The earliest authorized medium of exchange in the New England settlements was wampum. The General Court of Massachusetts in 1637 ordered “that wampamege should passe at 6 a penny for any sume under 12 d.” Wampum consisted of shells of various colors, ground to the size of kernels of corn. A hole was drilled through each piece so it could be strung on a leather thong for convenience and adornment.
Corn, pelts, and bullets were frequently used in lieu of coins, which were rarely available. Silver and gold coins brought over from England, Holland, and other countries tended to flow back across the Atlantic to purchase needed supplies. The colonists, thus left to their own resources, traded with the friendly Native Americans in kind. In 1661 the law making wampum legal tender was repealed.
Agitation for a standard coinage reached its height in 1651. England, recovering from a civil war between the Puritans and Royalists, ignored the colonists, who took matters into their own hands in 1652.
The Massachusetts General Court in 1652 ordered the first metallic currency—the New England silver threepence, sixpence, and shilling—to be struck in the English Americas (the Spaniards had established a mint in Mexico City in 1535). Silver bullion was procured principally from the West Indies. The mint was located in Boston, and John Hull was appointed mintmaster; his assistant was Robert Sanderson (or Saunderson). At first, Hull received as compensation one shilling threepence for every 20 shillings coined. This fee was adjusted several times during his term as mintmaster.
The simplicity of the designs on the NE coins invited counterfeiting and clipping of the edges. Therefore, they were soon replaced by the Willow, Oak, and Pine Tree series. The Willow Tree coins were struck from 1653 to 1660, the Oak Trees from 1660 to 1667, and the Pine Trees from 1667 to 1682. All of them (with the exception of the Oak Tree twopence) bore the date 1652, which gives them the appearance of having been struck when Cromwell was in power, after the English civil war. The coinage was abandoned in 1682; a proposal to renew coinage in 1686 was rejected by the General Court.
These pieces, like all early American coins, were produced from handmade dies that are often individually distinctive. The great number of die varieties that can be found and identified are of interest to collectors who value each according to individual rarity. Values shown for type coins in this guide are for the most common die variety.
The first Pine Tree coins were minted on the same size planchets as the Oak Tree pieces. Subsequent issues of the shilling were narrower and thicker to conform to the style of English coins. Large Planchet shillings ranged from 27 to 31 mm in diameter; Small Planchet shillings ranged from 22 to 26 mm in diameter.