Colonial American numismatic history, like much of Irish numismatic history is one of shortages – that led to emergency issues, imported coinages, counterfeiting and local trade tokens. Much of what circulated in Ireland at the time, also circulated in the original thirteen colonies. This new American economy, like Ireland’s, was constantly hampered by oppressive taxes, import/export duties, tariffs and other trade restrictions originating from Westminster but ‘policed’ by their in situ colonial administrators.
With the many ‘pulses’ of immigration from Ireland, came loose coins in their pockets and some, like Mark Newby, even had the skills to produce coins specifically for the rapidly developing American colonial economy. The following articles are about the Irish coins that found their way to America and became an accepted medium of exchange.
The earliest waves of Irish emigration date to the second half of the 17th century and the aftermath of the Cromwellian era – most were Catholics. While significant numbers went voluntarily to settle in the West Indies, even more were transported there as slaves.
- Not all Irish emigrants were forced to go and those who had the fare usually sailed from Cork or Kinsale and small settlements evolved in Virgina and Maryland.
- Maryland was particularly interesting because, despite the religious wars and political intrigues in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, Maryland was setup a religiously tolerant colony and was owned by the Catholic Calvert family – the hereditary Lords Baltimore.
- O’Brien Rare Coin Guide: The American Colonial Coins of Lord Baltimore (Maryland)
- In Ulster, Presbyterians (most of whom had Scottish ancestry) had also suffered discrimination in Ireland and they believed they would find tolerance, freedom and happiness in North America.
- O’Brien Coin Guide: The ‘Anonymous’ St Patrick’s Halfpennies
Up to 1720, when New England was the destination of choice for most, the flow of Irish emigrants was steady but numbers were not large. Numbers rose at the end of that decade and then dropped again.
- O’Brien Coin Guide: William Wood’s ‘Patent’ Irish Coinage (1722–1724) for George I
- Blog Post – Dean Swift & The Drapier Letters
- Blog Post – Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Royal Mint (1699-1727)
- A famine in the early 1740’s saw renewed interest in Atlantic passage, and Irish emigration never really subsided afterwards.
- In 1771-1773, more than 100 ships left the Ulster ports of Newry, Derry, Belfast, Portrush and Larne, carrying some 32,000 Irish immigrants to America.
- Meanwhile, a similar number set sail from Dublin, Cork and Waterford alone.
- By 1790, the USA’s Irish immigrant population numbered 447,000
- Two-thirds originated from Ulster
- O’Brien Coin Guide: The Irish-American ‘Voce Populi’ Token Coinage of 1760
There have been many books written about transportation to Australia as a punishment for criminal offences but a less well known fact is that from the early 1600’s until the American Revolution of 1776, the British colonies in North America also received ‘transported’ British and Irish criminals.
- In the 17th century transportation was carried out at the expense of the convicts or the shipowners.
- The first Transportation Act in 1718 allowed courts to sentence convicts to seven years’ transportation to America.
- In 1720, an extension authorised payments by the state to merchants contracted to take the convicts to America.
- Under the Transportation Act, returning from transportation was a capital offence.
- The number of convicts transported to North America is not verified although it has been estimated to be 50,000 by John Dunmore Lang and 120,000 by Thomas Keneally.
- Many prisoners were taken in battle from Ireland and Scotland and sold into indentured servitude, usually for a number of years
A common offence was ‘coining’ or forgery of coins of the realm and many people were transported for possessing forgeries, possessing ‘coining’ equipment/tools/materials, or for attempting to complete a transaction with forged coins or banknotes. The latter was a much more serious offence.
In an effort to eliminate the huge amount of private tokens and forged coins that were in circulation, several Acts were passed outlawing these activities. Penalties were severe and, provided the coin was not intended to ‘imitate’ or ‘copy’ a coin of the realm, the counterfeit laws did not apply. The counterfeiters began to produce coins that were sufficiently different in appearance so as to avoid the law, i.e. the so-called evasion halfpennies of the late 18th C.
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Irish Evasion Halfpennies (1770’s to the 1790’s)
As the laws began to be enforced, these unofficial tokens and evasion halfpennies made their way to the American Colonies where the shortage of copper coins allowed these ‘under weight’ imports to circulate.
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