assortment of copper alloy coins arranged in an oval
Irish coins

Since coins are among the few artifacts that are dated, they are welcome finds on archaeological sites. A coin buried with other artifacts undisturbed over the centuries sets the date after which the deposit occurred. Yet how much later? As you might notice in your own pocket change, coins are sometimes in circulation for a long time. A 1560 coin found at James Fort demonstrates that coins used during the colonial period circulated long after their date of manufacture.

The first charter granted to the Virginia Company said it could print money for its colony yet the Company never did. There was no great need for coinage in early Jamestown: settlers bartered with both Native Americans and the Company itself. In the latter exchange, the Company sent supplies and the colonists sent back natural materials from Virginia.

However, Jamestown’s barter economy still needed a way to count value. More than 500 coins, jettons, and tokens have been found around the original James Fort site. Most of the coins are English. Others are European coins from Ireland, Spain, Scotland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Italy, and Livonia (present day Latvia) — showing how connected 17th century economies were and how much people valued metal money, even if it displayed another nation’s king. European coins were acceptable currency because they were worth the weight of the gold or silver used to make them.

Coins at that time were made from valuable metals. A coin cut into halves or quarters could still literally be worth half or a quarter of its whole value. Some change did circulate, fueling a black market system as colonists bought personal supplies from sailors on visiting supply ships.

Coinage remained scarce in Virginia throughout the 1600s even after the British Crown retook control of the colony. It was simply too expensive to keep fashioning valuable metals into coinage. Instead, tobacco leaves became a cash crop and were used to pay for labor, taxes, or slaves. Between 1620 and 1660, the promise of available land and tobacco’s growing value drew newly-freed servants to the Chesapeake area to establish their own farms. Tobacco-based credit was established, which enabled these individuals to acquire goods and pay later with the crop once it was harvested.

selected artifacts