2003 Issue
By James C. Johnston Jr.
Photos by Steven Vater



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    James C. Johnston Jr. was born in the historic Oliver Pond House in Franklin, Massachusetts where he has lived for 58 years. He holds B.A. and M.A. degrees in History and is the author of several books. He has also written more than 1,500 articles and monographs in The Numismatist, Linn’s Stamp News, The Regional Recorder, and other publications.
   Johnston was a teacher in the Franklin system for 34 years and has been associated with Johnston Antiques since 1962. He is a well known appraiser of antiques, books, fine arts, stamps, and coins. He is a founding member of the Massachusetts Suburban Antique Dealers Association, a member of the American Numismatic Association, and the American Philatelic Society. He has also been President of the Franklin Historical Society since 1985.

    Johnston is also a well known lecturer whose topics cover a wide range of social history, antiques, coins, stamps, and the fine arts, as well as, politics and political and military history.


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 The Numismatic Heritage of the Pilgrims...By James C. Johnston Jr.

             November is here, and it is time to think about Pilgrims, Plymouth (Plimouth), turkeys, and all that. But how about Pilgrim money?

            The Pilgrims had money – not much, but some. Money was in very short supply in Plymouth, and therefore it had a great deal of value. According to Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, a pound had a value of more than 160 dollars in today’s money. That was true during much of the colonial period.

            First, a quick review of denominations is in order. An English pound was made up of four crowns, or eight half crowns, or ten florins, or 20 shillings or 240 pennies or 960 farthings, or 60 groats, which are four penny coins. Now, if your head has stopped spinning around like that kid in The Exorcist, you can see that any people brave and strong enough to have impossible money like that would have no trouble taking on the wild and rocky New England of 1620, not to mention the Wampanoags.

            The Pilgrim saga has been told over and over again, but never so well as in the book Saints and Strangers. That 1940s monumental exposé of the Pilgrim fathers and mothers tells us a lot, like the Pilgrims stealing   the Wampanoag’s corn. The attrition rate among the Pilgrims (who had no clue that future generations would call them by that name) was over 50 percent. Their life was hard and uncertain. Food was in short supply as late as 1623, and new arrivals to the “Plimouth Colony” were so upset that the only food to be had was lobster that they sat on the beach and cried.

            The colonists of Plimouth held on, celebrated a Thanksgiving with their Wampanoag friends, and went on the colonize Cape Cod and the District of Maine. In time Maine became a state, and in 1920 a commemorative half dollar was struck to celebrate the centennial of her statehood. In the same year and the year following, commemorative half dollars were struck in Philadelphia honoring the tricentennial of Plimouth’s founding by the English Separatists or Pilgrims.                                              

            Thanks givings (two words) were often proclaimed after a military victory or for some special or divine favor in England and Europe. The harvest time feast was generally a New England event, until 1864 when Abraham Lincoln made it an official holiday to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November. Thus it has been for these 139 years.

            In that same year, 1864, the United States struck a new two cent coin. By President Lincoln’s personal mandate, the words “In God We Trust” appeared on the coin. 1864 was a tough Civil War year for our still young nation, and the Thanksgiving holiday and the spiritual appeal of the new coin seemed to Lincoln to be a good idea.

            But one must concede that there just was not much around in the form of specie (silver and gold) in Pilgrim days. The Native Americans themselves either bartered or used wampum. Wampum came in the form of beaded belts. The beads were made up of polished and drilled shell fragments.

            In this regard the European world would make a great impact. The English traded Venetian glass beads, made on the island of Murano, to the Native Americans, who delighted in making wampum out of the new material. Wampum production increased to the point where there was actually a wampum inflation. The value of wampum fell from a shilling an inch to a penny an inch.

            Richer people might have used gold “Quarter Laurel” coins of James I or crowns of Charles I to buy land. The shilling or 12-penny piece was more commonly used. Five shillings were equal to one crown, and 20 shillings made a pound.

            By 1646, the Separatist Church of Plimouth linked up with the Puritan Church of Massachusetts Bay Colony and became the Congregational Church. This was a very important event because only members of this church could vote and hold office in Massachusetts Bay Colony. This made it a sort of theocracy where the rule of the church was the law of the land.

            By 1691, Plimouth (which also contained Cape Cod and Maine) was merged with Massachusetts into one political unit. More money had begun to circulate by the 1640s, but there still was not enough silver and gold around to “grow the economy.”

            Massachusetts Bay Colony saw a way out and began minting silver shillings and other minor coins in 1652. At that time, England was a “Commonwealth,” a republic, which had dealt a blow to the monarchy with the stroke of an axe, when Charles I was separated from his head in 1649. During this period, the colony was on its own. England was ruled by the Puritan “Long Parliament” until 1653, when Oliver Cromwell and the army seized power. He ruled as “Lord Protector” and dictator until his death in 1658. It is interesting to note that all those Pine Tree and other shillings were minted with the date 1652 so that England would never know how many coins were minted in Massachusetts.

            Commonwealth crowns made their way across the Atlantic, but were not as widely circulated as the shillings were; crowns were serious money. But all sorts of coins from many nations were circulated in New England from 1620 onward. Wampum was only accepted to a value of a shilling, and then not at all. After the Revolution, Massachusetts minted half cents and cents in bronze. They were once considered rather common, but they are now scarce and highly desirable.

            Fascination with the story of the Pilgrims has grown over the decades. As my old United States history professor, Dr. Jordan D. Fiore, said, “Plymouth looms large in the American mind, because it is such a good story.” Part of that story is a 1820 bicentennial banquet, which was held in Plymouth. Daniel Webster was the keynote speaker, and for the first time the word “Pilgrim” was publicly applied to the early settlers. The word had appeared in print in the 18th century, but it had never been used officially. Special plates made in the Stafforshire district of England showing the landing of the Pilgrims were used on this occasion. It was a very big deal indeed.

                On August 20, 1907, the cornerstone of the Pilgrim Monument was laid in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A semi-official seal marks the occasion on a postcard. President Teddy Roosevelt turned out to do the job in person and to make the major address at the dedication. In 1920, along with the “Pilgrim Half Dollar,” a set of stamps was issued to mark the tricentennial of the Pilgrims landing.

                The numismatic heritage of Plimouth and Massachusetts Bay Colony is considerable, and many collectors love it for that reason. I have my own reasons for loving the Pilgrims: if John Alden and Pricilla Mullins had never met and fell in love after the landing of the Mayflower and had 18 children, I would not be here. They were my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandparents.

            Have a good month and try to remember the Pilgrims kindly.

The seal of “Plimouth” Colony in 1620.

U.S. Stamps issued in 1920 showed “The Signing of the Mayflower Compact,” noting the Pilgrim Tercentenary.

A replica of the famed 1650s Pine Three shilling struck in 1930, with its original box and printed enclosure.

This Staffordshire plate made about 1820 shows “The Landing of the Fathers at Plymouth, Dec. 22, 1620.” Depicted are Indians greeting Carver, Bradford, Winslow, Brewster, and Standish (who, by the way, was an atheist).

            My Calendar

            On Sunday, October 26, I will be back at the Westford Regency Inn Coin and Stamp show. The Regency Inn and Conference Center is located on Route 110 (exit 32 off I-495.) Regular Show hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

            November will be an active month. On Sunday, Nov. 2, I will be at the N.E.S.S. Coin and Stamp Show at the Holiday Inn in Dedham, Mass. The Holiday Inn is located at the junctions of Routes 128 and 1. Show hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

            I will be at Ed Aleo’s Bay State Coin Show on Nov. 7, 8, and 9 at the Radisson Hotel on Park Square, Boston. Show hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. This is one of the ten biggest shows in the United States. You will find lots of U.S. type, ancient, and world coins at this show.

            Although I will not be at Tom Lacey’s Nov. 9 show in Auburn, Mass., many other fine dealers will be there. It will be held at the Best Western Yankee Drummer, right off Exit 10 from the Massachusetts Turnpike.

            On Nov. 23, I will be at the Ernie Botte’s New Westford Coin Show at the Westford Regency Inn and Conference Center. This show replaces his old Chelmsford Show. Get off Route 495 at exit 32 to Route 110.

               You may also wish to check my website for further updates. 

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