In 1652, at age 28, John Hull began making money – literally. The Hull family was by then well established in Boston. Robert Hull was a blacksmith who came to America to practice his trade. John was his eldest son.
By the 1650s Massachusetts was wrestling with the difficult problem of how to manage an economy with little hard currency. Virginia had a somewhat easier time of it, as tobacco was the prime crop and it could be traded to England and exchanged for goods. The focus on the single crop gave colonists there an easier time establishing a value for things like taxes.
In New England, with its more diverse economy, a currency was needed. But actual coin from England was scarce. The king held the power to issue coins. But in 1649 rowdy rebels in England had beheaded Charles I. The situation left New Englanders with a quandary. They couldn’t make more English coin, but they decided they could make their own version of it.
The General Court approved establishing America’s first mint and contracted with Hull and his partner Robert Sanderson to run it.
Hull had dabbled in piracy. He and his father and brother, Edward, jointly owned the frigate Swallow on which Edward was captain. But the venture was not without its challenges. Court records show that in 1653, the Hull family was sued for robbing a home on Block Island. And, while John and his father showed that they had tried to dissuade Edward from his actions, the court found the Hulls owed £96 for the stolen goods.
Edward probably fled to England at that point and John turned his attention to the less onerous but more profitable business of minting money.
The first order of business was to establish a fee for his services as mintmaster. The General Court first approved a system whereby Hull would keep 7.5 percent of all the silver he minted. But before enacting the law, the amount was reduced to 5 percent.
Hull screamed that this would break him. So in further negotiations with the committee on the mint, the amount was raised to just over 6 percent. More importantly, though, Hull negotiated for an allowance for wastage. Invariably when silver was melted to make coins, a certain percentage would be lost in evaporation.
The deal was a sweet one. In England, the official mintmasters of the Crown were allowed to keep about 3 percent of the currency they struck — and they still got rich.
For 30 years, Hull and Sanderson minted themselves a fortune. Sanderson probably did most of the actual work while Hull did more travelling – and probably more politicking. He was Selectman in Boston for three terms and served as treasurer for Boston and in the General Court.
Ironically, Hull’s mint probably did not generate the bulk of his fortune. He was active in shipping, and the mint also produced general silver products. The actual business of stamping out coins, known as Pine Tree Shillings, was probably delegated to an apprentice.
At times, the work was probably placed on a back burner. Lord Culpeper of Virginia complained of the lengthy turnaround for getting Spanish silver coins converted to New England currency – a process that could take more than 40 days depending upon the backlog at the mint.
In 1682, the mint was finally shut down. It had begun to draw scrutiny from English authorities who, having reestablished the monarchy, questioned the legitimacy of the colony’s coinage. Hull and Sanderson, however, had amassed a fortune. Their holdings amounted to thousands of acres throughout New England.
The town of Hull is names for John Hull, and his wealth would help support his daughter’s famous husband, Samuel Sewall.