An Excerpt From Mary Coffin Johnson’s 1896 Publication

The Higleys and Their Ancestry: An Old Colonial Family

The following excerpt comes from Mary Coffin Johnson’s original writings in her 1896 book The Higleys and Their Ancestry: An Old Colonial Family, published by D. Appleton and Co. of New York. This is not Stack’s Bowers Galleries original writing.

The location of the Higley copper-mine at the time when it was owned by Dr. Samuel Higley, and during the fifty succeeding years, was in the township of Simsbury, Conn. A subdivision of the township in 1786 included the mine in that part called Granby till the year 1858, when subsequent subdivision was made which places it at the present date in East Granby.

It was property held quite separate from the famous Newgate prison and copper-mines, from which it was separated a distance of one and a half mile to the south.

Whether this mine had been worked before Dr. Higley became the owner of the lands cannot be ascertained. It was successfully worked about forty-seven years during that century, from the time that Dr. Higley operated it. Large heaps of ore and bits of copper can now be found on the spot; probably the remains of operations which were begun and abandoned after a brief period about 1831.

There are two shafts which go down through trap rocks, with which this and the adjacent mountainous hills abound, and one of these, though choked with the debris and rubbish which have been collecting for the last sixty years, is still twenty feet deep.

The mine contains valuable deposits of mineral, “some masses” it is said, “producing as much as thirty to forty per cent. of copper. The average product was from ten to twelve per cent. Professor Silliman of Yale University, who made the latest survey of these mines on Copper-Hill [about 1870], says: ‘the ore is of the most valuable description.'”

There is a traditional story afloat, which was told to the writer by an elderly gentleman living in the vicinity, who used to hear his aged father and the old men of the neighborhood say that in some spots the deposit of copper in the mine was so rich and of such fineness that Higley was in the habit of entering his mine with a pick, obtaining a lump of almost pure metal, and making a coin, with which he would, in his liking for convivial enjoyment, make himself doubly welcome over the social mug at the nearest tavern.

In the early history of the mining interests the ore was sent to England and smelted there, no furnaces being permitted in the colonies. To ship the ore to England they were forced to transport it in wagons over the steep, mountainous hills, and rough roads newly made through the wilds of the forests, to a shipping point on the Connecticut River, where it became the cargo of sailing vessels, which were many weeks in crossing the ocean.

The energy and courage of Dr. Samuel Higley did not fail because of the difficulties in the way. He owned and continued to operate the mine until his death. The property has always been known and described in the deeds until about 1870, as “the Higley-mine” and “mining-lands.”

Meanwhile the remarkable genius and inventive faculties of our physician-blacksmith were in practical play upon another enterprise, which stamps his name in the very early history of the numismatic annals of our country. He had no “learned blacksmith” preceding him, whose life might have been an incentive to learning and genius; his new enterprise was due solely to his natural originality and excellent ability. “Elihu Burrett and Robert Collyer,” said Beecher, “of whom blacksmiths love to speak, had not yet been born nor lived to hammer out their learning at night by the forge.” Like Franklin, whose scientific ideas were always practical, Dr. Samuel Higley applied his “wit and wisdom” to practical account. He suggested a way to meet a deficient circulation of currency by turning pure copper into a money metal, and was the designer and manufacturer, so far as is known, of the first copper coinage of the country.

Just when he began the manufacture of the “Higley Coppers” which were made from the ore in his own mine, is impossible to ascertain. It was undoubtedly between the year 1729 and the first half of the year 1737. The oldest specimens preserved, which bear date, were coins in 1737. There were five different issues of three similar devices, three of which bear no date and were probably made prior to that year. They are described in the “Visitors Guide and History of the U.S. Mint,” as Philadelphia as follows:

“Their Obverses are similar:—A deer standing: below him a hand, a star, and III; around him is the legend enclosed in two circles—Value me as you please.
“The Reverse of one variety has three hammers crowned, and the legend—I am Good Copper, a hand, some dots fancifully arranged, and 1737.
“The third variety has a broad-axe and the legend—I cut my way through. A very few also bear date 1739.”

This limited coinage was precisely like the coin that Dr. Samuel Higley produced in 1737.

Phelps, in his “History of Simsbury,” states that “the coin is said to have passed for two and sixpence [42 cents], in paper currency it is presumed.”

It is more than probable that Dr. Higley’s brother, John Higley, together with the Rev. Timothy Woodbridge and William Cradock, made the issue of 1739, after his death.

“The trade of blacksmith,” says Dickeson, “ever since Vulcan was engaged in forging thunderbolts, has given the world some very remarkable men, and it affords great pleasure at this time to be able to contribute toward immortalizing one of the craft, who not only devised, but manufactured a currency. Dr. Higley the author of these coppers has certainly left evidence of having been an artist as well as a financier; for the creatures of his genius and skill were, for the times, well executed, and they also became a currency.”

During Dr. Samuel Higley’s day “no public laws has been made by Connecticut to authorize coinage of money, or to specify its value. Specie was very scarce in the country, and the coinage, at this embryo mint was regarded with great favor by residents in the vicinity. The foreign trade of the country, which was chiefly confined to England, was principally controlled by her; the balance of trade was continually against us, which prevented the importation of specie. The war in France in 1745 turned the tide somewhat in our favor, and considerable quantities of the Higley Copper were circulated in England in payment of war expenses.”

Though the coinage of the Higley copper does not appear to have been authorized by the colony, it passed as a medium of exchange into a considerable circulation, and we are led to infer that it was finally recognized by the colonial authorities, since they certainly took no action towards its suppression, though “the coinage was without sanction of law.”

Without question this financial venture proved an undertaking profitable to our ancient coiner, and useful to the community, since soon after his death there were leading and noted citizens of the colony who made effort to continue a copper coinage, and to whom, in all probability, the monetary problem was suggested by the success of the Higley copper.

In October, 1739, the last year in which a limited issue of the Higley coin was manufactured, John Read, an eminent lawyer of Hartford, and brother-in-law of Governor Joseph Talcott, made application to the General Assembly for aid to secure the right of coinage from the Royal Government; and also addressed a personal letter to the Governor on coinage and currency, in which he urges what he judges to be of great importance to Connecticut, namely: “to procure the King’s patent for the coinage of copper money from the metal produced from the native ores of the State.”

He offers to proceed with the manufacture of the same at his own personal expense and “such as I shall join with me, if any body do join with me,” and to bear the entire losses as well as to receive the entire profits accruing from the enterprise.

Crosby says, “There is no doubt but John Higley was connected with Read in this attempt to secure the right of coinage, and was one of those to whom Read referred as ‘Such as I shall associate with me.‘”

In Mr. Read’s effort to induce the General Assembly to consider his petition, he intimates that Timothy Woodbridge of Simsbury, the early and close friend of Dr. Samuel Higley, as well as “Cradock,” was associated in some way in the interests of the proposed undertaking.

It is, nevertheless, evident that Governor Talcott and the Assembly deemed it unwise to apply to the Crown for a patent, expecting that no favors would be granted.

Specimens of the Higley copper coin have become very rare. There are some to be found in the United States Mint at Philadelphia…and in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society at Hartford, together with a few in private cabinets in the country. Among the owners of one of these valuable relics is Albert C. Bates, Esq., of East Granby, Conn., one of Captain John Higley’s descendant.

For more than threescore years Dr. Samuel Higley’s only grandson, Jonathan Higley, 3d, preserved with strictest care specimens which finally descended to his great-grandson Thompson Higley, Sr., of Windsor, O., who held them among his choice treasures to a period later than the year 1860. Two of these coins were associated with singular but sacred memories as having been placed upon the eyes of Dr. Samuel’s great-granddaughter, Rachel Higley of Grandby, after her death, for the purpose of keeping them closed. It was a custom in those times to use coins thus.

Of the rare specimens now extant few are found perfect, having been stamped upon unalloyed copper. They are valued at present (1894) by numismatist at forty-five to seventy-five dollars each.

During the years 1859-60 a spicy lawsuit took place between two citizens of Suffield, Conn., Chauncy Eno Viets, and George Williston, concerning one of these coins, the suite being entered “for the recovery of a Higley copper.”

In tearing down an old house in the village a Higley copper was discovered, which came into the possession of George Williston, as he claimed, by purchase from Mr. Viets. Viets, however, claimed that it was only a neighborly loan to Williston, that he might enjoy the pleasure of showing the rare specimen to some friends.

In course of time Mr. Viets sought legal auction to get possession of his treasure. The case came before Esquire Thomas Cushman, justice of the peace. “Squire” Cushman decided that Williston should retain the copper, paying Mr. Viets the value at which the coins were then held—fifty dollars—and costs of court. The money was forthcoming, and Williston gloried in the triumph of an ownership of the valuable memento of the past.

The energies of Dr. Samuel Higley’s life to its close were in the pursuit of his special calling,—that of the practice of medicine,—in which it is shown by the record that he continued, together with his interests in connection with his copper-mine, and the manufacture of the Higley copper.

The circumstances of his death are not made clear in the dim mist of the long past except through tradition, which, however, is fully sustained by a few lines penned in rhyme by his grandson Johnathan Higley, 3d. His son Jonathan at the time of his father’s decease was sixteen years of age. His grandson Jonathan, 3d, would, therefore, have ample opportunity to gather correct and reliable knowledge of his grandfather’s death.

Through this source, and through different channels in the family, this tradition comes—that Dr. Higley sailed for England in a ship laden with his own copper ore, which was lost at sea,—that he reached a “silent haven” not expected when he bade adieu to these shores,—the voyage ending where it was not expected to end.

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