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    Spanish Silver: General Introduction

    For centuries Spanish silver coinage was famous throughout the world as the standard by which other coinages were measured, due to its consistent weight and purity. The ascendancy of Spanish coinage dates from 1537 when Charles I, revising an act of 1479, promulgated exacting standards for Spanish silver and gold coins. The Spanish eight reales coin was set at a weight of 423.9 grains (27.47 grams) of .9305 fine silver. From that date the coin only depreciated some 4.4% over the next 250 years! In addition to its stability, Spanish coinage was abundant. Spanish regulated coinage was not only minted throughout Spain but was also produced in Spain's colonial possessions. As early as 1536, a year before the coinage reform, Spanish colonial silver coins were minted in Mexico City. With the discovery of major silver and gold deposits throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru (which included all of Spanish South America from what is now Panama down to Venezuela) major mints were opened in Lima, Peru (1568-1589 then reopened in 1684), Potosí, Bolivia (from 1575) and Santa Fe de Bogotá, Columbia (from 1620). Later, additional mints were located in Guatemala City (from 1733), Santiago, Chile (from 1750), and Popayan, Columbia (from 1758). From these locations, and to a lesser extent from Spain, a number of coins made their way into the English colonies.

    The First New World Mint

    It is well known that in 1492 Columbus laid claim to the New World for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Upon the death of Ferdinand in 1516 the combined territories of Leon and Castile were inherited by their grandson, Charles I of Spain. In 1520 Charles also took the title of the Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. Charles was the son of Johanna (Juana la Loca), who was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and Philip the Handsome, Duke of Burgandy. Charles ruled Spain along with his mother Johanna, who died 1556. On January 16, 1656 Charles gave up the throne and retired to monastery of Yuste. It was during the reign of Charles and his mother Johanna (1518-1558) that the first colonial silver was minted in the New World.

    As Mexico City grew there was an ever pressing demand to increase the quantity of coinage available to expedite commerce. In fact, as early as 1525 the Spanish crown received petitions requesting the opening of a mint in the New World possessions. However, little progress was made until 1535, with the appointment of Antonio de Mendoza as the first viceroy in the Americas. When Mendoza arrived in Mexico City on November 14, 1535, one of several royal decrees he carried with him was a document signed by the queen on May 11, 1535, authorizing the establishment of a mint. The mint was soon established in Mexico City in the back of the confiscated palace of the famous conquistador Hernando Cortes, where it remained until at least 1547. Although the documents are silent, the mint probably continued to occupy that space until 1562 when the government purchased a large building in the central square for royal offices. The building, now known as the National Palace, became the new location of the mint.

    The mint operated as a contract service for merchants who needed coinage. To pay for the operation several fees were collected from each person requesting coinage from the mint. What would happen is that a merchant would come to the mint and purchase silver bars at the foundry. One could also bring personally owned silver for refining. However, a fee of two reales was charged to assay each ten marks of silver (there were 67 reales to the mark), to determine if it was the proper fineness. If the silver was not pure enough a further fee was charged to take out impurities. Once the silver had been accepted the merchant was then required to pay fees of two reales (that is, 68 maravedíes) for each mark of silver they wanted turned into coins. Fees went to the treasurer (22 maravedíes), the assayer (5 maravedíes), the die sinker (5 maravedíes), the scribe or secretary (1 maravedí), for two guards (a total of 2 maravedíes), the weigh master (1 maravedí), the coiners (8 maravedíes), the foremen (24 maravedíes) and for overhead (4 maravedíes). The silver was then taken to the an area where it would be rolled into strips. Again the silver was assayed (the 5 maravedíes assay charge mentioned above) and then cut into round planchets. The planchets were then weighed to insure they were on average the correct weight. After an annealing process the planchets were placed between two dies and hammer struck to produce a coin.

    A great deal is known about the early Mexican mint because of royal investigations. In 1540 Cortes returned to Spain and brought charges against the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza who, as we have seen, confiscated his palace. As a result of the charges in November of 1543 Francisco Tello de Sandoval, a member of the Council of the Indies and Inquisitor for Toledo, was sent to Mexico to investigate all of the royal offices. During this four year investigation (lasting 1544-1547) Sandoval inspected the royal mint from May 27 through July 15, 1545 and produced a 78 page report that still survives detailing the workings of the mint. In the end all charges against Mendoza were dismissed.

    Following Spanish tradition appointments to royal positions, including mint positions such as treasurer and assayer, were doled out by the king to the highest bidder or political favorites in Spain. These individuals usually made some arrangement with others to perform the job. For example, in 1545 the Bishop of Lugo in Spain was the official secretary of the mint, but he contracted a "lease" agreement with Pero Sánchez de la Fuente in Mexico whereby for a certain period Sánchez would perform the duties for one third of the fee and the bishop would keep two-thirds. Sometimes more that one person would simultaneously share a "lease."

    For the modern numismatist this situation is particularly frustrating for the office of assayer, as the assayer put their initial on the coins. A neat chronology of assayers would assist in producing an emission sequence for these undated first silver coins. However, the situation of Juan Gutiérrez demonstrates the difficulties. According to his testimony in 1545 Gutiérrez stated he had been at the mint since 1539. No document survives before the January 17, 1543 when Pedro de la Membrilla leased him the office of assayer for a period of two years. At the time Francisco del Rincón, who had been the first person to lease the assayer position, was still in office and in fact secured a new lease on March 21, 1543. Thus, there were clearly at least two assayers at that time. Soon thereafter, on April 22, 1544, Gutiérrez purchased the assayer position for an indefinite period (probably for life). Rincón's term was ended by a lawsuit on January 7, 1545. During the period of the Charles and Johanna silver at least six other individuals held the position of assayer, some for only very brief period, possibly along with or maybe in place of (or under the contract of) Gutiérrez. All surviving documents signed by Gutiérrez date between January 1543 and March 1545. Thus G signed coins may be as early as 1539, they were certainly produced 1543-1545, and may also have been produced at any point up to the end of the series in 1572.

    Copper maravedíes were first struck in the New World at the mint in Mexico in 1542 by order of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. On December 20, 1505, before the Mexican mint opened, Ferdinand I authorized maravedíes for the island of Santo Domingo. This decree was reaffirmed by Johanna on May 10, 1531. However these coppers were produced in Spain at Seville and possibly at Burgos (there was no mint at Santo Domingo). The Santo Domingo coppers were the first coppers made for the New World colonies but the Mexican coppers were the first coppers actually minted in the New World (Nesmith pp. 40 and 127-128).

    Spanish colonial coinage in the English colonies

    The importance of Spanish money in the colonies cannot be overstated. It has been estimated that half of the coins in colonial America were Spanish reales. They were used not only as coinage but also treated as a commodity, as one would use silver or gold bars. In 1645 Virginia made the Spanish real the standard currency. In fact, the first coinage authorized by an English Royal patent for the colonies, the American Plantations token, minted at the Tower of London, stated its value on the obverse of the coin not in English currency but as 1/24th of a Spanish real.

    As discussed in the introduction to Massachusetts silver, in 1711, the English ship H.M.S. Feversham requesitioned £569 12s5d in money from the British Treasury Office in New York City before sailing to assist a British fleet for an attack on Quebec. On its way north the ship sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. In 1984 the ship was found and salvaged. Among the items on board were £33 13s in coins, presumably the portion of the allocation obtained in New York. This hoard contained 8 English coins, 22 Dutch coins, 126 pieces of Massachusetts silver, 5 coins from Spain and 504 New World Spanish coins. There is no doubt that even during the period when the Dutch were importing their "Lion Dollars" into New York and most successful local silver coins in the colonies, the Massachusetts Pine Tree series, were still in circulation, the most abundant coinage by far was the silver from colonial Spain.

    In addition to coin hoards there is an abundance of recorded information on Spanish colonial coinage in the English colonies. In 1750 Massachusetts paper currency was redeemed in Spanish silver coin, including many pistareens that had arrived the previous year from England on the ship Mermaid. The ship had delivered 207 chests of milled Spanish pistareens and eight chests of pillar two reales, which the invoice called "pillar pistereens," along with many British coppers in payment for the colonists' help against the French during the Louisbourg Expedition in the French and Indian Wars [see, John Sallay in The Colonial Newsletter,  15 (1976) 519-531]. Maryland colonial paper currency issues from 1767-80 were not only backed by Spanish milled coinage but were also denominated in Spanish dollars rather than English pounds, with the $1 and $2 notes of the emissions of Jan. 1, 1767; March 1, 1770, and April 10, 1774, depicting the Spanish milled dollar on the obverse of the note (see our March 1770 examples). In fact, most paper currency issues from the mid 1770's, including those of the Continental Congress, were made equivalent to and denominated in Spanish dollars.

    As noted above, through the mid Eighteenth century cob coinage continued to be produced throughout the Viceroyalty of Peru, with the final cobs being produced at the Potosí mint in Bolivia in 1773. During this era the English colonists called all cob coinage "Peruvians" and treated them as inferior products. Rather, the colonists avidly sought the "milled" or "pillar dollar" as they called the new eight reales. They referred to smaller denomination coins as "bits" thus the one, two and four reales were the one, two and four bit coins, with the half real called a half bit or a "picayune." Often the term "bit" was also a graphic description, for the eight reales, or smaller denomination coins, would actually be sawed into halves, quarters or eighths, into actual bits, to make small change. For an interesting discussion of Spanish coins and bits found in Virginia see the Kays article cited in the bibliography.

    Spanish coinage, both cobs and milled products, were treated in a similar fashion throughout the British West Indies. Several islands such as Jamaica, Barbados, Greneda and Montserrat both cut and counterstamped these coins with local marks as a way of producing a regional coinage. Through trade, some of these island counterstamped Spanish pieces made their way into circulation in colonial America.

    Spanish dollars were made legal tender in the United States by an Act of February 9, 1793, and were not demonetized until February 21, 1857. Testaments to the importance of these coins continue in that "two bits," "pieces of eight" and "picayune" have become part of the American vocabulary. Also, it is interesting to observe that when the New York Stock Exchange opened in 1792 rates were reported in terms of New York shillings which were valued at eight to the Spanish milled dollar, hence changes were reported in eighths. Amazingly, over two hundred years after adoption of the decimal system, stock and security price variations are still reported in eighths!

    The value of Spanish colonial coinage in the English colonies

    In the American colonies the value of Spanish silver and other foreign coins was expressed in colonial shillings. These were not British sterling shillings but rather monies of account legislated by each colony. Thus the value of these shillings of account was not the same in every colony; these values also fluctuated over time within each colony. For example, in Massachusetts the value of the Spanish dollar, for the most part, continually rose. From the founding of Massachusetts Bay in 1630 the Spanish dollar traded at 54d (4s6d), which was on par with sterling (in parity with Britain). On June 14, 1642 Massachusetts Bay increased the value of the Spanish dollar by 3% to 56d (4s8d), then three months later, on September 27th, the value was raised further to 60d (5s) or 11% above the British rate. By 1672 Massachusetts valued the Spanish dollar at 6s (72d) or 33% above par. In 1682 it declined to 66d (5s6d) or 22.25% above par (which was equal to the value above parity for the silver from the Boston mint) but by November 24, 1692 it was revalued to 72d (6s). In actual trade Spanish American silver would sometimes go for higher than the legislated value, according to Mossman (table 6 on pp. 62-63) in 1705 the Spanish American dollar was recoded as trading in New England at just under 7s (84d, it was at 83.6d) or 55% above par. Thereafter, until mid century, the trading value of Spanish silver increased greatly throughout New England due to extraordinary inflation. In New York the value of the Spanish dollar had increased from 66s (5s6d) in 1640 to 96d (8s) by 1709. Around 1700 New Jersey was at similar to New York at the 96d (8s) rate while in Pennsylvania the rate fluctuated between 90d to 72d (7s6d to 6s). Maryland vacillated between at rate of 72d (7s6d) similar to Pennsylvania and a rate of 54d (4s6d) on par with Britain and similar to Virginia. During the start of the Eighteenth century in Virginia the Spanish dollar went for about 65d (5s5d) rising to 72d (7s6d) by 1750. In the Carolinas, which did not separate until 1712 the rate was about 81d (6s9d). In Georgia, which did not incorporate until 1754, the Spanish dollars traded at the British rate of 54d (4s6d) from about 1740 until the 1760s. For additional information see the explanatory essays on "The Value of Foreign Coins in the Colonies" and the "The Assay of 1702" in our Colonial Currency site, accesable through the button at the bottom of this page.

    Several assays at the London mint (1651, 1704, 1717) determined the Spanish dollar was valued at 54d (4s6d) sterling. To assist British merchants Queen Anne issued a proclamation in 1704 limiting the increase in the colonial value of the Spanish dollar to 33.33% over sterling or 72d (6s). Although not followed at first, this became known as the "Lawful money" rate. After 1750 this became the standard rate in New England, while Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland used a 66.66% increase over sterling, valuing the dollar at 90d (7s6d). New York adopted a rate of 96d (8s), which was 78% over sterling. In Virginia the dollar was at 86d (7s2d) in 1764, while during the same year in Georgia the dollar was valued at 60d (5s). In North Carolina after 1750 the value appears to be about 96d (8s) as in New York, while in South Carolina the dollar was valued in the range of 382d to 390d (31s10d to 32s6d). In the year 1775 the value of a Spanish milled dollar in local monies of account were as follows: SC 390d, NY 96d, NJ and MD 90d, PA and DE 86d, New England 72d, VA 67d and GA 59d (the rate in NC is not know for 1775 but it was 96d in 1783). A table showing the changing values of the Spanish dollar over time in the different colonies is available in Mossman, pp. 62-63 and p. 57 for the various values of small change Spanish silver.

    The values of smaller sized Spanish coins are give below for the three most common exchange rates:

    Rate Half Bit One Bit Two Bits Four Bits
    72d (6s) 4.5d 9d 18d (1s6d) 36d (3s)
    90d (7s6d) 5.6d 11.25d 22.5d (1s10.5d) 45d (3s9d)
    96d (8s) 6d 12d (1s) 24d (2s) 48d (4s)

    See Mossman, p. 57 for a chart of the various values of small change Spanish silver with local names for the various coins.

    The pistareen and "new plate" coins from Spain

    Along with Spanish colonial reales some Spanish coins minted in Spain circulated in the English colonies. The coins minted in Spain were referred to as "new plate" since they were 20% lighter than Spanish colonial coins. This debasement was first authorized by a decree of Philip IV on December 23, 1642 in an attempt to raise funds to pay for military expeditions associated with the Thirty Years War and to put down revolts in Catalonia and Portugal. The debased "new plate" coinage was called the "plata provincial" (provincial silver), ostensibly only for use within Spain, while the Spanish American coinage was referred to as the "plata nacional" (national silver). Spanish American silver continued to be minted at full weight due to the Spanish tax called the "Quinto" or the King's Fifth. The Spanish king took a fifth of all colonial gold and silver as his personal share. By making colonial coins 20% heavier than similarly denominated coins produced in Spain, all colonial silver imported into Spain would automatically have the King's "Quinto" added to it. The debased "new plate" coinage was originally meant to stay in Spain but over time as more and more full weight New World silver coins were shipped to Spain the debased Spanish coinage was exported from Spain for use in the New World.

    Within the New World one Iberian Spanish coin was especially widely used, namely the debased silver Spanish two reales known in the English colonies as a "pistareen." Unlike the milled two reales (of the pillar and modified pillar series), this coin had an unstable value depending on its purity and weight (it varied from 84 to 96 grains with a fineness between .8125 and .842). In the British colonies the "lawful money" value of a Spanish colonial two reales was 1s6d so that a total of four of the two reales coins would equal six shillings (the value of an eight reales coin). However, the Spanish "pistareen" had a "Lawful money" value of 1s3d so that it took a total of five of the two reales pistareens to equal six shillings (actually 6s3d). Thus while four colonial two reales regularly traded for an eight reales coin, in practice it took five two reales pistareens to equal an eight reales coin.

    Fortunately, the English colonists could readily identify the Spanish "new plate" silver like the pistareen from the Spanish colonial pillar silver. The "new plate" silver had the crowned heraldic Hapsburg shield on the obverse while on the reverse was a cross with the Castile and Leon shield, thus these coins were known as the "cross" reales (and cross pistareens). In 1772 the design on "new plate" coins changed to an obverse with a portrait of the ruler and a reverse with the crowned Hapsburg shield (minted 1772-1851), these coins were known as a "head" reales (and head pistareens). Unlike the new world reales these coins were not given legal tender status in 1793, nevertheless "new plate" coins, especially the pistareen, circulated in the United States into the early 1830's. Although not official coinage, these pieces filled a need specifically because of their inferior quality. Unlike milled coinage they were not hoarded by bullion speculators nor was it profitable to use them for export, hence they remained in circulation. The pistareen circulated in colonial Latin America, throughout the West Indies, Florida, New Orleans, and in Canada as well as in the British colonies. It was especially prominent in the southern colonies, where cut pistareens took the place of coppers. John Kleeberg has noted the Virginia paper currency emission of July 17, 1775 was denominated in colonial shillings but issued in denominations that were multiples of the pistareen, namely notes of 1, 2,4, 6, 8, 10, 16 32 and 64 pistareens (1s3d, 2s6d, 5s, 7s6d, 10s, 12s6d, 20s, £2 and £3), with the 1s3d note actually designated in the upper margin as "a pistareen." Kleeberg noted the prevalence of the pistareen in the southern colonies and in the West Indies as opposed to its more limited use in the northern colonies from which he made the astute observation:

    The South preferred Spanish silver, whole and cut, for its small change; the North used coppers. The South's monetary system resembled that of the Carribean sugar islands, which also had a slave plantation economy; the North's monetary system resembled that of the free economies of Britain, Iteland, and Canada.       (Kleeberg, The Colonial Newsletter, Dec. 1998, p. 1868)


    See: William L. Bischoff, ed. The Coinage of El Perú ,   Proceedings of the Coinage of the Americas Conference, no. 5 (held October 29-30, 1988), New York: American Numismatic Society, 1989 containing several specialized articles and Craig Freeman, "Coinage of the Viceroyalty of El Perú - an Overview" on pp. 1-20; Theodore V. Buttrey, Jr., ed. Coinage of the Americas, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1973, this is the first conference that led to a continuing series, see especially pp. 7-29 Humberto Burzio on Spanish colonial coins and pp. 77-90 by Ray Byrne and Hillel Kaslove on the West Indies cut and counterstamped Spanish coinage; Thomas A. Kays, "More Observations by a Relic Hunter," The Colonial Newsletter 36 (September 1996, serial no. 103), 1637-45; John M. Kleeberg, "A Coin Perfectly Familiar to Us All: The Role of the Pistareen," The Colonial Newsletter 38 (December 1998, serial no. 109), 1857-77 (followed by a reprint of a story originally published in Philadelphia in 1837 called "The Four Pistareens or Honosty is the Best Policy" on pp. 1879-86); Chester Krause and Clifford Mishler. Standard Catalog of World Coins ,  Edited by Colin R. Bruce II. 2 vols. Iola, Wis.: Krause, 1991; Mossman, pp. 54-63; Robert Nesmith, The Coinage of the First Mint of the Americas at Mexico City, 1536-1572,  Numismatic Notes and Monographs, no. 131, American Numismatic Society: New York, 1955; Josep Pellicer i Bru, Glosario de Maestros de Ceca y Ensayadores,  Barcelona: Asociación Numismatica Española, 1975 (Glossary of mint masters and assayers with the initials used and their dates from Spanish mints worldwide); Daniel and Frank Sedwick, The Practical Book of Cobs: History, Identification, Shipwrecks, Values, Market, Coin Photos,  third edition, Winter Park, Florida: Daniel and Frank Sedwick, 1995; E.A. Sellschopp, The Coinage of the Mints of Lima, La Plata and Potosí 1568-1651,  (translation of Las Acuñaciones de las Cecas de Lima, La Plata y Potosí)   Barcelona: Asociacion Numismatica Española, 1971, the English translation is published with and follows the original Spanish in the edition; Neil S. Utberg, The Coins of Colonial Mexico 1536-1821 and the Empire of Iturbide 1821-1823,  [s.l.], 1966.

    Last revision August 20, 2001

    Coins included in this section are:

  • Spanish Pre-Cobs (Charles and Johanna Silver): Introduction and Coins
  • Spanish Cobs: Introduction and Coins
  • Spanish Milled Coinage: Introduction and Coins

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    Section Contents Spanish Pre-Cobs

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