According to the legend of the Higley copper, a Connecticut doctor with a powerful thirst and a copper mine minted the colony’s first copper coins.
Dr. Samuel Higley frequently patronized the local tavern, where a drink cost threepence. So Dr. Higley, who happened to own a copper mine, struck his own three-penny coins. One version of them bore the words, “VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE.”
The story may be apocryphal, but Dr. Higley did exist. He and his family mined copper, which grew into a major Connecticut industry. And coin collectors believe the homemade Higley copper circulated fairly wildly.
In 2014, a coin collector bought a Higley copper for a half-million dollars.
The Higley Copper
Dr. Samuel Higley, born around 1687 in Simsbury, Conn., attended Yale College for two years and trained as a doctor. He also learned blacksmithing and picked up metallurgical and mining skills. Before his marriage to Abigail Bement in 1719 he taught school.
He is credited with making the first steel in the U.S. colonies. In 1728, he told the Connecticut General Court he had ‘with great pains and cost’ discovered a ‘curious art’ by which he could transmute iron into good steel. Two blacksmiths testified that Higley had come into their shop, asked for a pound or two of iron and said he’d make it into steel. Several days later he brought it back, and the blacksmiths found it ‘good steel,’ the first they’d ever seen.
So the Connecticut General Court gave Higley a 10-year monopoly on steelmaking.
That same year he bought a tract of 143 acres in what is now East Granby and began mining the land. People said the mine had such rich copper that Dr. Higley could walk into it with a pick and simply stab a lump of pure metal. He’d then take it home and strike coins from it.
The Connecticut copper industry, which lasted about two centuries, began in Copper Hill in Simsbury around 1707 and ended in Bristol in 1953. Mines stretched up and down the Connecticut Valley and dotted the surrounding hills. They gave a start to U.S. brass manufacturing, which centered in Waterbury, Conn., the world’s leader in brass production.
Today, little remains of the once-thriving industry. In 1776, revolutionaries turned the mine into a POW camp, and later the state made it into a prison called Newgate. Prisoners nicknamed it Hell. Today, the state operates the Old Newgate Prison as a museum.
Back in the 1730s, copper mines were small-scale operations, and much of the metal ended up in England.
Samuel Higley undoubtedly had help mining his copper. And it isn’t clear if he himself made the steel dies or struck the coins from them.
Making your own coins, as you might suspect, was against the law in the 1730s. English authorities had shut down John Hull’s had minted coins in Massachusetts Bay Colony until English authorities shut it down in 1682. But the colonists suffered a shortage of small coins, and the British authorities couldn’t always enforce the law.
One version of the Higley copper legend has it that Simsbury’s local tavernkeeper stopped accepting Higley’s threepence after he’d accumulated quite a few of them. Another story says people started complaining the coin wasn’t worth two-and-a-half cents more than the British halfpennies then circulating.
Whatever the story, Higley struck a version of the coin that said, “VALUE ME AS YOU PLEASE,” on one side, and “I AM GOOD COPPER” on the other.
Coin collectors, though, say his local prominence as a businessman and landowner helped establish the value of the Higley coppers. Thousands, mostly dated 1737, circulated in the region.
“It is likely that a large number and a variety of sellers accepted Higley Coppers in transactions for goods and services,” wrote Greg Reynolds in Coin Week. They probably had more stable value than colonial paper money, he wrote.
All except one have a deer and the numeral three on the tails side. One bears the image of a broad axe with the words, “I CUT MY WAY THROUGH.” Another has the spokes of a wheel and the legend, “THE WHEEL GOES ROUND.”
Some date to 1738 and 1739, after Samuel Higley died at sea while taking a shipment of copper to England.
Five varieties of the Higley copper are on display at the Connecticut State Library, the Simsbury Historical Society and Connecticut Historical Society. Coin collectors identified two other varieties, and consider them among the rarest and most exciting early American coins.
They have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Even replicas of the Higley coppers go for far more than their original value: One sold for $646.
This story was updated in 2020.