Ron Guth: In the year 1652, Boston minters John Hull and Robert Saunderson began making the first silver coins ever struck on American soil. Their first designs were simple: one side was punched with a small “NE” (for “NEW ENGLAND”) and the other side was punched with the denomination in Roman numerals (in this case, the Shilling denomination represented by “XII). The punches were offset so that they would not crush each other.
The methods by which the New England Shillings were “struck” has been the subject of recent debate. Tradition holds that blank planchets were cut out of strips of silver, then weighed. Light planchets were re-melted while overweight planchets were adjusted by clipping their edges until they reached the proper weight of 72 grains. Once the weight was correct, the coins received the appropriate punches. A new theory holds that strips of silver received numerous punches, then the coins were cut out of the strip, taking care not to disturb the markings. Whichever method was used, the result was a crude piece, imperfectly round, and about as plain as a coin can be.
Interestingly, the language of the original legislation authorizing these coins called for them to be square, not round! The legislation also required that a privy (minter’s) mark be placed on each coin. However, later legislation changed the shape of the coin to round and no one has discovered yet the secret of the privy mark (if, indeed, any such marks were placed on the coins). New England Shillings were struck for three months in 1652, after which the designs were replaced by the so-called “Willow Tree” Massachusetts Silver coins (also struck by Hull and Sanderson). The New England Shillings do not bear a date, and some may have been made illegally in later years.
The Willow Tree coinage was the next iteration of Massachusetts Silver. The method used to create the coins was crude, resulting in jumbled designs and legends. All are rare and they are seldom found in nice condition.
The Oak Tree coinage replaced the Willow Tree coinage. The minters appear to have improved their techniques, as the overall quality of the Oak Tree coins is vastly better than that of the Willow Trees, and much more complex than the NE coinage. Numerous varieties exist. The final Massachusetts silver coinage were the Pine Trees (the nicknames for these coins appeared well after the coins were struck and reflect the best guesses as to what types of trees are on the coins).
The Pine Tree coinage survives in much larger numbers than does any of the preceding issues, making them the most affordable and collectible of the group. Again, numerous varieties exist.
Sources and/or recommended reading: Noe, Sydney P., "The Silver Coinage of Massachusetts", 1973, Quarterman Publications, Inc., Lawrence, MA.