Thursday, June 30, 2016

6/30/16 Report - Counterfeiting In Colonial America and Implications For Spanish Colonial Cobs.

Written by the TreasureGuide for the exclusive use of

I found some good information on counterfeiting in colonial America the other day.  There was a
ton of good information, including some good hints for detectorists.

First, here is a quote from an article entitled entitled The Golden Age of Counterfeiting that was published in the Summer 2007 Colonial Williamsburg Newsletter.  In the early eighteenth century, counterfeiting in America entered a kind of golden age that would last for roughly a hundred and fifty years. And these were high-stake years, because phony money threatened to weaken confidence in the finances of the young nation. Without trust in the dollar, there could be no commerce; without commerce, there could be no country. The history of America's money is largely a history of the struggle to keep a step ahead of the forgers.

In the same article, author Jack Lynch says the following.

A common practice was to clip or shave small amounts of silver or gold from each coin and to accumulate enough shavings to sell them as bullion. Coin clipping prompted monetary crises across Europe and its colonies, forcing people to rethink the notion of value. A shilling coin, for example, was supposed to contain one shilling's worth of silver—but, as the coins passed through one unscrupulous hand after another, more and more metal was trimmed, and the difference between intrinsic values and face values grew ever wider. In 1662, therefore, England began using machines to give coins milled edges, like the ridges that appear on modern dimes and quarters, which make it easier to spot clipped coins. But the older pieces remained in circulation until the end of the century, and they continued to be clipped. According to one estimate, by 1695, clippers had reduced the old handmade coins to about half of their original weight, the rest of the gold and silver circulating in an underground economy. It took a systematic revaluation of the currency, with all the old hand-minted coins removed from circulation, to solve the problem.

Half of their original weight!  

When clipping became more difficult, counterfeiters turned to making their own coins.   

Paper money was new and confusing to many colonists.  As a result it was easy to pass doctored bills.

Here is the link to that article.

What really got me started on this topic today was an interesting book that I found online.  You can read part of it free.  It is full of information that I think any detectorist would find interesting.

The book I am talking about is Counterfeiting in Colonial America by Kenneth Scott.  Much of the counterfeiting described had to do with paper currency, but there were also individuals who modified coins or made their own coinage.  I learned that the British made counterfeit currency to cause problems for the colonial economy during the revolution.  I'm sure that we could do better in the war on terror if we'd use more diverse techniques.

On a side note, it seems the wife of the Orlando shooter who attended the Islamic Center in Fort Pierce has disappeared.  It was easy to see that coming.  The father of the shooter as much as said it was going to take place.  I personally don't think the administration wants her to be found.  My bet is that they don't want to put her through any investigation that might become public, and they want the whole thing to be forgotten as quickly as possible.

Here is an interesting excerpt from the Kenneth Scott book.

Fake coins, usually Spanish and Portuguese gold and silver, were those most generally imitated. Much of the the work was careless, as when milled pieces of eight, dated 1754 were struck with the name PHILIP instead of FERDINAND on them, or when the pieces were too light or rang false or showed quicksilver oozing out of them or would shatter when thrown on the ground or showed the marks of filing to remove the nob left where the metal had been poured into the mold.  On the other hand, the public was defenseless against such masterpieces as the doubloons which were circulating in and about Philadelpia in 1748 and 1749.  

One merchant, Christopher Sauer, had such a coin examined by three goldsmiths before it was finally discovered that the coin was only one-half gold.  Christopher wondered, If, then, goldsmiths cannot differentiate the coins by their appearance, how is the farmer, who has, indeed, had little gold in his hands, to recognize them?

Counterfeiting was a real problem.  It was a crime that often went unpunished.

Here is another excerpt from the same book.

It is quite possible that Smith was actually guilty of clipping, but it was extremely difficult to prove the crime as his case shows.  Suspicion again fell upon him, for at a session of the court held in Burlington in August 1701, Thomas South testified before the grand jury that in November 1700, Elizabeth Hill, who was making the bed in a chamber upstairs, called to him to come up to her.  He did so and, on looking in her father's closet, among other assorted items found a coffee dish containing clippings of coin to the value of ten or twelve shillings...

When it was punished it was often punished in what we might consider a cruel way, such as loss of a finger or ear or lashes on the back.  Here is an example from the Scott book.

If you want to go directly to the Scott book, click here.

You might also want to browse old issues of the American Numismatic Society Newsletter.  For example, I found the following report of a mid 1700s event described in an 1882 issue of the American Numismatic Society Newsletter.  (Read Goal as jail.) 

I never appreciated how prevalent and how important counterfeiting was in colonial America.  If you read through this type of material you'll read about counterfeiters trying to get rid of the evidence.  I also read about printing plates being hid in walls and in wells.  And who knows where all the clippings went or where the counterfeits were discarded, concealed or lost.

Realizing how prevalent counterfeiting was, old counterfeits might show up at any time.

It makes you think about how prevalent counterfeiting must have been in Spanish Colonial areas. There must be more contemporary counterfeits than we realize.  The presumption that we can always recognize them could be a mistake.   Although we know that some cobs were minted underweight, I wonder how many were clipped or shaved.

I especially wonder about salvage sites, where I would not be surprised if there was a lot of opportunistic shaving or clipping as well as outright theft.

I've entertained the idea that something else might have been going on at the salvage beaches.  I won't say exactly what yet.  I hope to gain more evidence before posing my theory.


No change in beach conditions or tropical weather.

Happy hunting,