One of the great perks of the job I have is discovering new little
chapters of numismatic history here and there. I’ve been lucky enough
to find rarities hidden in museum collections, as consult on a
shipwreck and make discoveries in both collections and in books.
Recently I had the chance to study a hoard of coins, mostly copper
pieces, that were discovered by a metal detectorist near a major
Spanish settlement on the east coast of Florida.
This detectorist, like most I’ve met, is an avid local historian,
a capable researcher who does his homework with books and maps before
he ever turns a spade of soil. This fellow had found a pretty good
spot to find items from the Spanish era in soil disturbed by modern
development. While hardly virgin soil, it still kept many of its
secrets from about 400 years ago.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle the modern United
States, establishing the first permanent settlement at St. Augustine
in 1565. Two decades later, Sir Francis Drake burned the town, which
was quickly reestablished, even though English and French forces were
a continual threat. The Spanish stronghold flourished in the 17th
century, and the fort they built in the last quarter of that century
The lion’s share of the coins found in this hoard were from the
17th century, with just a few 18th century and later pieces. Nearly
all were copper, small bronze pieces struck on the Spanish mainland
denominated in maravedis. The largest of these, worth 8 maravedis, was
essentially equal to a quarter real in silver, making it a small but
useful unit. The most frequently found denomination was a 2-maravedi
piece, a small bronze coin that composed just a 1/136 part of an
While most of the small bronze coins circulating in Spain in the
17th century were countermarked in a series of mid-century coinage
revaluations, relatively few of the countermarked pieces were found in
the hoard, suggesting that the coins had been imported to America
prior to the 1641 and 1652 countermarking acts.
Spanish copper coins from the 17th century are found up and down
the Eastern Seaboard, one here, one there, suggestive of the need for
small change in early America and the frequent commercial intercourse
between the British colonies and the Spanish dominions of the
Caribbean and South America. They’ve even been found at Jamestown.
Spanish settlements on the east coast of America tended to be
minor garrisons and missions, too small to support a significant
commercial life. The significant number of pieces from this hoard,
once studied, should offer special insight into what circulated in
Spanish North America before the Pilgrims ever left home.
John Kraljevich Jr. is an independent professional numismatist and
researcher specializing in early American coinage.