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Spain’s Footprint on U.S. Coins

1794 4 reales silver coin. (Images courtesy Numismatic Guaranty Company.)

1794 4 reales silver coin. (Images courtesy Numismatic Guaranty Company.)

Anyone who has done a bit of looking into the history of the U.S. right at the time we declared our independence knows that one thing that just wasn’t in place for the 13 colonies, then states, was any form of monetary system. Our Congress didn’t even get around to authorizing a Mint until the 1790s, more than 15 years after our famous declaration of independence. Yet business is business, time is money, a penny saved is a penny earned and a host of other such sayings means that somehow commerce was still taking place through all these “money-less” years. So, what did the trick before there were any coins that stated “United States of America” on them? The answer is one that takes us out of the mainstream, as it were: the coins of Spain.

In the United States today, we can be forgiven for thinking that our history is almost exclusively aligned with that of Great Britain. After all, we speak English, and we have a bicameral system of a House and Senate – much like the British House of Commons and House of Lords. But Great Britain was hardly the only European power that set up shop on this side of the Atlantic. France was in the arena as thick as could be. So was Portugal. The Netherlands took a stab at it. Even Sweden had a colony for several years, where modern-day Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. But one of the big players in colonizing the western hemisphere was Spain. From as far south as Patagonia to forays up the Mississippi, Spain sent waves of conquistadores, hidalgos and settlers to the new lands across what Columbus and his men called “The Ocean Sea.” Part of what brought them over was the desire to conquer and be landowners; part was the thirst for gold and silver. Much of what they sent back home was gold and silver coinage.

Plenty of collectors are aware that the Spanish set up their Casa de Moneda – the Mint – in what is now Mexico City way back in 1535. By the year 1776, that facility, and others farther south, had become major players in producing silver coins for Spain, for the Spanish Empire in the Americas and for the trans-Pacific trade with the Empire of China. The big silver coins in this system were the 8 reales pieces, often called the “Spanish dollar” or the “pillar dollar” today. They were of a well-established weight and were accepted in large parts of the world, including the 13 British colonies.

Collecting Spanish silver can be a fun way to embellish and add to any collection of early, classic United States silver. We could start by looking at which Spanish kings were on the throne from 1776 to the time of Mexico’s war on independence in the early 1800s, and from this assembling what we could call a portrait set. The pillars and coat of arms on the reverse of such coins seldom changed much. But perhaps obviously, each king had his royal noggin on the obverse of such coins. Some of these coins can be expensive, but many are still undervalued and thus not too costly.

If a look into the 8 reales pieces turns up prices we do not like, there is always the possibility of shifting to the lower denominations. Going from the top down, beyond the 8 reales coins there are the 4-, the 2-, the 1- and the tiny 1/2-reale silver pieces. These also all sport the likeness of the king on the obverse, and the royal coat of arms on the reverse – and can be a testament to the skill of the Casa de Moneda engravers of those times. Plenty of them exist today, and based on how worn some of them are, they must have circulated for decades.

Curiously, a further possibility that exists, one that is extremely rare with any kind of coin except the 8 reales, is that of a cut silver piece. What we mean is that 8 reales pieces exist that have been cut into two pieces, or four or even eight. These “bits” were a way to make small change from the big coins. Doing this may seem odd to us today, but if we think about it, back when these coins were being minted, virtually every town, even the smallest, had a blacksmith’s shop. Smith’s shops had the tools needed to cut a piece of metal, and so coins could be chopped into smaller, pie-shaped wedges to be used as small change. One-eighth was a bit, in theory worth 12-1/2 cents. Such cut bits can still be found today.

Spanish colonial coins, as well as those of a newly independent Mexico, circulated in a growing United States for decades, until Congress got around to passing a law specifically ending the practice. The 1857 law that was approved on Feb. 21 stated that such coins should be turned in at the Treasury, or “... its several offices, and at the several post-offices and land-offices ...” and later in the bill indicated that such coins “... shall be recoined at the mint.”

So, the law of 1857 ended the official use of Spanish silver in the United States and marks the end of one chapter in our monetary history, but opened another. With time, the use of all foreign coins in everyday commerce did cease, but a memory or two of them remains even today. When we hear a kids team call out the old cheer, “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team stand up and holler!” those bits are a connection to this very old, well-established system. Collecting Spanish silver alongside our classic U.S. silver might seem a bit off the mainstream but can be a fun, modern connection to a fascinating piece of history.