Currency: What is a pistole?

      Owners almost invariably offered rewards for the capture of their runaways. Interesting questions can be asked about whether the amounts offered varied over time or according to the skill of the runaway.

      In 1705, Virginia passed major legislation dealing with slaves. Included was a stipulation regarding runaways that specified a reward of one or two hundred pounds of tobacco for their capture:

    And for encouragement of all persons to take up runaways, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, and it is hereby enacted,
That for the taking up of every servant, or slave, if ten miles, or above, from the house or quarter where such servant, or slave was kept, there shall be allowed by the public, as a reward to the taker-up, two hundred pounds of tobacco; and if above five miles, and under ten, one hundred pounds of tobacco [see 1705 law]

    Subsequent legislation re-affirmed the sum. In most of the advertisements, however, owners offered additional sums to the amount specified by law. Thus in 1736, in the very first published ad for a runaway slave, Peyton Smith offered "Two Pistoles Reward, besides what the Law directs," for the return of two recently imported Africans.

    The pistole, a common coin in Virginia, at least until the 1760s, was a Spanish gold coin, sometimes called a doubloon. By the mid eighteenth century, a pistole was worth almost a pound (.83), or a little over 18 shillings. The term pistole sometimes also referred to the French gold louis d'or, minted in the late seventeenth century and worth anywhere from 18 shillings to slightly more than a pound (and also called a French guinea). Since the colonists were not allowed to coin their own money, they usually had to use such foreign coins; since the pistole was one of the most common circulating coins used in the first half of the eighteenth century, it became a primary medium of exchange.

      Another common coin in eighteenth-century Virginia was the Spanish peso, or piece of eight, also sometimes called a dollar. It was a silver coin, worth somewhat less than one-quarter of a pound, or 4 shillings, 6 pence.

      So how much was a pistole worth in modern-day terms? Of course monetary values were relative and it is difficult to express eighteenth-century values as twenty-first-century equivalents. Money was scarce in most of the world 300 years ago, and therefore corresponding values were high. A day's wages amounted to around ; slave prices varied throughout the century but can be said to have ranged from £25 to £100.  A pistole probably amounted to around the purchase price of a cow, and was thus a not inconsiderable sum, perhaps as much as two to three hundred dollars today. In the 1750s Governor Dinwiddie's attempt to charge a pistole fee for all land patents provoked a storm of criticism from the Virginia assembly--made up of men who, if anyone in the colony, could afford the fee.

      Beginning in the 1760s, the rewards specified in the ads were expressed in terms of English currency, pounds, shillings, and pence, commonly known by these symbols: £ for pounds, s for shillings, and d for pence, or pennies. A pound was worth 20 shillings, and 12 pence equalled a shilling. But while there were actual coins called shillings and pence, there was no such coin that was equivalent to a pound. It was a unit of measurement only. IN the ads, the common symbol for a pound was l (lower-case letter L). Thus by the 1760s, rewards offered commonly took the form: "Whoever brings the said Negro to me shall have a reward of 3 l. if taken in this colony, 10 l. if out of it. . ."

       The guinea, worth 21 shillings, or just over a pound, was the coin used when one wished to deal in pounds, but there were not many guineas circulating in colonial Virginia.

      Virginia pounds, shillings, and pence, however, were not worth as much as these denominations were in the Mother Country. The difference between the values of English money, often referred to as sterling and Virginia money is called the exchange rate, or the rate at which Virginia currency could be exchanged for English currency. And while the exchange rate varied from year to year, it is probably fair to say that on average, in the period before the American Revolution, a Virginia pound was worth about 85% of a sterling pound.