US Coins

Colonial New England's Tree coinage, explained

Colonial America column from the Sept. 26, 2016, Weekly issue of Coin World:

The attraction that brings tourists to New England in the fall also appears on the longest-running series of coins struck in colonial New England: trees. 

Following the production of the simple NE (New England) coins from June to October 1652, Massachusetts authorized a brand new design that remained until the Boston Mint closed in 1682.

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The description of the new coins was simple: “all pieces of money coined as aforesaid shall have a double ring on either side, with this inscription— Massachusetts, and a tree in the center on the one side and New England and the year of our Lord on the other side.” A drawing accompanied the new law in the journals of the colony’s legislative body, one that would guide the design of all Massachusetts shillings, sixpence, threepence, and eventually twopence, struck thereafter.

Modern numismatists categorize the Massachusetts Tree coins into three major design types: Willow, Oak, and Pine. Despite the fact that the various types appear to the eyes of numismatists to fall relatively neatly into three different styles, no distinction between them was ever made when the coins were circulating.

The Willow Tree coins are all somewhat messy and leafy, the Oak Tree pieces all show trees with naked angular branches, and the Pine Tree coins all inarguably look like conifers, but each series has a wide variation in artistic interpretation of the legal requirement of “a tree in the center on the one side.”

Everyone agrees the Willow Tree coins are the rarest of the Tree types. Pine Tree coins are the most frequently seen by a significant margin, but the population of Oak Tree coins is far closer to that of Pines than Willows. 

There is some disagreement among experts on when these three series were struck. Given that the Willow Tree coins are actually rarer than the NE coins, which were struck for just six months, I think it’s safe to assume they were struck over a similarly brief span. 

A Guide Book of United States Coins and Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins assert that each type was struck for the same length of time — seven years — matching the seven-year renewals of the contracts given to minters John Hull and Robert Sanderson, a theory first suggested in Sydney Noe’s The Pine Tree Coinage of Massachusetts.

Then again, Noe wrote “we cannot doubt that the Oak Tree series had been initiated well before 1662,” the date of the first twopence. The Oak and Pine series were clearly struck for far longer than the Willow series, based on their disparate rarity. Beyond that, all we have is supposition.

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