Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pine Trees and Penobscots

In my post of June 9th, I discussed Mark Peterson's article on the Pine Tree shilling, the first coin minted by an American colonial government, and its significance as a symbol of Massachusetts's imperial ambitions. A couple of weeks ago I discovered another historical use of the Pine Tree shilling: as an ad hoc medal given to Indians to display (and to secure) their friendship to the colony.

In January 1714 General Francis Nicholson held a peace conference (most likely in Nova Scotia, of which he was the governor) with 5 sachems of the Penobscot, Norridgewock, and Kennetuck divisions of Abenakis. The general presented each man with two Pine Tree shillings, placing one in the recipient's hand and the other in his mouth, that he might never act or speak against the English Crown or its subjects. He declared that the pine tree on the coins symbolized the unity of the English and Abenakis - "they and the English should be like that tree - but one root tho' several branches" - and noted that it was always green, symbolizing truth. (James Baxter, ed., Documentary History of the State of Maine [23 volumes; Portland, ME, 1869-1916], Vol. 23, pp. 53-54.)

Nicholson did not record the Abenakis' reaction, but it's likely that they understood what they were receiving - the Woodland Indians were sufficiently familiar with coins by the early 18th century that some were learning how to counterfeit them. (Colin Calloway, New Worlds for All [Baltimore, 1997], pp. 47-48.) It also seems likely that the sachems were unimpressed with the display: shillings were not valuable coins and Nicholson's metaphors were ersatz.

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