Irish Coins

Project details

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Copper
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – Early 17th century
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Exchange

The first charter granted to the Virginia Company said it could print money for its colony. The company never did. There was no great need for coinage in early Jamestown because English settlers bartered with Native Americans, and barter was the exchange between colonists and the company (the company sent supplies, and the colonists sent back natural commodities).

Some pocket change did circulate, fueling a black market system as colonists bought personal supplies from individual sailors on visiting supply ships. If you had a coin or a piece of a coin, you could find someone who valued it because coins then were made out of valuable metals. A coin cut into halves or quarters could still literally be worth half or a quarter of its whole value.

More than 30 Irish pennies and halfpennies have been found at Jamestown. Minted in London in 1601 and 1602, these coins provided Ireland with small coins while keeping silver in England. (Small silver denominations had been absent from the Irish currency since early in King Henry VII’s reign.) People in Ireland rejected these pennies and halfpennies. Did they get to Virginia in the pockets of individuals who either had seen military service in Ireland or had been involved with the English settlement of Ireland in the early 17th century? Or were these coins a cheap way for London to satisfy the colonists’ need for small change? These practically worthless copper objects would have been valuable items for the Indian trade as well.

Coinage remained scarce in Virginia throughout the 1600s — even after the British crown retook control of the colony. It was too expensive to keep fashioning valuable metals into coinage. Instead, tobacco leaves literally became a cash crop and were used to value work or pay taxes or buy slaves. That is part of what made the Chesapeake region a good place for a poor man from the 1620s to the 1660s: land was available for newly-freed servants to start their own farms and grow a plant that was creating wealth out of thin air. Such farmers also gained the ability to use credit, since they could get things and pay later with tobacco after it was harvested.