Africans also had a species of heavy iron and bronze money. This formed almost a complete circle, but was pounded or flattened at the ends. This ring money was made in four or five sizes, but usually of the same shape.
An important fact which must not be lost sight of is that many coins were struck in America, or rather, in mexico, over a hundred years before they were coined in what is now the United States. As early as 1535 Charles & Joanna, son and mother, ruling in Mexico, struck silver to the values of One Half, One, Two, and Four Reals. These bore two pillars, arms and their names. Philip II, III and IV also struck silver for Mexico up the the value of Eight reals, before the Massachusetts silver was issued. Charles and Joanna also issued copper coins of the values of One Fourth and One Sixteenth Reals. These bore crowned initials on opposite sides, and names. The coppers were of very crude workmanship.
The coinage for Bermuda, or Sommer Islands, was doubtless the first struck for the English Colonies in America. These Islands have no political connection with the United States. They were settled in 1612 by the Virginia Company. These coins consisted of five varieties, all with the same general types of a Hog, "Sommer hands", with reverse type of a ship; and the denominations were II, III, IV, VI, and XII Pence, or shilling. The two pence and groat seem to have been of comparatively recent discovery, as Mr. Crosby only knew of two shillings and one six pence at the time of the issue of his great work on the "Early Coins of America." The writer has had in recent years at least a half a dozen shillings and three six pences, but no groats or two pences, and the latter must be considered of extreme rarity.
The earliest money of the New England, or Massachusetts series, was the "N.E." type. These pieces consisted of three denominations, viz. III, VI and XII Pences, bearing NE on obverse and the values on reverse, on plain flans, sunk or incuse. These were coined in 1652. In the same year followed the noted coins bearing the Willow, Oak and Pine Trees. These read: MASATHUSETS IN NEW ENGLAND AN. DOM. with values and date. They were issued in four denominations, II, III, VI and XII Pence. In 1683 the Massachusetts Mint was closed by order of the Crown. It is understood that most of this money was coined from Spanish silver. The next issue of silver coins was that of the Lord Baltimore Colony in Maryland in 1658. This series bore the bust of Lord Baltimore and a coronet, and was issued in denominations of shilling, six pence, four pence and a small copper coin, known as the "Penny", of which only one specimen is known to exist. Lord Baltimore had hardly started to coin this money when the British government suppressed it.
After these uncessful efforts to establish an American Coinage, Spanish-American silver was legalized at prescribed rates in terms of the shilling, and this together with the copper tokens, struck chiefly by speculators, formed the currency of the Colonies until after they became independent. One of these speculators was William Wood, who through the influence of a female friend of George I, obtained a patent to make brass and copper money, known as the "Rosa Americana" and "Woods" money. The Irish people repudiated the Irish issue and they were sent to America for circulation. The "Rosa Americana" coins bore the bust of George I. and a Rose crowned and uncrowned; the Irish pieces bore the head of George I. with "Hibernia" seated on the reverse. The prospect of the enormous profits which Wood was certain to secure at the expense of the Irish and Americans, prompted the Government to induce Wood to surrender his grant in lieu of a pension of three thousand pounds per year.