The Carolina Elephant token is the earliest known numismatic artifact that refers to the Carolinas. It is dated 1694, before the 1712 separation of the Province of Carolina into North and South Carolina colonies. The origin and purpose of the token remain enigmatic despite extensive research that includes a seminal article written by Neil Fulghum, founding Keeper of the North Carolina Collection Gallery.
The Lords Proprietors were ruling landlords of the Province until their descendants sold their interests back to the Crown in 1729. The Proprietors’ early attempts to populate the Province met with little success, although there were incentives to migrate.
The token takes its name from its full-body image of an elephant on the obverse. The reverse has the lettering: “GOD : / PRESERVE : / CAROLINA : AND / THE : LORDS : / PROPRIETORS . / 1694.” The token is copper, 28 mm in diameter, and was probably struck at London’s Tower Mint. The piece is about the same size and weight as the abundant half-penny tokens that circulated in late seventeenth century London, and this might be the source of its description as a “token.” A token is a money substitute usually issued by merchants at times when government-produced coins were in short supply. There is no evidence that it ever circulated in the Province of Carolina or that it was made for that purpose.
Fulghum’s article speculates that the token may have circulated in the Royal Exchange in London and at the nearby Carolina Coffee-House on Birchin Lane. It is known that the Proprietors and their agents frequented these locations and gave weekly presentations about their colony at the coffeehouse. The Carolina Elephant token might have been used as a promotional reminder to potential settlers of Carolina. Holders of Carolina tokens might have been able to redeem the pieces for some offering or premium at the Birchin Lane establishment or at an affiliated company store.
The North Carolina Collection holds an electrotype copy likely produced in the nineteenth century and several modern souvenir copies. Genuine Carolina Elephant tokens are quite rare, and this Artifact of the Month is an important addition to the NCC’s early North Carolina numismatic collection.