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On Feb. 3, 1690, the first paper money in America was issued by the colony of Massachusetts, to pay soldiers fighting a war against the French in Quebec.
Early American currency went through several stages of development in colonial and post-Revolutionary history of the United States. Because few coins were minted in the thirteen colonies that became the United States in 1776, foreign coins like the Spanish dollar were widely circulated. Colonial governments sometimes issued paper money to facilitate economic activity. The British Parliament passed Currency Acts in 1751, 1764, and 1773 that regulated colonial paper money.
During the American Revolution, the colonies became independent states; freed from British monetary regulations, they issued paper money to pay for military expenses. The Continental Congress also issued paper money during the Revolution, known as Continental currency, to fund the war effort. Both state and Continental currency depreciated rapidly, becoming practically worthless by the end of the war. This depreciation was caused by the government having to over-print in order to meet the demands of war. It should not be seen as a negative reflection on the financial system.
There were three general types of money in the colonies of British America: commodity money, specie (coins), and paper money. Commodity money was used when cash (coins and paper money) was scarce. Commodities such as tobacco, beaver skins, and wampum served as money at various times and places.
As in Great Britain, cash in the colonies was denominated in pounds, shillings, and pence. The value varied from colony to colony; a Massachusetts pound, for example, was not equivalent to a Pennsylvania pound. All colonial pounds were of less value than the British pound sterling. The coins in circulation in the colonies were most often of Spanish and Portuguese origin. The prevalence of the Spanish dollar in the colonies led to the money of the United States being denominated in dollars rather than pounds.
One by one, colonies began to issue their own paper money to serve as a convenient medium of exchange. In 1690, the Province of Massachusetts Bay created “the first authorized paper money issued by any government in the Western World.” This paper money was issued to pay for a military expedition during King William’s War. Other colonies followed the example of Massachusetts Bay by issuing their own paper currency in subsequent military conflicts.