From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

Once the early settlers of the New England colonies got past the first years of subsistence farming, they were ready to acquire items not easily found in the woods and fields of their new home. Bartering became a way to get the things that they wanted, but they were always looking for some form of a money payment when goods were exchanged. In 1637, the Native American’s wampum made of primarily quahog shells was considered legal tender and could for a while be used to pay taxes. Unfortunately, in 1661, the fragility of the shells led to it no longer being accepted. Different areas created paper money, but it would only be accepted in limited areas and its value fluctuated widely.

            Most of the items, animal skins, dried fish and tobacco, which Massachusetts colonists exported to England, were paid for by the English in commodities, like windowpanes, fabrics, mirrors, pewter dishes and tea. While the colonists wanted these items, they really wanted to be paid in gold coins. Being paid in coins made trading easier and also provided them with the ability to accumulate wealth. Neither of these were encouraged by the English government which ruled the colonies and wanted all trade by the colonists to be with Britain.

            Interestingly, the best sources for the most common coin, the Spanish dollar or piece of eight, were pirates who would spend their loot in New England’s Coastal communities. One particular pirate, John Avery, stole a fortune in gold coins from an Arab merchant in 1695. The New England colonists welcomed his spending in their ports.

            Eventually, in 1720, the lack of money (coins) was so great in Massachusetts that the province, much like the U.S. government during the worst of the Covid 19 Pandemic, made a plan to loan money to the towns. In 1720, the province made a grant of 50,000 pounds to be loaned in the towns. In 1721, Rochester voted to participate, and the town’s share was 365 pounds. The terms for the available loans were that each borrower was “to give bonds with a personal (not “real”) security” and would agree to pay a small interest to the town. The borrower would also have to pay four pence a pound to John Briggs and Benjamin Dexter who were the two men selected as agents to bring the money to town. The money could be held for four years unless the town “drew it in.”

            The 365 pounds were divided into 15 parts and those who had provided a bond drew lots. The 15 lucky winners were Capt. Isaac Holmes, Nathan Hammond, James Steward, John Randall, Samuel Griffith, Samuel Sprague, Moses Barlow, William Raymond, Ethien Holmes, Samuel Shearman, Joseph Haskell, John Dexter, Joseph Prince, William Noyes and Thomas Randall. There is no mention as to whether anyone was unable to return the money after the four years.

By Connie Eshbach

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