UNC Libraries

Colonial Era

The Colonial Era [1600s-1776]

Money was far from standardized as it is in today's world. Coins of precious metal--gold and silver--were the preferred currency. Such coins were expected to have intrinsic value in the precious metal content equivalent to the denomination. Coinage that was regarded as "honest" had a trusted purity and weight of precious metal. In colonial times, coins of Spain and its colonies were highly regarded, and they circulated throughout the world. Furthermore, coins were not just for small change. Larger coins of silver or gold represented substantial value, and these were the norm for even large commercial transactions. Paper money was distrusted and was used only when the supply of coins was inadequate.

But the history of North Carolina numismatics begins not with a coin, but with a token. The University Libraries’ numismatic collection holds an original 1694 Carolina Elephant token, the earliest known numismatic object that refers to the Carolinas. This mysterious piece was made in the Tower Mint in London for the Carolina Colony’s Lords Proprietors. Learn more about the history of the Carolina Elephant token and about its known reproductions from an article written by former Gallery Keeper R. Neil Fulghum for the American Numismatic Society’s December 2005 issue of The Colonial Newsletter.

Genuine Carolina elephant token, 1694
Genuine Carolina elephant token, 1694

The collection also holds a rare example of the 1729 issue of paper money, the last of four issues that were entirely handwritten. English monetary policy ensured that the colonies were always coin-poor and had to resort to unwanted paper money.

North Carolina 1729 40 shillings paper money
North Carolina 1729 40 shillings
paper money, hand written

We end this period with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It should be noted that prior to the Declaration, political actions and military confrontations in Britain’s colonies had begun, such as at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill. North Carolina’s own 1775 issue of currency was authorized by the provincial congress after civil unrest forced Royal Governor Josiah Martin to flee the colony in July 1775. The issues of 1776 were authorized that April during the same legislative session that produced the Halifax Resolves.

The numismatic collection currently contains examples of North Carolina paper money from the colony’s authorizations of 1729, 1748, 1754, 1757, 1758, 1760, 1761, 1768, 1771, 1775, and 1776.

Spanish colonial (Mexico) 8 reales, 1761
Spanish colonial (Mexico) 8 reales, 1761
North Carolina paper money, 2 shillings 6 pence, 1761
North Carolina paper money
2 shillings 6 pence, 1761

Above, left to right: Coins were precious metal--gold, silver, even copper--and because of this, they had intrinsic value. As long as the coin had sound metal value, it circulated beyond the boundaries of the country that produced it. The Spanish produced huge quantities of honest coins from their extensive mines in the New World, and they circulated everywhere. No coinage was more important in this time period. The United States dollar was based on the 8 reales coin--same purity and weight of silver. But England's mercantilist monetary policies kept its colonies coin-poor. What the American colonists wanted was coins; what they got was paper money.

Nobody wanted or trusted paper money. But paper money had to do. Perhaps unwanted, it nevertheless was carefully preserved as it circulated. This North Carolina 1761 note, as it became worn, was backed by a piece of scrap paper and its tattered pieces sewn together. Sometimes the pieces were pinned together. These three repairs served as an eighteenth-century version of scotch tape.

See more images from The Colonial Era.