The early settlers of the North American continent at first had little need of struck coins, all transactions being conducted by a form of barter. As life in the new colonies became more complicated, however, and traders began to arrive from overseas bringing their goods to sell, some form of currency became necessary. Since the English government did not, at the time, provide the colonists with a coinage of their own, many types of coins were used to pay these traders, English, French, Dutch and Spanish currency being particularly prevalent in the ports along the eastern seaboard. Spanish dollars or eight-real pieces, together with their fractions, struck at the mints of Mexico City and Lima in New Spain were by far the most popular of all the coins to be found in circulation and were readily acceptable. It is upon these `pieces of eight' that the subsequent coinage of the United States was based, the two pillars with their entwined mottoes on the reverse of the coin being thought to be the origin of the dollar sign. Throughout the colonial period of American history the Spanish dollars remained the principal form of currency and it was not until 1857 that these coins were officially demonetized.
Apart from the foreign coins that circulated, payment was made in many other forms, the most general being `wampum' or strings of shells as used by the Indians. In 1637, `It was ordered that wampamege should passe at 6 a penny for any summe under 12d', and again, in 1640, `It is ordered that white wampamege shall passe at 4 a penny and blewe at 2 a penny and not above 12D at any time except the receiver desire more'. In addition to wampum, musket bullets `of a full bore shall passe currently for a farthing apeece, provided that noe man be compelled to take above XIId., att a tyme in them'. Horses, sheep, pigs, goats, asses, furs, grain and fish were also readily exchanged. The circulation of these articles was by no means restricted to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for in 1840 the marriage fee in Iowa was three goatskins or four bushels of sweet potatoes.
The earliest coins to be struck for the colonies in the Americas were those struck in the early seventeenth century for Somers Islands or the Bermudas as they are now called. These coins, made of brass and then silvered, are now extremely rare. They were known as `hog money', the name supposedly being invented after Sir George Somers had discovered the islands to be overrun with these animals when he was shipwrecked there whilst on his way to Virginia in 1609. The first coins to be struck on the mainland were those for the New England settlements of Massachusetts. In 1652, the General Court of Massachusetts ordered one John Hull to strike a quantity of silver shillings, sixpences and threepences. The design was crude; the letters NE in script capitals in a small rectangle are on one side and the value in Roman numerals is in a similar stamp on the other. The pure simplicity of the design invited counterfeiting and the design was later radically altered to a more complicated one. The obverse of the coins bears the words MASATHVETS IN. (or variants) around either a willow, oak or pine tree within a beaded circle and the reverse NEW ENGLAND ANO DOM (or variants) around the date and value. In the latter half of the eighteenth century some copper cents and half cents were issued with an Indian standing holding a bow and arrow on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. These were dated 1787 or 1788 and in the following year the mint was finally closed as being unprofitable.
The shortage of coins in the colonies had long been a matter of some inconvenience to the settlers, and the English government was never very helpful regarding the striking of coins to alleviate these difficulties. In the early eighteenth century, therefore, it became necessary to import large quantities of copper coins from England and Ireland. In July 1722 William Wood obtained a patent from George I whereby he was given the right to strike 300 tons of copper coins for use in the American colonies. The arrangement was that the first 200 tons were to be struck within the first four years and not more than ten tons a year for the next ten years. The first coins were undated but subsequent issues were dated 1722 and 1723. There were three denominations, twopences, pennies and halfpennies. One type has an obverse with the head of George I facing right with his titles and a full blown rose on the reverse surrounded by the legend RosA AMERICANA 1722 uTILE DuLCI (American Rose, the useful with the pleasant). The coins were made of Bath metal, a mixture of silver, brass and tutanaigne and are believed to have been struck in London and Bristol; later some dies were allegedly taken to New York.