by Barbara Rimkunas
This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, January 16, 2015.
Pine tree shillings were used at a time when colonists were not legally allowed to mint their own coins. Money was in short supply but the local economy was booming. Massachusetts Bay Colony decided that if England wasn’t inclined to send adequate coin their way they’d simply make their own. So what if it was technically illegal? England was going through a rough patch in the 1650s. King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and for the next eleven years the nation was ruled as a republic, and the chaos of that period left the colonies somewhat on their own. A coin was designed without the face of a monarch, but with one of the most valuable resources of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – a pine tree. They could have gone with the other valuable asset – a cod fish – but anyone willing to sail to the Grand Banks could catch fish. Pine trees, and lumber in general, grew in the colonies in such abundance that the largely deforested Britain lusted after them, reserving the tallest and straightest for the navy. Putting the pine tree on their illegal coinage was basically showing off.
The coins were used – all with the date 1652 – for the next thirty years. It was a time period that coincided with the time when Exeter was part of Massachusetts. We rarely talk about these dark days when New Hampshire and Massachusetts overlapped. It was an uncomfortable period for all involved. Massachusetts ignored English laws at roughly the same rate New Hampshire ignored Massachusetts laws. But in one area they agreed – the pine tree shilling was the favored currency.
It’s no wonder that rumors of the coin in Exeter tend to surface. We even have a business building on Court Street called “Pine Tree Shilling.” Older residents may remember it as the Marshall Transportation bus depot, in 1986 it was spruced up and given its new name. Was a hoard of pine tree shillings found on Court Street? The Massachusetts Statehouse time capsule has reignited the mystery.
For once, an old Exeter story turns out to be true. There was a coin hoard of pine tree shillings found in Exeter, although not on Court Street. An entry in the July, 1877 edition of the American Journal of Numismatics noted, “sixteen pine-tree shillings bearing the date 1652 were found in Exeter, N.H. October last. They were discovered when unloading sand, and were as bright as they were when coined. They were evidently in a box that had decayed. The sand was then sifted, and fourteen more were afterwards found.”
The Exeter News-Letter gave further details on the great find. “Some men in digging a cellar at the grocery store of C.H. Emerson, on Middle Street, were the first to make the discovery. The earth, as it was excavated had to undergo several cartings and the money must have been pretty well scattered when the first piece was found, as others were found in several places more or less distant. The remains of what might have been a box were found in a very decayed, dilapidated condition, giving color to the supposition that the money had not been buried in a loose condition. The pieces, some thirty in all, are for the most part bright, and bear the same date, 1652.”
So, where was the spot? Middle Street no longer exists in Exeter. At one time, the stretch of Main Street from Cass Street to Epping Road was called ‘Middle Street.’ The grocery store owned by Charles Emerson is today the Exeter Flower Shop, which, according Kevin Blair the current owner, still has a partial dirt basement. “Maybe I should go dig around down there,” he observed when the coin hoard was mentioned. Probably not, though. The News-Letter in 1876 when the coins were found commented, “that pile of earth was pretty well dug over when the news of its richness had gone forth, and one of the men who had carried away two loads of it to spread on his garden probably gave it a thorough stirring up, which will help to enrich his crops if not his pockets.”
Pine tree shillings are very valuable on the market today – some in good condition are worth many thousands of dollars. Alas, none of Exeter’s pine tree shillings remained in town. The News-Letter noted, ruining all our dreams, that “the coins found a ready market from twenty-five cents to $2.50.” They are long gone, along with our troubled memories of when Exeter was part of Massachusetts.
Caption: The Massachusetts Bay Colony coined pine tree shillings from roughly 1652 – 1680 all with the same date. They were used throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.