Coin stamped 1601
Irish Coin

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.

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.

More than 30 copper Irish pennies and halfpennies have been found at Jamestown. Minted in London in 1601 and 1602, these coins provided Ireland with small coinage 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 coins, thus raising the question of how these artifacts got to Virginia. Did they come 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? In addition to this use, these copper objects would have also been valuable items for trade with the Native Americans.

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.