Machin's Mills Imitation British Halfpence: Introduction

As related in the section on the Machin's Mills patterns, on March 3, 1787 Thomas Machin entered the competition for the New York State coining franchise. About six weeks later, on April 18, 1787, the state legislature decided to reject all the petitions and abandon the idea of a mint. On that same day Thomas Machin signed an indenture (a contract) with five partners to form a company to mint coins. This act has sometimes been thought to be a last minute effort to win the approval of the state board however it may represent Machin's backup plan, that is, his attempt to form of a private minting partnership in the light of the official cancellation of the state competition.

Machin went into partnership with David Brooks, a New York Assemblyman who was on the state monetary commission and served on the panel reviewing the coining petitions. He also included James Grier, who was a co-partner with Brooks in a store in New York City. Machin also took on another businessman, Samuel Atlee and his son James Atlee. James seems to have been a diemaker and was one of Machin's competitors for the New York coining contract. Samuel was co-owner of a New York City brewery that ran into financial difficulties in 1785. Apparently, soon thereafter, James with the assistance of his father and possibly Albion Cox, may have used the abandon brewery to set up an illegal minting operation, coining imitation British halfpence from dies produced by James (several questions have recently surfaced about the role of James Atlee, see the section on James Falconer Atlee and Confederation Era Coppers for additional details). The other partner in the Machin's Mills enterprise was James Giles, a New York City attorney who had previously represented each of the other co-partners in legal matters. It seems he was the liaison who had introduced Machin to the others.

The April 18th indenture, signed and sealed by all six partners, stated they would jointly cover the costs to convert Machin's Mills into a mint by July 1, 1787. Each partner was to put up £ 50 for a total of £300 for the joint venture. Further the indenture stipulated the following:

And the said Samuel Atlee, and James F. Atlee being possessed of certain implements for carrying on said trade, do agree to lend them to the parties to these presents for and during the continuance of their copartnership without any fee or reward for the same. And the said Thomas Machin being possessed of certain mills, doth hereby agree to let the parties to these presents have the free use of them for and during the continuance of their copartnership (for the purpose of carrying on their joint trade) without any fee or reward for the same.

The agreement went on to explain Brooks, Grier and Giles would put up an additional £10 each. James Giles was assigned to keep the partnership books while, "the said James F. Atlee and Thomas Machin shall equally manage, act and perform that part of the trade which concerns the manufactory of hard-ware; and the other joint business, is to be equally acted and performed by the said Samuel Atlee, David Brooks and James Grier."

It has been generally thought the "certain implements" required for the venture, which the Atlee's were to supply free of charge, were the punches, dies and other coining tools they had used in their illegal New York City minting enterprise. (As mentioned above, many long held theories about James Atlee and his role in confederation coinage have been recently questioned. For a discussion of these problems see the Atlee section.) Also, in the indenture the term "Hardware" was used. This was a common contemporary euphemism for illegal copper coins, thus the agreement is taken to mean Thomas Machin and James Atlee were to carry out and manage the coining operation while James Giles was to be the bookkeeper and presumably the attorney for the firm. We do not know the nature of the "other joint business" to be carried out by Samuel Atlee, David Brooks and James Grier. However, it is interesting to learn in Trudgen's survey of the cases brought before the Mayor's Court in New York City he discovered a few cases involving the Machin's Mill's partners. During the December 18, 1787 court session a New York City blacksmith named George Cliland, located at 15 Maiden Lane in New York City, sued all the partners except for Thomas Machin; the partners, in turn, sued the blacksmith during the January 13, 1789 court session. Also, during the January session the partners were sued by Albert Rickman, owner of a New York City glass and china store at 178 Queen Street. The nature of these suits is unknown.

On June 7, 1787 the six partners concluded an agreement with Reuben Harmon's mint in Rupert, Vermont that is detailed in the Vermont introduction. The Machin's Mills mint was operational by July 1787 but they did not have a legal minting franchise. There only income was from their partnership with the Vermont mint. In order to make a profit Machin and Atlee began to produce counterfeit British halfpence.

Imitation halfpence attributed to Machin's Mills can be identified by the thick pursed lips on the bust of George III and the large triangular denticles on the edge. Trudgen has studied the punches used on these coins as well as other evidence to arrive at an emission sequence as follows: Vlack 11-87A, 12-78B, 13-78B [it seems at some later date obverse 13 was muled with Connecticut and Vermont reverses as follows: 13-87CT (1787 Miller 101-G.2), 13-88CT (1788 Miller 101-D) and 13-88VT (Richardson-Ryder 40)]. From Vlack 13-87B, the emission continued with 18-87C, 19-87C, 20-87C, 21-87C, 21-87D, 23-87C [also muled as VT-87C (using the obverse of Bressett 17-V, RR 13)] and 23-88A.

These coppers are thought to have been minted from mid 1787 through 1788 and probably into 1789. Interestingly, it appears Thomas Machin first produced halfpence dated to the contemporary year as well as examples backdated to 1778. Trudgen supposed Thomas Machin may have requested the backdated coins to commemorate the construction of the Great Chain, which was a bridge spanning the Hudson River near West Point. This was a major engineering feat that had been supervised by Machin. According to Trudgen's emission sequence the 1778 dated dies were followed by more 1787 dies and then one reverse die dated 1788. It should be remembered 1787 dated dies would continue to be used into 1788 (until they wore out). The use of a 1788 dated die is evidence halfpence continued to be made after 1787. Of course, it is possible the 1788 die was created and used in 1789 and thus may have been backdated!

As the mints in Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont failed, their equipment ended up at Machin's Mills. Along with imitation British halfpence Machin's Mills also produced illegal Connecticut coppers and some legal Vermont Coppers (most of their Vermont coins being struck over counterfeit Irish halfpence). Some have attributed the New Jersey "Camel" coppers to Machin's Mills but, as Mossman relates, it is now thought the dies may have been produced at Machin's Mills but the coins were minted in Elizabethtown, New Jersey by Matthias Ogden. Also, Spilman has shown the club ray Fugio cents attributed to Machin's Mills are heavier that Machin's Mills products and were probably produced by Benjamin Buell in Connecticut.

It seems the final imitation halfpence produced at Machin's Mills were probably the mules, as those using the Vlack 13 and the 1788 Connecticut and Vermont reverses. Clearly these reverses would have previously been used to produce state coppers. It seems they were produced in a final effort using any remaining dies available. These items may date to 1789 or even 1790.

The illegal coining operation continued at Machin's Mills until around early 1790; longer than any of the legal mints! James Atlee seems to have left the operation by June of 1789, when he is known to have witnessed a deed transfer in Vermont. See the Atlee section mentioned above for further details. A letter from James Atlee to Thomas Machin dated October 14, 1790 discusses an equitable settlement of the partnership due to the dissolution of the mint.

Descriptions of the mint

Many years after the Machin's Mills mint closed Thomas Machin's son, Thomas N. Machin, Jr., wrote a letter to Dr. F. B. Hough of Albany, New York relating what he remembered of the operation of the mint. This is the only extant first hand account of the Machin's Mills operation but it should be remembered Thomas Jr. was a youth when the mint was in operation; these are recollections recorded decades later about a young boys perspective of the enterprise. The letter was first published by E.M. Ruttenber in 1859 in the first edition of his history of Newburgh. Thomas Machin, Jr. wrote:

The coinage mill was forty to fifty rods below the pond, on a canal dug for the purpose. The building was of wood, thirty by forty feet, and two stories high. The metal used was copper, obtained by melting up cannon and leaving out the zinc in the alloy. The copper was then run into moulds, and rolled into flat sheets of the thickness of the coin and from one to two feet wide. It was then punched with a screw, moved by a lever, so adjusted that half a revolution would press out a disk of the size of a coin. The blanks were then put into a cylinder and revolved with sand, saw dust and water. They were generally left revolving through the night; and the coiners circulated the story that the devil came by at night to work for them. They also sometimes worked in masks to create a terror in the neighborhood. One night in the cylinder would wear the edges of the blanks smooth. The coining press was a screw, with an iron bar about ten feet long through the top. On each end of this bar was a leaden weight of perhaps five hundred pounds. The threads of the screw were large and square and worked through an iron frame. Ropes were attached to each end of the bar, and it was swung about half way around by two men pulling upon the ropes; two other men pulled the lever back, and a fifth laid on the blank and took off the coin with his fingers. The last operative named sat in a pit so that the lever would not touch his head. The coinage was about sixty per minute. A little silver was coined, but mostly copper, and the work was continued four or five years. Atlee, the engraver wore a horrid mask, and frightened some boys who came to fish so that they never ventured near the mill again. The machinery was removed to New York, and the building was afterwards used as a grist mill. Machin abandoned the enterprise probably about 1790, on the adoption of the Federal constitution.

In addition to a few new facts, some of this information is reiterated in a letter from Charles Bushnell to Sylvester Crosby, which Crosby published in his 1875 monograph, The Early Coins of America, where Bushnell is quoted as follows:

The Mint House at Newburgh, Ulster County, N.Y., was situated on the east side of Machin's Lake or Pond, about one eighth of a mile distant from the pond. The building was erected in 1784, by Thomas Machin, and was still standing in 1792, at which time the rollers, press and cutting machine were taken out. The coins were struck by means of a large bar loaded at each end with a 500 pound ball, with ropes attached. Two men were required on each side, making four in all, to strike the pieces, besides a man to set the planchets. The metal of which the coins were struck, was composed of old brass cannon and mortars, the zinc from the copper being extracted by smelting in a furnace. About sixty of the coins were struck a minute. The sloop "Newburgh," (Capt. Isaac Belknap,) carried for a number of years the coining press, as part ballast. The coins were made by James F. Atlee. Many of them bore the obverse "GEORGIUS III." and rev. "INDE ET LIB." Others bore the figure of a plough on one side. The mint ceased operations in the year 1791.         (Crosby, p. 191)


On Machin's Mills and particularly its counterfeit halfpence see: Gary Trudgen, "Machin's Mills," The Colonial Newsletter 23 (July 1984, serial no. 68) 862-883; his "James Atlee's Imitation British Halfpence," The Colonial Newsletter 27 (March 1987, serial no. 75) 966-979; and his "Samuel and James F. Atlee: Machin's Mills Partners," The Colonial Newsletter 32 (October 1992, serial no. 92) 1318-1352; also see his "New York City Mayor's Court and the State Coinages," The Colonial Newsletter 30, number 3 (October 1990, serial no. 86) 1192-1202, especially p. 1196; Michael Hodder, "Halloween at Machin's Mills" The Colonial Newsletter 30, number 3 (October 1990, serial no. 86) 1190-1191; and his, "The 1787 "New York" Immunis Columbia; A Mystery Re-Ravelled," The Colonial Newsletter 31, number 1 (January 1991,serial no. 87) 1204-1235; For an illustrated and descriptive listing of these halfpence see Norman Peters, "Machin's Mills Halfpence: America's Forgotten Early Coppers," The Numismatist (1986) 1803-1814 with a new variety in Gary Trudgen, "New Machin's Mills Die Variety -- Vlack 24-72C" The Colonial Newsletter  25 (June 1985, serial no. 70) 908; and another variety (Vlack 4-71D) in Frank Steimle "A New Atlee-Machin's Mills Counterfeit British Halfpence Reverse and Variety" The Colonial Newsletter  30 (October 1990, serial no. 86) 1189; William Anton and Bruce Kesse, The Forgotten Coins of the North American Colonies  Iola, WI: Krause, 1992; E.M. Rutterber, History of the County of Orange: with a History of the Town and City of Newburgh, Newburgh, New York, 1st ed, 1859, p. 135 and 2nd ed., 1875, pp. 211-212 for the text of the letter of Thomas Machin, Jr., this is also reproduced in, James Spilman, "An Overview of Early American Coinage Technology (Continued, The Rolling Mill)"The Colonial Newsletter 22, number 1 (March 1983,serial no. 64) 799-811 with the letter on p. 806 and John M. Kleeberg, "Reconstructing the Beach-Grünthal Hoard of Counterfeit Halfpence: The Montclair, New Jersey (1922) Hoard" The American Journal of Numismatics   second series, vols. 7-8 (1995-1996) 187-208 and plates 24-27.

The first detailed examination of these coins, by Robert Vlack, did not include a descriptive text but rather consisted of two photographs, depicting each variety of obverse and reverse known to occur on American counterfeit halfpence. Although better photographs are now available for many (but not all) of the items, his numbering system is still the standard. These two pioneering 1974 photographic plates are entitled: Early English Copper Halfpence Struck in America. Unfortunately they are difficult to obtain as they are not usually cataloged in libraries. Even when I requested a loan of the two photos from the ANA Library the librarian could not locate them and sent me Vlack's 1965 book instead! Ron Guth of Early American Numismatic Auctions, Inc. has supplied me with a copy of the plates which I have included here for those who do not have ready access to them. To view the plates simply click on Vlack 1, full view (657K); top half (238K); or bottom half (240K) or Vlack 2, full view (657K); top half (250K); or bottom half (250K).

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Section Contents Machin's Mills Coins

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