While coppers are much beloved and avidly collected, the small
silver coins of the American Colonies and Confederation saw just as
much active circulation and deserve a place alongside them in modern
cabinets. Among those small silver coins, perhaps the most interesting
series to pursue are the cobs, those crudely hammered productions of
the mints of Central and South America.
Hammered coins in general, and Spanish-American cobs specifically,
dominated the pockets of Americans for more than a century after
permanent English settlements were established in 1607.
Milled coins, or pieces struck on a screw press instead of
hammered between free-floating dies, were produced in Mexico City
beginning in 1732, but the technology wasn’t introduced to other mints
in Latin America for decades. The last cobs were coined in Potosí in
1773, ending a series that extends back more than two centuries. Thus,
for most of the American Colonial period, most circulating
Spanish-American silver coins were in cob form.
Collecting these pieces can be a challenge for modern collectors,
who will encounter coins whose dates and Mint marks may not be plainly
visible, even on little-worn pieces. Luckily, with some study, the
major types are discernible and mints of origin can be puzzled out on
even the lowest graded pieces.
Archaeological evidence shows that cobs from nearly every Spanish
colonial mint made their way to the future United States, as did the
cob-like productions of the Spanish mainland mints. Cobs of Potosí and
Mexico, the two most prolific mints, are the most common in American
contexts, but even an extremely rare cob from the mint at Cartagena,
Colombia, was discovered in the famous Castine Deposit, a circa 1704
hoard uncovered on the coast of Maine.
Though most of the contents of the hoard weren’t documented at the
time, an early photograph of the hoard even includes a specimen of the
elusive “Star of Lima” 8-real coin, coined in Lima in 1659.
Beyond the circulation of cobs in North America, they were also
counterfeited. Indeed, two of the most prominent early American gold
coins are essentially counterfeit cobs: the 1786 Lima Style Brasher
doubloon and the circa 1787 Standish Barry doubloon.
Silver cobs weren’t immune to counterfeiters, and the works of
Kenneth Scott on early American counterfeiting are full of references
to pieces of eight, 2-real cobs, and more that were made in base metal
and criminally passed in early America.
The best reference on cobs for a beginning collector is The
Practical Book of Cobs by Daniel Sedwick, which gives excellent
histories of each of the mints that produced cobs and makes
identification of cobs fairly easy for anyone from experts to novices.
John Kraljevich Jr.
is an independent professional
numismatist and researcher
specializing in early American coinage.