The Tale of the “Black Dogg”

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The heavily worn coin, known as a “black dogg” and pictured above, is a unique archaeological find at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. It was originally circulated in the French Caribbean and certainly traveled some distance to find its way to British Virginia.  The coin may have traveled this distance in the pocket of a sailor whose ship first visited the West Indies, as the Caribbean islands were known in the 1700s, and then docked at Fredericksburg to unload its cargo.  Fredericksburg was a port town in the 18th century and marked the furthest point up the Rappahannock River that small ocean-going vessels could travel before encountering rapids.  These sailing vessels were a familiar sight to the Washington family as they looked down upon the river from their home atop the bluff (Read this blog post about a Fredericksburg ship’s voyage around the Atlantic in 1732).

The coin’s poor condition is a tribute in part to how popular it was as currency. Some black doggs featured a high pewter content. Their darker color, when compared to other coinage of the time, is how they came to be called black dogs or black doggs in the British colonies. British colonists used the term generally to refer to non-British, small change coinage that came from the West Indies.  It was not a complimentary term, and these coins were typically the lowest value available.

While the French government provided coinage for its Caribbean colonies, hard currency proved difficult to come by for these islanders. French Caribbean coins such as our black dogg were widely circulated. An amalgam of copper and silver alloy coin bits, these debased silver coins provided much needed small change for remote colonies.

A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America (1755) by William Richard Seale

“A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America” (1755) by William Richard Seale. Credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

In 1779, France issued a coin for their Caribbean islands featuring a crowned “C” in relief on the front. The reverse side was blank, and individual islands often elected to stamp them with initials emblematic of a particular island.

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The black dogg’s front featuring a barely visible crowned “C” in relief.

Although Ferry Farm’s black dogg is in poor condition given both its many years in the soil and its popularity while in use, the “SV” counter stamp is clear, and refers to the island of Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent was a prize the British Crown enjoyed after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763. However in 1779, the year this coin was made, the French regained control of the island for a few years. Saint Vincent was eventually returned to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, which ended the hostilities between allies France and Spain and their adversary Britain that had resulted from the American War of Independence.

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The black dogg’s reverse featuring a stamped “SV” for Saint Vincent.

At the same time, this coin may be a counterfeit produced in England. Birmingham produced many counterfeit coins, which were sometimes referred to as “stampe” or “stampee.” Since a counterfeit coin possessed some silver content, it provided some value for its users, but it was not minted by a government.  Caribbean islanders were so desperate for hard currency that even coins that were easily recognized as counterfeit circulated freely, much to the dismay of colonial governments.

Correspondence of the time occasionally refers to people buying “a dogs worth” of a given product. In this context, “dog” referred to the currency used, not our four-legged friends. A dogs worth would represent a very small quantity. For poor people and the enslaved –  whose commerce involved trading or purchasing items of low value – coins worth a fraction of a pence were popular indeed.

Although the black dogg coin found at Ferry Farm was of little value in the 1700s, for us today, it is an excellent representation of the far-flung British empire and of a thriving global network of trade that even reached Fredericksburg and the Washington family at Ferry Farm.

If you’d like to learn more about 18th century coins and the colonial economy, watch the lecture “Credit and Coinage: The Economy of Colonial Virginia”.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

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