The First Coins of the Americas

The First Coins of the Americas

As a Coin Collector, it is almost impossible to be able to appreciate the
beauty and the nuances of a coin without understanding the history behind it. 
I know many collectors who feel the same.  History in our schools should
actually be taught by following the money of societies, because if one follows
the money, then one understands the reasons behind historical events.  In
my last article, Two Bits....Four Bits.... (,
we looked at the role Spanish coinage played in the early United States economy
and their coinage.  Now the question arises, what was the first coinage in
the New World?  It just seems to be the logical progression back in time. 
The first coins of the New World were the Spanish coins of Carlos and Johanna. 
In order to really appreciate how these coins came about: we need to look at the
history of Spain during the time of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who
funded Christopher Columbus' expeditions to the New World; how Carlos and
Johanna were related to these rulers of Spain; and the establishment and
workings of the Mint in Mexico City (Casa de Moneda).  The story may be
long, but the appreciation that one will gain for these coins will be immense,
and a must for any collector.

During the Middle Ages, the area we currently know as "Spain" was nothing
more then a series of small kingdoms.  Through what we would now call a
series of political mergers and hostile takeovers, two of these kingdoms became
increasingly more powerful.  In the central part of what was call Iberia
was the kingdom of Castilla (the family of Isabella).  A kingdom in
northwestern Iberia, called Leon, joined with Castilla to form Greater Castilla. 
The kingdom of Aragon (the family of Ferdinand), located in eastern Iberia, took
over the kingdoms of Catalua and Valencia.  In a strategic merger, the
marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand (1469), the two great powers of Iberia came
together, and conquered the last Moorish strong hold in Iberia, Granada, to form
what we now know as Spain (1492).  As we all know it was in 1492, that
Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand financed Christopher Columbus' New World
explorations.  Isabella and Ferdinand were blessed with four children and
Johanna was a middle child.  If Johanna was a middle child, how did she
become the ruler of Spain?

Johanna had an older brother and sister, and a younger sister.  Her
older brother John, and her older sister Isabella, who was the Queen of
Portugal, and her infant son Miguel all died.  The younger sister Catherine
was the first wife of Henry VIII, and we all know what happened to her. 
So, the only heir to the throne was Johanna.  In 1496, Johanna married
archduke Philip the Handsome, the son of the German King Maximilian I, and in
February of 1500, Johanna gave birth to Carlos I, the future ruler of Spain. 
Upon the death of Johanna's mother, Queen Isabella in 1504, it was reported the
that her mental health began to decline, which later earned her the name
'Johanna la Loca' (Crazy Johanna).  Johanna and Philip left Spain for
Flanders.  This opened the door for King Ferdinand to grasp the power. 
He claimed that Philip was holding her prisoner, and he should be made
co-regent, and this just about caused a civil war.  Johanna and Philip
returned to Spain, but in 1506, Philip died suddenly of typhus, and Johanna's
mental state reached the point of derangement.  It almost got to the point
where it was impossible to get Johanna away from the corpse of her husband. 
Ferdinand now had complete power.  He isolated Johanna at the castle of Tordesilla.  Upon Ferdinand's death in 1516, Johanna's son, Carlos, claimed
the co-regency as his, and imprisoned his mother at Toresilla until her death.

When Christopher Columbus laid claim to the lands of the New World, it was
not for Spain, but rather in the name of Castilla.  Columbus was
soon followed by a host of other Spanish explorers, Vincent Yanez Pinzon, Ponce
de Leon, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Hernando Cortez, and Pizarro.  It is
Hernando Cortez who continues this story of the first coins of the Americas.

It was on August 13, 1521 when the conquest of the Tenochtitlan Empire was
completed.  The lands we know as Mexico was now called "New Spain," with
Hernando Cortez governing as Head of the Army.  As Cortez consummated his
victory, and as  the Spanish influence grew throughout "New Spain," the
demand for coinage to expedite commerce became critical.  As early as 1525,
Cortez had petitioned the crown to open a mint in the New World.  In 1535,
Antonio de Mendoza arrived in "New Spain" as the first viceroy in the Americas. 
He brought along with him several royal decrees, and among those decrees was one
for the establishment of a mint.

One of the new viceroy's orders of business was to confiscate the palace of
Hernando Cortez for his own use, and to set up the new mint in the back of the
palace.  The mint initially operated as a contracting service for merchants
requiring coinage.  The mint remained in the palace location until 1547. 
The coins to be struck by this new mint were those of Carlos and Johanna in the
denomination of 1, 2, 3 and 4 reales made in silver.  There was also
provisions for silver half and quarter real coins with a design that was more
suitable to the size of the coins.  The coins are not dated, but the
Spanish records are meticulous, and the date range of the coins that were
produced can be determined by the assayer's initials appearing on the coins, and
cross referencing those initials with the records.

There are two basic design types of the Carlos and Johanna 1, 2, 3, and 4
reales:  the pillar type with an approximate date range of 1536 - 1542, and
the pillar with waves type with an approximate date range of 1542 - 1572. 
The later type was continued for 17 years after the death of Johanna.  The
basic design is as described below, however there are variations that occurred
within the design elements.  The dies for striking the coins were hand
engraved to their actual size, and dies were made by a multitude of artisans.

In general, the pillar type Carlos and Johanna coins seldom displays the full
design.  It was less work to make a thicker coin blank of the proper weight
when hammering the silver into sheets.  The main device on the obverse of
the coin displays the heraldic shield or coat-of-arms of Greater Castilla, not
that of Spain.  It is a shield divided into four quadrants with the Lions
of Leon, and the Castles of Castilla appearing in opposing corners to each
other.  To the left of the shield is the assayer's initial(s), and to the
right is the mintmark.  The main device on the reverse of the coin exhibits
two columns each topped with a crown.  These represent the Pillars of
, which was the ancient name for the Strait of Gibraltar, the
gateway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean flanked by Spain on
one side and Morocco on the other. Bannered across the coin is the Latin word
, which was an abbreviation for PLVS VLTRA (appearing on the
later series was PLVS VLTR).  This Latin phrase means "more beyond." 
Above the bannered Latin phrase appears dots for the denomination of the coin. 
One dot equals 1 real, two dots equals 2 reales, three dots equals 3 reales, and
the Arabic number four below the Latin Phrase is a 4 reales.  The legend or
inscription on the coin starts on the obverse and finishes on the reverse. 
On the obverse it reads CAROLVS ET JOHANA REGES, and on the reverse
, meaning "Carlos and Johanna, Rulers of Spain and of
the Indies."

The later series, the Carlos and Johanna pillar with waves type varied only
slightly from the early series.  In general, the coin blanks were full
size, which means the full design of the dies were struck into the coin; waves
appear across the base of the Pillars of Hercules; and, the Latin phrase
appears as PLVS VLTR.

What many collectors find so curious about these first coins of the Americas
is the changes within the minting process that occurred.  The pillar type
utilized hammered sheets of silver from which the coin blanks were cut, and the
pillar with waves type used rolled sheets of silver from which the coin blanks
were cut.  Both coin types were hand struck by placing the blanks between
the two dies and striking it with a hammer.  The coins are beautiful,
round, and carry full detail.  Years later, one finds the "cob" type of
coinage being released from the Mexico City Mint.  The "cob" coinage is
crude.  They usually have clipped edges; vary in thickness; are rarely
round; and, seldom display full details in striking.  Why would this be? 
That is another story for another time.

The silver reales of Carlos and Johanna are the first coins of the Americas. 
They are scarce, and may be difficult to find, but are truly a coin worth the
time to find, and add to your collection.

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This content was written by Raymond F. Hanisco. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Gary Eggleston for details.