Blacksmith Coppers: Introduction

Although not considered part of the American colonial series, there is a growing interest in Blacksmith coppers, especially as they relate to imitation British halfpence produced in North America. The standard discussion of Blacksmiths has been Howland Wood's article, "The Canadian Blacksmith Coppers" first published in The Numismatist in 1910. Wood assigned these shallow struck halfpence to early Ninteenth century colonial Canada before Confederation minting began in 1858. Following R.W. McLachlan's article in the 1893-4 volume of The Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatics Journal, Wood related the story of a Montreal blacksmith who, "...when he wished to have a «good time» struck two or three dollars of these coppers and thereby supplied himself with sufficient change to gratify his wishes." Thus the series was named Blacksmith coppers.

Tokens from a Blacksmith in Colonial America

Gary Trudgen has uncovered an interesting episode from colonial America concerning a blacksmith who was said to have made halfpenny size coppers. In upper state New York near the Canadian border, at Crown Point on the shore of Lake Champlain, the British constructed a fort between 1759 and 1763. As more individuals were assigned to the fort a community was established just outside its west wall. Eventually the community grew to a total of 83 houses. Unfortunately, on April 23, 1773, while a Mrs. Ross was baking some beans on a hearth in the fort, the pitch in the chimney caught on fire and quickly spread out of control. Once the one hundred barrels of gunpowder stored in the magazine were engulfed, the ensuing cataclysmic explosion and fire destroyed the entire fort.

This catastrophe was the focus of a military inquiry in 1774. During the inquiry it was revealed a private of the 26th Regiment of the British army named William Gilfoil, who was employed as the local blacksmith, was known to have made halfpence. Three of the individuals interviewed in the inquiry said they had heard Gilfoil had made coppers. The most detailed information came from Findley Miller, a Surgeon's assistant in the 26th Regiment. Miller stated:

There were many Coppers current at Crown Point, beat out to the size of a Half penny which were said to be made by Gilfoil, and I once got Fourteen of them in Exchange for a Shilling. ... There was a French-woman who went by the name of Mrs. Dalton who said she had received several Dollars worth of them, but not from Gilfoil in particular; They usually went by the name of Gilfoil's Coppers. ... I have been told, but I don't recollect by whom, that he was instructed in making them by a Deserter from the 52nd Regiment. [Trudgen, p. 999]
None of the three individuals had ever witnessed Gilfoil making coppers, their information was simply based on general knowlege. No examples of the Gilfoil coppers are known, nor do we have any idea of the method of manufacture. Spilman suspects they were more than smooth copper disks hammered out to the size of a halfpenny, as one would not need training to make so simple an item. Newman has mentioned, if "beat out" referred to their appearance rather than their method of manufacture, it is possible the coins may have not have been hammered at all but may have been cast counterfeit halfpence. Admittedly the context of the phrase "beat out" appears to refer to a hammered item, but the individual making that statement is only inferring the method of manufacture based on the appearance of the copper. Clearly, there is no way to prove a connection between Gilfoil's coppers and the traditional Blacksmith series. In any event it is interesting to discover evidence that in colonial America, at sometime between 1763 and 1773, it appears a local blacksmith in a remote area was producing small change coins.

The Blacksmith Series

Blacksmith tokens are crude imitations of British and Irish halfpence that were traditionally thought to have been produced and circulated in the area of Lower Canada (centering in Montreal) and in neighboring areas, as upper state New York and northern New England. The main period for their circulation has been taken to be from about 1825 through 1840.

Recently, Anton and Kesse have suggested some revisions to this picture of Blacksmiths. First they stated, " is probably more realistic to hypothesize their geographic circulation to include most of North America." They then went on to suggest it is unrealistic to assume blacksmiths had the skills to intentionally cut shallow dies to, "...produce coppers with a well worn appearance (with little or no legends) in order to imply previous circulation and facilitate acceptance." Rather, they believed the source of the majority of the Blacksmith coppers were the token and button manufacturers in England, who may have fostered the concept of "Blacksmiths " to enhance local acceptance and cover up their own role in this illegal enterprise. At the same time Anton and Kesse suspected some of the crudest examples derived from Canadian locations, but they did not believe even these items were produced by blacksmiths.

Additionally, Anton and Kesse designated some Blacksmith related coppers as being an intermediate group produced after the Machin's Mills counterfeits but before the fully evolved Blacksmiths, and that these intermediate coins were produced throughout North America. No specific coins were mentioned but rather the group was described as coppers in imitation of George II and George III halfpence, having full or partial legends with an obverse bust that tended to be squarish in the jaw and forehead and a reverse having an amateurish figure of Britannia. I suspect this description is meant to refer to a group of unattributed Blacksmith related tokens listed in the Warren Baker catalog as items 1085-1096. Anton and Kesse specifically stated they also considered counterfeit Spanish American two reales coins produced in copper to be part of their Early North American Coppers grouping, and specifically mentioned the two examples listed in the Baker catalogue (Baker lots 1097 and 1098). None of these coppers were part of the Wood classification. Michael Oppenheim, in his catalog of the Baker collection groups these coppers together under the heading of Early North American Coppers. In discussing those items Oppenheim specifically stated lots 1085-1090, "...could have been struck in various places in North America"(p. 112). Interestingly, Oppenheim's listing contained imitation halfpence for numbers 1085-1096, not just 1085-1090 and no reason was given for excluding the final six examples.

As to the Anton and Kesse classification I am unsure if they also meant to include items at the end of the Wood classification. Wood himself expresed hesitation whether those items listed as Wood 30-46 were true Blacksmith coppers. Michael Oppenheim thought Wood numbers from Wood 34 to the end of the series had "...all the features of classic Canadian blacksmiths," so he listed them as part of the Canadian Blacksmith series. In their text Anton and Kesse stated they believed Wood 33 (the BITIT token) and Wood 34 were regal evasion coppers rather than Blacksmiths, for they felt those two coppers strongly resembled the evasion series. Thus, Anton and Kess considered those two items to have been produced in Britain and therefore could not be part of their North American coppers series. I am not certain of their opinion on the other coppers with high Wood numbers. In any event, whichever of these items Anton and Kesse included in their grouping, they believed a group of intermediate imitation halfpence coppers first appeared after the Machin's Mills mint closed (that is, by the fall of 1790) but before the Blacksmith coppers were fully evolved (that is, ca. 1825) and that these items were produced in various locations throughout the United States and Canada. The theories of Anton and Kesse are certainly controversial and need documentation, but they have clearly widened the scope of study for imitation North American copper halfpence.

The Blacksmith Taxonomies

A. The Wood Taxonomy

In 1910 Howland Wood listed 46 types of Blacksmith coppers which he divided into four sections. The first section comprised his numbers 1-18, of which he stated: "I have assigned the Head to Left series to the earliest place, although I have no direct proof to substantiate this theory putting them down as being issued during the first quarter of the 19th century. It would appear however that their manufacture was resumed at a later date as is shown by rusted dies, thinner flans, and one or two mulings." Wood stated the second group, comprising his numbers 19-22, "was issued between 1825 and 1830." His third group consisted of numbers 23-29, which he dated to between 1830 and 1840; while no dating was mentioned for the final grouping.

The first section of Wood's taxonomy (Wood 1-18) display an obverse with a bust left head in imitation of a George II halfpenny. The reverse usually shows the seated Britannia facing to the right, opposite her usual position on regal issues where she always faces left. Wood 5, 6 and 12 have a reverse with an Irish harp but without the British crown on top as is found on regal issues. Also, the very rare Wood 9 (about five examples survive) has a ship on the obverse with the legend SHIPS COLONIES & COMMERCE on the reverse, while Wood 10 (with about 50+ examples surviving) combines that reverse with an Irish harp obverse. Some of these varieties, as Wood 11 and 12 are thought to be among the last Blacksmith's produced and probably date to about the mid Nineteenth century.

The second portion of Wood's Blacksmith taxonomy (Wood 19-22) list coppers having an obverse with a bust facing right in imitation of George III coppers. The reverse of Wood 19-21 has a seated figure facing left holding scales (representing Justice). The very rare Wood 22 (2-5 examples surviving) has a harp reverse.

His third group (Wood 23-29) are those tokens linked to the reuse of two Hard Times storecard dies. These two dies had been produced by the diemaker Benjamin True of Troy, New York and are discussed further in the Charlton taxonomy below. All of these varieties are quite rare except Woods 23 which is very common with (500+ examples).

The final portion of the numbering, (Wood 30-46) contains several unique specimens, many of which can only be included with hesitancy but according to Wood, "have enough blacksmith characteristics" to be included in the classification. Most of these items have a bust right or bust left obverse usually combined with a reverse showing Britannia facing right, although the very common Wood 33 has Britannia facing left.

Since the Wood categories were created it has been generally accepted that Wood 15 was not a Blacksmith copper,while Wood 37 and Wood 42 were simply worn examples of imitation British halfpence and thus these items have been taken out of the Blacksmith list (Oppenheim, p. 101).

B. The Charlton Catalogue Taxonomy

In 1995 the third edition of The Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Colonial Tokens, edited by W.K. Cross, listed 57 types of Blacksmiths (BL) with several changes to the Wood classification, as well as including information on variations when applicable, such as thick or thin planchet varieties, or specimens in different metals such as brass. The Charlton catalogue classification groups are based on related groups that do not necessarily date to the same period.

Like Wood they begin with the bust left Blacksmiths that imitate the George II halfpenny, but which they call George III bust left types! Generally this group follows the Wood numbering, however Wood 2 and Wood 3 are combined as a single type BL-2, as Wood 3 is simply a brass variant of Wood 2, similarly Wood 7 and Wood 8 are combined as a single type BL 6, again Wood 8 is a brass variant of Wood 7. Additionally, Wood 9 and 10 have been transferred to a group of SHIPS COLONIES & COMMERCE Blacksmiths, while Wood 15 was removed from the Blacksmith list. The consecutive numbering of this group, BL 1 - BL 13, represents the Wood listings: Wood 1, 2&3, 4, 5, 6, 7&8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18.

Next is a small group consisting of two rare items imitating the George III bust right British halfpenny, BL 14 (Wood 38) and BL 15, which was unknown to Wood.

This is followed by a group of rare unifaced Blacksmiths, most of which are bust right but a few being bust left, BL 16 - BL 23; these include Wood 39, 40, 41, 43 and four types not listed by Wood.

The next group consists of six Blacksmiths in imitation of the SHIPS COLONIES & COMMERCE tokens, BL 24 - BL 28. There are three die states for BL 24 (A-C) and no listing for BL 27 (apparently that item was removed from the Charlton list after the numbering was finalized). BL 25 is Wood 9, while BL 26 is Wood 9A and BL 28 is Wood 19, the others were unknown to Wood.

The next group includes three Blacksmiths in imitation of Nova Scota tokens, BL 29 - BL 31, none of which were known to Wood.

This is followed by a group in imitation of the 1812 dated halfpenny tokens imported by the Montreal grocer Joseph Tiffen around 1832. The group includes BL 32 - BL 33, of which Wood 19 and Wood 20 are combined as two varieties of a single type under BL 32 (representing copper and brass varieties from the same die) and BL 33 is Wood 21.

The next group of Blacksmiths is in imitation of the Irish halfpenny with a bust obverse and an uncrowned harp reverse. There are three varieties, BL 34 - BL 36, of which Wood only knew of the first BL 34 (Wood 22). That copper has a crude bust left portrait, while BL 35 displays a bust right wearing a laurel wreath and cuirass (armor) and BL 36 has a bust left with laurel wreath and cuirass and a reverse with a backwards harp (that is, the small strings are to the left).

The Charlton catalogue then lists the three BITIT tokens (or possibly BRTIT), so named because of the reverse legend; these include BL 37 - BL 39 (Wood 33 - 35). In the following pages we have a well preserved example of BL-37 (Wood 33) that has a serif on the bottom of the second letter but with no serif on the bottom of the fourth, leading one to speculate if they are indeed the same letter.

Next is a group of nine tokens connected to the diemakers Daniel and Benjamin True of Troy, New York. These include BL 40 - BL 48 (Wood 23-30), of which Wood did not know of BL 46. The tokens are linked through the sharing of two dies originally used to produce Hard Times storecard tokens in Troy, New York. The dies were the obverse of the J. and C. Peck Company token (HT 363) and the reverse of the N. Starbuck and Son Company token (HT 368); both tokens are known to have been made by the diemaker Benjamin True of Troy, most probably in 1835. John Lorenzo has recently studied the group and noticed the Blacksmiths made with these two dies show the dies is a worn late state of use. Further, Lorenzo observed the mules made with these dies are on light planchets that were crudely cut. These are very similar to the planchets used for the Blacksmiths but quite unlike the planchets used by the True's in their normal minting operation in Troy. Based on these observations Lorenzo suggested the two dies in question may have been shipped from Troy, New York to Canada after they had been used for the storecards. Interestingly, in his 1910 article Wood had suspected these dies had been discarded and sent to Canada. This suggestion had also been made by Oppenheim in an entry for a specimen of a Wood 25 Blacksmith in his masterful catalog of the Warren Baker Collection (p. 109, entry 1063). Nevertheless, many numismatists of the Hard Times token series have regularly attributed these coins to that series. As recently as 1997 they were listed in the second edition of Russell Rulau, Standard Catalog of United States Tokenson pp. 133-134 as HT 364, 365, 369, 370 and 371). It now appears these coppers were not Hard Times tokens at all but Blacksmiths, and were most probably made at a location that produced other Blacksmith coppers rather than at the token mint owned by the True family in Troy, New York. Interestingly, the Charlton Catalogue includes BL 38 (Wood 30) in this group. This coin is an unusual piece with an eagle on each side. Although the eagles are similar to eagles found on Wood 26 and 28, that is, BL 43 and BL 45, Oppenheim has observed the two eagles on Wood 30 slightly differ from each other and they both differ in details from the eagle on the other two tokens. Wood did not include this item in the tokens associated with the dies by Benjamin True.

Next are two Blacksmith tokens in imitation of Upper Canada tokens, BL 49 -BL 50 (Wood 31 and 45) followed by another grouping of two Blacksmiths in imitation of Lower Canada tokens, BL 51 - BL 52. The two Lower Canada imitations were unknown to Wood.

The final Charlton grouping consists of miscellaneous Blacksmith tokens, which do not fit into any of the previous groups, this includes five types, BL 53 - BL 57 (Wood 32, 44, 46, 36 with the last unknown to Wood).

The End of the Canadian Blacksmith Tokens

In 1835 the Bank of Montreal, concerned about the quantity of underweight counterfeit Blacksmith coppers in circulation, issued a decree that they would no longer accept these tokens. In 1836 the bank was authorized to issue their own token which was made in Birmingham, England. This coin was stamped in English as a Montreal bank token but with a denomination in French (incorrecly stated in the pleural as) UN SOUS (Charlton LC 2 - LC 3). Similar tokens, but in French, with the correct form of the denomination UN SOU were issued by the Banque du Peuple (Charlton LC 4 - LC 5). Additionally, a speculator named Dexter Chapin had many lightweight varieties of this French language token produced in Belleville, New Jersey (Charlton LC 21 - LC 33). Although the bank varieties weighed 7.5 to 9 grams while his were only 6 to 7.5 grams, Chapin's tokens became quite popular as they were in French and were readily available. Additional varieties of this token were produced in Birmingham, England (Charlton LC 34 - LC 39) while others were produced by Jean-Marie Arnault in Montreal (Charlton LC 40 - LC 43). Also, in 1837 the City Bank and the Banque du Peuple (both of Montreal) as well as the Quebec Bank were granted permission to issue another variety of token struck by Boulton and Watt in Birmingham. This "Habitant Token" showed a habitant of Canada in traditional winter dress on the obverse with a legend in French, while the reverse was in English. The tokens were issued in two denominations: a larger size designated as deux sous on the obverse and a penny on the reverse and a smaller size designated as un sou on the obverse and a halfpenny on the reverse (Charlton LC 8 A-D for the halfpenny types and LC 9 A-D for the penny types). In addition to these bank and private tokens, some merchant tokens were also produced. By 1840 the number of high quality, heavier weight tokens had completely replaced the earlier crude Blacksmith tokens.

Latest revision: Nov. 9, 1998


For a discussion with numerous illustrations of Blacksmith coppers as well as a large portion of Wood's article quoted and a rarity chart, see Michael Oppenheim's catalog of the "Warren Baker Collection of Canadian Blacksmith Coppers" in the famous Bowers and Merana March 26-27, 1987, Auction Catalog entitled The Frederick B. Taylor Collection and Other Properties  pp. 100-116; for an updated taxonomy see The Charlton Standard Catalog of Canadian Colonial Tokens,  edited by W.K. Cross, 3rd edition, Toronto: Charlton Press, 1995, pp. 200-230; R.C. Willey also included Blacksmiths in his series of articles, "The Colonial Coinages of Canada," which was published in several issues of The Canadian Numismatic Journal from January 1979 through the issue for July/August 1983. Also see Gary A. Trudgen, "Gilford's Coppers," The Colonial Newsletter 27 (July 1987, serial no. 76) 997-1000 with comments by James Spilman following the article and additional comments, especially by Newman and Spilman in the letters section of The Colonial Newsletter 27 (November 1987, serial no. 77) 1019-1021; William Anton, Jr. and Bruce Kesse, Forgotten Coins of the North American Colonies Iola, WI; Krause, 1992, pp. 14-16 and John Lorenzo, "Canadian Blacksmith Tokens and the New York Connection," The C4 Newsletter, A quarterly publication of the Colonial Coin Collectors Club, vol. 6, no. 2 (Summer, 1998) 43-50.

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Section Contents Blacksmith Copper Coins

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