Tokens and Coins

The currency of bookkeeping in Upper Canada was always based on the British pound sterling. Before British decimalization in 1971, there were 20 shillings in a pound and 12 pense in a shilling. However coinage used in the day-to-day economy was not so simple.

Until the early 18th century, British currency was on the 'Silver Standard' and coins had their value set by the amount of silver they contained. During the 18th century the 'Gold Standard' was adapted throughout the world, but with differing conversion rates between silver and gold. As Britain's exchange rate was stingier than others in terms of the value of silver, coupled with the fact that domestic silver production had been exhausted, Britain suffered an acute silver shortage. This shortage coupled with the reality that Royal Mint moneyers could make more on private coin production assignments than producing legal tender meant that the Royal Mint produced almost no coins from the middle of the 18th century through to 1816 when the coinage system was overhauled.

The shortage of coins in Britain meant that British coins simply did not circulate on the very remote trails of Upper Canada.

Colonial governments such as Upper Canada rated the value of various world-wide currency coins based on the amount of silver they contained and while these ratings varied widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, they were always rated higher than those coins in Britain. This in affect made rated currencies legal tender within the colony. Though at first loyalists brought with them the 'York Rating' from New York City, by 1796 both Upper and Lower Canada adopted the Halifax Rating that valued the Spanish dollar (8 real) at 5 shillings(1).

Figure 1. 1762 Spanish Real found near the Ham House foundation

In the absence of legal tender, merchants commissioned (usually from British workshops) the striking of tokens who's value they would honour in trade over their counters. The value of the bullion in the token was typically far less than face value of the piece.

Figure 2. 1778 Loyalist Copper : "May Britain...", found under a door threshold within the building

Early colonial tokens tended to be struck from copper. After the U.S. Revolutionary War this particularly continued in Connecticut where in 1785, Bishop, Hillhouse, Goodrich and Hopkins petitioned the state government to strike copper tokens based on the British half penny coin.

Figure 3. 1787 Connecticut Copper found under the rear addition

With real coins unavailable, tokens in Britain and British North America went into general circulation and were honoured by all merchants - not just the merchants that had commissioned their striking. While most tokens found at Ham House were documented in the reference by Haxby and Willey (2), some are not. The most common British tokens found at Ham House were the Wellington tokens brought by the British army at the end of the War of 1812.

Figure 4. 1813 Wellington Token. Likely first issued as a medal

Figure 5. c. 1824 Lesslie Token. The only Upper Canada token with French in the inscription. Found near the Ham House foundation.

Strictly speaking, the general use of circulating merchant tokens was illegal, but was tolerated as there were few other options. By 1825 the prevalence of token forgeries caused the token system to break down and Upper Canada passed laws banning the striking of new tokens with a date after 1825. However this law did not address new tokens struck stating dates earlier than 1825 so the use of tokens continued with incorrect dates until the early 1830's when the law expired. The token system had completely broken down by the 1840's. Indeed a number of found 'coins' appear to have been deliberately destroyed, perhaps having been fraudulently passed as valid tokens.

Figure 6. Possible forgery - plated steel apparently destroyed

The U.S. dollar was established by the U.S. Coinage Act of 1792. This was a decimal system tied 1:1 to the Spanish Dollar with the smallest coin being the half cent coin. The earliest U.S. coin found at Ham House after the 1787 Connecticut Copper was an 1847 one cent piece,

Though British Pounds Sterling was the legal currency of tender in Upper Canada, even the first paper issuance of army bills by the Government of Lower Canada to finance the War of 1812 was denominated in dollars. The first bank notes were issued by the Montreal Bank in 1817 and then the Bank of Upper Canada in Kingston in 1819, and these were denominated in dollars as allowed by the Halifax Rating. Trade and proximity to the U.S. cemented a preference for this denomination.

With unification of the Canadas in 1841, a new currency rating was established very similar to the older Halifax Rating. In addition, the new Governor General of Canada (Lord Sydenham) proposed the introduction of a decimal currency system with a government issue of paper currency, but this was opposed mainly by the banks who feared loss of their bank notes and restraints on credit.

In 1850 the Bank of Upper Canada petitioned the government to issue the first government-authorized tokens and the one penny and half penny tokens were struck in that year. Excellent examples of both these tokens were found at Ham House. At the same time, government officials were moving forward with currency reform, with Canadians favoring a decimal system based on dollars and with strong resistance from the British government who wanted the establishment of the 'Royal' linked to sterling. The Currency Act of 1853 compromised by requiring both systems, locking the CAN $10 to the US $10 gold eagle, and the British gold sovereign to CAN $4.8666. British gold and silver coins and U.S. gold coins were legal tender in Canada while the U.S. silver coins were not. A silver 1858 U.S. half dime was found near the front door of Ham House. We have also found an 1857 one penny token. This later token was the last Canadian non-decimal issue.

Figure 7. 1857 Bank of Upper Canada 1 penny token. Last non-decimal Canadian issue.

The Currency Act was revised in 1858 and all accounts were changed to dollars and cents. The first coins based on the new Canadian Dollar were struck in that year. Under the addition we found an 1858 Canadian dime - the first year of issue.

Figure 8. 1858 Canadian 5 cent piece found under addition. First issue of the Canadian Dollar.

After correcting for the actual striking date of the tokens and coins, a pattern in the token and coin density of finds is evident. Though the sharp peak at 1814 is indicative of many things, the period after the War of 1812 to about 1830 was probably the most 'active' period for Ham House and this is reflected in the distribution of discovered coins and tokens. This is despite the fact most early tokens were likely lost around the most token-rich areas of the store door and tavern tap room door due to municipal excavation.

Figure 9. Token Finds density with time


1. James Powell, "A History of the Canadian Dollar", Bank of Canada, 2005

2. J. A. Haxby and R. C. Willey, "Coins of Canada 2011", The Unitrade Press, 2011