The Carolina Elephant Token

Genuine Carolina Elephant Token, obverse (left) and reverse (right).
Genuine Carolina Elephant Token, obverse (left) and reverse (right).

A variety of assumptions and undocumented assertions about the 1694 Carolina Elephant Token have been published in history books, periodicals, and numismatic auction catalogs. One repeated assertion is this copper token, due to chronic shortages of coinage in England’s American colonies, was used and generally accepted in its day as halfpennies by settlers in the Carolinas and elsewhere in the “New World.” This statement, however, is not supported by any references to period records. Although some specimens of the Carolina token and of other types of “elephant tokens” found their way to North America, likely nestled among the possessions of English immigrants, there is no evidence that the pieces were ever intended for widespread commercial use or employed on this continent for purchases of prescribed goods or services.

Overall, the Carolina Elephant Token is more expertly crafted and heavier in composition than any of the standard merchant tokens issued by English tradesmen in the seventeenth century. Carolina pieces are also far more rare than the vast majority of tokens that survive from that era. Such characteristics imply that the Carolina token was produced in very limited numbers and struck for a special, perhaps singular purpose. Its generic name derives from the most eye-catching element in the token’s design. Dominating its obverse (front side) is a full tusk-to-tail image of an elephant standing on a slightly textured plain. The animal is portrayed in left profile, with its head slightly bowed, its trunk tightly curling backward, and “possessing an ear that in form resembles a withered tulip.” Aside from this image, the only other decoration on original Carolina tokens is a simple beaded border that garnishes, often off-center, the rim of their obverses and reverses.

The year 1694 and a nearly identical seven-word inscription are struck in relief on the reverses of all Carolina tokens. The inscription solicits divine grace for the Carolina colony and the group of noblemen who administered the American venture from England: “GOD : / PRESERVE : / CAROLINA : AND / THE : LORDS : / PROPRIETERS [or PROPRIETORS] . / 1694.” The final word in this inscription can be found spelled in two different ways on Carolina tokens, either “PROPRIETERS” or “PROPRIETORS.” The “ER” variety was struck before the “OR” variety and is more scarce than the later version. Evidently, in wanting to correct the spelling of PROPRIETER, makers of the token altered the steel die used to strike its inscription. They over-punched the second “E” with an “O.” This change did not entirely obliterate the E on the die. A portion of that letter can usually be detected beneath the second O on genuine second-variety PROPRIETORS tokens.

Some additional unanswered questions about the Carolina Elephant Token concern its production and distribution. Where was it minted? Also, where did it circulate, at least initially? These questions and others about the token are addressed in a forty-four-page study published in the April 2003 issue of the American Numismatic Society’s The Colonial Newsletter. That detailed study proposes that the token may have served foremost as a promotional device, one for drawing much-needed public attention and investments to the lords proprietors’ struggling “American plantation.” In reviewing the Carolina colony’s economic circumstances in the late 1600s, as well as the proprietors’ activities, the 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. Holders of Carolina tokens may have been able to redeem the pieces for some offering or premium at the Birchin Lane establishment or at an affiliated company store or “workhouse.”

The Carolina Coffee-House’s proximity to the Royal Exchange made it an ideal venue for promoting a colonial enterprise. The Exchange in 1694 was a sprawling complex that for more than a century had served as England’s epicenter for commercial activities. It was where bankers, attorneys, shopkeepers, brokers and investors, ship captains, and adventurers mixed and haggled. There, along the Exchange’s “Merchants’ Walks” and in many of the surrounding coffeehouses, they negotiated contracts, settled accounts, and conducted all manners of business. When the Bank of England opened in London for the first time—coincidentally in 1694—it was located, not surprisingly, in the same area of the city as the Exchange.

With regard to the Carolina tokens’ production, their physical properties and circumstantial evidence indicate that they were struck during the latter half of 1694 at the Royal Mint, which operated behind the high stone walls of the Tower of London. Records show that during June and July in 1694 the lords proprietors held meetings in London on Tower Hill, only a short walking distance from the historic fortress. Since those meetings are the only documented times when the proprietors convened in 1694, it is probable that arrangements for the token’s production at the Tower were finalized then and there. Another clue that may link these tokens to the Royal Mint is an “old elephant die” that in 1769 was listed in the mint’s huge inventory of hardware. In fact, that particular die was accounted for at the Royal Mint until 1910; yet, there is no proof that it was one of those actually used to create the token in question.

Adding further to the mysteries shrouding the Carolina token’s origins and purpose is the existence of two very similar tokens: a New England type and a London type. Both are also struck in copper, are of the same proportions, date from the same period, and carry the same elephant image on their obverses. The New England Elephant Token is inscribed in a like manner as the Carolina token, with “GOD: / PRESERVE: / NEW: / ENGLAND: / 1694” on its reverse. The London Elephant Token’s reverse is more complex in design than those of the New England and Carolina types. The London token is not inscribed with a date, but it does carry, like its counterparts, another appeal for God’s blessing. “LONDON: GOD : PRESERVE” partially encircles a scrolled shield on which the City of London’s coat of arms is depicted. As with the Carolina token, the London and New England tokens could have possible connections to related coffeehouses and the Royal Exchange. On Threadneedle Street in London, adjacent to the Exchange, there were for many years a “New England Coffee-House” and a “London Coffee-House.” It is also noteworthy that during the colonial period two “walks” or commercial spaces in the southwest corner of the Exchange were assigned to and specifically labeled “Carolina” and “New England.”

Today, the token most highly prized by “elephant” collectors is the exceedingly rare New England type. The most common varieties relate to the London type. Carolina tokens, depending on their condition and whether they are of the “ER” or “OR” variety, usually fall in between the New England and London types with respect to their rarity ratings and market values. Most authentic Carolina tokens remain in private collections, for few can be found in museums, academic libraries, or in the holdings of major numismatic organizations in either the United States or Great Britain. Those who acquire Carolina tokens should take considerable caution. Many specimens thought to be original or marketed as genuine in the past have proven to be fakes. Since the 1860s, assorted reproductions of the token have been made, including struck copies, cast specimens, and high-quality electrotypes. There are electrotypes of the “PROPRIETOR” variety that have fooled both inexperienced and veteran collectors. The unknown craftsman who produced those fine copies even captured the subtle detail of the previously described “E” lying beneath the “O.”

More recently, in the 1960s and early 1970s, Capitol Medals, Inc., in High Point, North Carolina, struck 27mm-wide copies of the Carolina Elephant Token (quite close in diameter to the 28-29mm range of originals). Those “PROPRIETORS” copies were often sold as souvenirs in museum sales shops and at historic sites throughout the region. None has the word “COPY” impressed on either its obverse or reverse. In 1970, for its tricentennial, the City of Charleston, South Carolina, issued a silver medal that resembles a 1694 token but is clearly identified as a commemorative. One other modern reproduction is an oversized, poorly cast “PROPRIETER” variety distributed prior to 1997 by The Morgan Mint of Hicksville, New York. This replica does have “COPY” impressed on its reverse, a mark added in compliance with federal regulations established in the Hobby Protection Act of 1973. Even if someone were to file away “COPY” on this replica and try to pass it as genuine, it would be easy to distinguish from original Carolina tokens. The Morgan copy is significantly larger (39mm) and much heavier (424 grains) than authentic tokens, whose documented weights vary between 132 to 249 grains. Given the existence of so many reproductions, anyone interested in collecting elephant tokens should seek the advice of recognized authorities in numismatics at the Smithsonian Institution; the American Numismatic Society in New York; the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado; or at the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

R. Neil Fulghum
Keeper, 1986-2008
North Carolina Collection Gallery


Suggested references

  • R. Neil Fulghum, “The Hunt for Carolina Elephants: Questions Regarding Genuine Specimens and Reproductions of the 1694 Token,” The Colonial Newsletter (CNL-122), volume 43, number 1 (New York: The American Numismatic Society, April 2003), 2415-2459.
  • C. Wilson Peck, English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum, 1558-1958 (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1960), 152.
  • Francis L. Hawks, History of North Carolina with Maps and Illustrations, volume II (Fayetteville: E. J. Hale and Son, 1858), 287-288.
  • “A Chapter on Old American Coins,” Frank Leslie’s New Family Magazine, volume II, number 6 (June, 1858), 544-545.