Deep golden-brown. Bent at one time then straightened, with a ridge running diagonally from 12 to 5 o'clock relative to the obverse. Peripheral details fully represented on both sides though a trifle weak at places on the reverse, numerous central obverse ticks obscure much of the deer motif, the value III, and a portion of VA. The reverse is entirely readable at the legend but weak at the center with just one crown and a portion of the three axes visible. A previously unknown Higley copper that came to light in a box of world coins from an estate near Birmingham, England in late 2011. The coin was mixed with a group of well-worn early English and Irish coppers and a Gun Money shilling. A sharp-eyed dealer with an eye for American coins identified the piece and now it appears here at auction for the first time ever. (Amazingly, another previously unknown Higley copper, a Broad Axe type, was discovered in the same geographic location in a junkbox lot at a local auction in 2003.) The present piece represents one of those occurrences when a popular rarity that was previously unknown comes into the numismatic marketplace. Despite its low-grade nature, the present Higley copper will be well-received when it crosses the auction block.
In connection with this remarkable offering we, with the permission of our own Dave Bowers and Whitman Publishing LLC, give the following information from Dave’s book, The Whitman Encyclopedia of Colonial and Early American Coins, a standard reference:
Dr. Higley and His Coinage
Among the most interesting of all early American issues are the copper tokens struck circa 1737-1739 by Dr. Samuel Higley, of Granby, Connecticut. Higley, a medical doctor with a degree from Yale College, also practiced blacksmithing and made many experiments in metallurgy. In 1727 he devised a practical method of producing steel.
In 1728 Higley purchased property on a hill in Simsbury (the area later known as Granby) which furnished the site for many copper mines, the most famous being the extensive mine corridors and shafts which were later used as the Newgate Prison. Mines on the hill were worked extensively during the early and middle 18th century. In October 1773 the Connecticut General Assembly passed an act which pertained to the various subterranean caverns and external buildings of the copper mines in Simsbury and converted them for use as a public jail and workhouse. Phelps, in his History of the Copper Mines in Newgate Prison at Granby, Connecticut, noted:
“The prisoners were to be employed in mining. The crimes, by which the acts subjected offenders to confinement and labor in the prison, were burglary, horse stealing, and counterfeiting the public bills or coins, or making instruments and dies therefore. By the time Newgate Prison was abandoned in 1827, the buildings had been destroyed by fire three times. The cruel, dark, damp conditions precipitated numerous revolts and violent incidents. Escapes were frequent.”
Following his 1728 purchase, Higley operated a small but thriving mining business which extracted exceptionally rich copper. Much if not most of the metal was exported to England. Sometime around the year 1737 Higley is thought to have produced a copper token, perhaps using his own copper, but this is not verified. The obverse depicted a standing deer with the legend THE VALUE OF THREE-PENCE. The reverse showed three crowned hammers (derived from the arms of the English blacksmiths’ guild) with the surrounding legend, CONNECTICUT, and the date 1737.
Legend tells us that drinks in the local tavern sold at the time for three pence each, and Higley was in the habit of paying his bar bill with his own coinage. There was a cry against this for the Higley copper threepence was of a diameter no larger than the contemporary English halfpence which circulated in the area; coins which had a value of just 1/6th of that stated on the Higley coin. Accordingly, Higley redesigned his coinage so that the obverse legend was changed to read VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE. The pieces still bore an indication of value, the Roman numeral III below the standing deer. Two new reverses were designed, one of which pictured three hammers with the inscription I AM GOOD COPPER. The other reverse, picturing a broad axe, had the legend I CUT MY WAY THROUGH. The third obverse design, of which only a single specimen is known, depicted a wagon wheel with the legend THE WHEELE GOES ROUND.
While on a voyage to England in May 1737, on a ship loaded with copper from his own mine, Samuel Higley died. His oldest son, John, together with Rev. Timothy Woodbridge and William Cradock probably engraved and struck the issues of 1739. Facts are scarce, while numismatic tradition is strong. In the same year John Read, of Boston, Massachusetts, proposed to the Connecticut General Court assembled in New Haven that he be granted a patent to produce copper halfpence and farthings from native Connecticut ore mined in the Simsbury-Granby area. Cradock and Woodbridge joined him in the proposal. The Read petition came to naught, so the first authorized coinage did not occur until several decades later with the Connecticut coppers of 1785, by different principals and in another location.
In a communication to the author, numismatic historian David Gladfelter noted:
“The problem in ascribing the 1737-dated tokens to Samuel Higley is the lateness of their dates. The date 1737 would not have been used in Connecticut until March 25, 1737 (then New Year’s Day) and thereafter. Samuel Higley lost his life at sea in May 1737, so he would have had only a few weeks to prepare dies and strike tokens dated 1737.”
Apparently the original Higley coinage was small, and circulation was effected mainly in Granby and its environs. Crosby relates that a goldsmith, who served his apprenticeship around 1810, told that Higley pieces were hard to find at the time and were in demand to use as an alloy for gold. The goldsmith related that his master delayed completing a string of gold beads for he was unable to find a copper Higley threepence with which to alloy the metal.
Numismatic Aspects of Higley Coppers
Today Higley issues of all types are exceedingly rare, and often a span of years will occur between offerings. Nearly all pieces show very extensive evidence of circulation, with most grading in the range of Good or Very Good, although a Fair or About Good coin would be desirable and highly collectible. Most collectors would do well to have even a single example to illustrate the Higley series. Cabinets with as many as four or five coins have been few and far between in the annals of our hobby. Remarkably, in the 18th century pioneer American numismatist Pierre Eugène Du Simitière had seven specimens.
Crosby’s The Early Coins of America gives basic information on the Higley series. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins offers an expanded view. Most useful today is the carefully researched study, “The History and Die Varieties of the Higley Coppers,” by Daniel Freidus, based on his presentation at the Coinage of the Americas Conference held by the American Numismatic Society in 1994 (text published in 1995). The average diameter of a Higley copper is about 28.6 mm. All have a plain edge.