Carolina Elephant Tokens

Carolina Elephant Tokens

So much has been written about the Carolina Elephant tokens that were struck in the late 1600s that it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Originally, these enigmatic little pieces were thought to be a circulating halfpenny for England’s New World colony of Carolina, but this turned out not to be the case, as none have been found in recovered American hoards, save for the occasional specimen nestled with other coins and tokens of British origin. This leaves the question: Who were these tokens produced for, and why?

To find the answer, we should probably take a close look at the token itself. The obverse is dominated by a single African elephant, which is distinguished from its Asian cousin by its large ears. The obverse also features a diminutive beaded border, which sometimes is only partially visible because the pieces frequently were struck off-center.

The Elephant token was issued with three distinct reverse inscriptions: GOD: PRESERVE: LONDON, GOD:/ PRESERVE/ NEW:/ ENGLAND./ 1694 and the issue discussed here, GOD:/ PRESERVE:/ CAROLINA AND/ THE LORDS:/ PROPRIETORS/ 1694. (An early, rare variety features the spelling of the last word as PROPRIETERS.)

The ‘New England’ and ‘Carolina’ inscriptions seem to allude to American colonization, but just who were these Lords Proprietors? The eight men chosen by England’s Charles II in 1663 to serve as landlords and to collect quitrents from land investors were: Sir William Berkeley, Sir John Berkeley (the Baron of Stratton), Sir John Colleton, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper (the Earl of Shaftesbury), Sir George Carteret, General George Monck (the Duke of Albemarle), Edward Hyde (the Earl of Clarendon), and Lord William Craven. Only two of these men ever set foot on Carolina soil, and only William Craven remained alive by 1694.

No coinage is known to have been minted exclusively for use in the New World land grant known as Carolana (later Carolina). Instead, a combination of Spanish, South American, French and English coinage served as surrogate currency for the colonists. Cut-down Spanish coinage was the norm, and the exact exchange varied greatly with the coin’s presumed weight and fineness, as well as who was involved in the exchange.

In short, the experiment known as Carolina was an early failure. The Crown proved unable, or perhaps unwilling, to protect the colony against attacks from Spaniards and Native Americans. The Yamassee Indian War of 1715 was the final blow to the settlers. By the 1720s, Carolina was in full revolt and, just nine years later, Parliament divided North and South Carolina into Royal Provinces.

At 128 to 161 grains, the token would have exchanged nicely with the halfpenny of the day. This fact, combined with the obverse design, led to the “London” version of this token picking up the moniker, the “African halfpenny.” All three varieties were coined at the Tower Mint in London, with copper being supplied by the Royal African Company.

I like the theory that suggests these tokens acted as promotional pieces that advertised the New World colonies to potential land investors in England. Evidence has also come to light suggesting they may have been issued by a couple of popular London coffeehouses. (Promoting interest in the new colonies by way of a whimsical token distributed in coffeehouses in an affluent district would have proven highly effective.)

The New England version is exceedingly rare today and was perhaps issued in smaller quantities. Regardless, both varieties have ties to early Colonial America and therefore will always hold a special place in the hearts of token collectors.

— Greg Capps


Bowers, Q. David. The History of United States Coinage As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. John Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Crosby, Sylvester. The Early Coins of America. Boston, 1875.

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