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America’s First Silver Dollar

6th National Silver Dollar Convention

St. Louis, Missouri

November 11 -17, 1985



America’s First Silver Dollar

By Jim Blanchard & Joe Buzanowski



The first page of “A Guide Book of United States Coins” (the red book) by R.S. Yeoman, discusses the Spanish milled dollar before any other U.S. coin, calling it “The coin of our nation’s founders.”  The red book further states that the pillar dollar and its fractional parts “were the principal coins of the American colonists and the Spanish milled dollars (8 reales) also known as Pieces of Eight or Pillar dollars, are generally recognized as the most important silver dollars to circulate in the United States.  In fact, Spanish milled coinage, including the pillar types were legal tender in the United States until 1857.

Milled coinage was introduced in 1732.  The term “milled” has no connection to the “milling” on the edge of the coin.  It refers to coins being produced by the screw press, which received power for the minting equipment from water and horse mills.  This process ended the practice of coining money by striking the dies with a heavy hammer.

Minted by Spain in her American colonies from 1732 to 1771, the pillar dollar quickly achieved worldwide circulation and acceptance.  It is said that even to this day, in some remote areas of the world, this coin still circulates freely.  The greatest output of pillar coinage was from the Mexico City mint, but they were also struck at colonial mints in Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Guatemala and Peru.

The nickname pillar dollar was derived from the reverse of the coin.  It shows two globes in the center (representing the Old and New Worlds) resting on a symbolic ocean (dividing the two worlds), between two pillars (the Herculean pillars at the gates of Gibralter) topped by the crown of Spain.  Also on the reverse the legend, “Utraque Unum” (both united – Old and New World), the mint mark and date.  The obverse is dominated by the coat of arms of the Spanish royal family, the denomination (8 reales) and the legend, “(King’s name) of Spain and the Indes, by the grace of God.”  Spanish milled dollars were minted under Phillip V from 1732-1747, Ferdinand VI from 1747-1760, and by Charles III from 1760-1771.

For those of you who still remember the old high school cheer, “two bits, four bit, six bits, a dollar,” is derived from the pillar dollar.  The British referred to the real as a bit.  Many times the pillar dollar would actually be cut into sections to be used as change.  These fractional parts were accepted at their fractional value as legal tender.  Quartered sections were unequally divided on a forty to sixty portion.  So you would then have a short bit and a long bit.  The short bit had a value of ten cents and a long bit had a value of fifteen cents.  If the quartered sections were cut equally, you would get one real or one bit.  The last breakdown and smallest denomination at the time was a picayune which was half a bit and was worth six and a half cents.

Pillar dollars are widely collected not only for their rarity and beauty but also for their historical and somewhat romantic connections to the pirates and galleons which roamed the waters of the Spanish Main, at one time a huge portion of the world’s seas.  There are many ways to collect Spanish milled dollars.  The first and most obvious is by date, but they are also collected by mints and by rulers.  Since many of these coins were mainly minted to be exported for trade with the Orient, one other fun way to collect pillar dollars is by various chop marks.  They can also be collected by different shipwrecks on which they appear.  Sea salvaged coins are our personal favorites.  Most of these coins were “unc. when sunk” (AHEM) and many coins have full detail and nice surfaces.  There were many shipwrecks during the 18th century and many of the coins from these wrecks have been fully documented.  One of the most famous is the Reygersdahl, a Dutch East India vessel that went down in 1747 off the cape of South Africa after 4-1/2 months at sea.  It contained a money chest of some four thousand pillar dollars.  The coins were recovered from the submerged wreck in 1979.  Most of the coins from this wreck were in near uncirculated condition when recovered.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Spanish pillar dollar is perhaps the most important coin in American’s history and as such is one of the most important coins ever minted.  If you are interested in silver dollars, don’t overlook the pillar dollar.  It has history, rarity, romance and is a symbol of America’s early struggle for independence and self rule.


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