Rufus Ward: Pirate coins of the Caribbean

June 4, 2011 10:39:00 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The current box office hit is the movie, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." As in all pirate movies, the pirates seek silver coins called "pieces of eight." A piece of eight was an actual Spanish silver coin. Several of them have been found in Columbus and along the Tombigbee. 


The Spanish silver dollar minted in Mexico and South America from the 1600s to the early 1800s was called an 8 real coin. The term real coin referred to the silver coin being a royal coin. At first it was one large coin that would be cut into 8 pie-shaped wedges to make change. Later smaller coins of 1/2, 1, 2 and 4 reals began to be minted.  


These "pieces of 8" were called bits. This was evidence of the mixing of cultures as "bit" was a term that originated in England during the 1700s. It was slang for a small silver coin. The 1 real coin or 1 bit was worth 12 1/2 cents and so 2 bits was 25 cents. A 4 real or bit coin was thus worth a half dollar. This evolved into the saying; 2 bits, 4 bits, 6 bits a dollar. 


A half-real coin was worth 6 1/4 cents and known as a picayune. The word picayune came from the French provincial word "picaioun" which was used during the 1700s along the Gulf Coast to mean a small coin.  


Holes were often punched into the coins so that they could either be worn as jewelry or pinned inside of a coat for safe keeping when traveling. In the early 1800s, these coins would be made into spoons and other serving pieces which were then called "coin silver." If George Washington skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac, as legend says, it would have been a Spanish 8 real coin.  


Spanish silver coins were declared legal tender, or money, in the U.S. by a Congressional act in 1793. In the early 1800s many people in the South preferred Spanish silver coins over American coins. Many early contracts in Lowndes and Monroe Counties, specified payment in Spanish silver or mentioned denominations such as 6 1/4 or 12 1/2 cents indicating the use of reals rather than U.S. coins. 


It was not until 1857 that Spanish, or at that time, Mexican silver coins, were declared illegal tender in the U.S. 


It is not unusual for Spanish reals to be found at early archaeological sites in the South. A Spanish 8 real coin was found during an archaeological dig near Barton''s Ferry and I have even found a 1790 1/2 real coin at the site of an 1820s house in downtown Columbus. Because the coins were so popular they are fairly common and the half reals are not very valuable. The one I found has a value of only about $7. Its historical value is far greater for it helps show the history of the Tombigbee Valley as a cultural mix of Spanish, French, English and Native American.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]