Essay: Getting Started

Unlike the Spanish colonists to the south, the English settlers of our original thirteen colonies found no gold or silver among the riches of their new land. Neither did they receive great supplies of gold and silver coins from Britain—money was supposed to move the other way, to the mother country, in exchange for goods. The monetary system in the colonies was "notable because it was based on thin air," according to Smithsonian numismatics curator Richard Doty. To make up for the lack of currency, says Doty, the colonists would "replicate and create, try, reject, and redesign every monetary form ever invented anywhere else."

Examples of most of those forms are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Behring Center, in an exhibit that draws on the 1.6 million coins and pieces of paper money in the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection. Here we present images of paper money from the American Revolution. Students examine the money in order to gather primary source information about the times—the Revolutionary period in general and the specific times when the bills were issued.

The lessons address national standards for American history and for historical thinking.