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Canadian Currency from the 16th Century to 1867

Example of a wampum shell bead excavated in Southern Ontario

The evolution of early Canadian currency offers a unique perspective into the growth of Canada as it was evolving into a nation. From it’s pre-colonial origins, to the tokens ushered in by Confederation in 1867, currency saw many forms and many uses.

Early 16th Century- First Nations and Wampum

As Canada was being settled, coins from Europe were scarce and far between. Interactions with the First Nations led to strong trade systems through the bartering of goods such as furs, wampum, copper objects, tools, and beads.
Wampum was highly valued among the Aboriginals not only for the time and difficulty of creating wampum shell beads, but the ceremonial functions of both the beads and the wampum belt. Wampum most importantly conveys messages, mark peace treaties, and record historical events using marks of friendship and respect. To early European traders, beads were essential to the fur trade since they were small and high value. Europeans used the beads to trade for pelts to cover the high demand for fashionable furs in Europe.

17th Century- French Coins and Playing Cards?

By 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded the first colonial settlement in Quebec. Bartering was still the main method of currency until settlements expanded and coins from France took over. These coins were higher value to the colonists in North America due to the risks of transporting gold and silver by ship across the Atlantic. By 1670 as result of illegal trading with settlers to the south, Spanish dollars (piastres) also worked their way into the colonies.

Coin excavated by W.Jury from Forget site, and dates to 1696, possibly polish in origin.

Because of the illegal trading and increased military expeditions waged against the Iroquois, fur trade started to dwindle and money fell short. Payment of soldiers could no longer be postponed and the first issue of card money using playing cards was issued June 8th, 1685 with the currency value written on the back of the card. It was not long until counterfeiting and sharp rises in inflation as result of social and political unrest resulted in eventual ban of card money in 1720.

18th Century and Beyond

With the failure to find a replacement after the ban of card money and onset of an immediate recession, the country transitioned through various types of coin and paper currency with it’s value being directly impacted by social and political reforms or war (such as the Great War between Great Britain and France).
Under a British colonial rule in North America, the government was unable to solve the coin shortage and colonists still depended on the fur trade and coins from England. With rising trade between British Colonists and the future colonists settling in the U.S, coins from across all of Europe and the Spanish Colonies of Latin America became the norm. Colonists independently regulated the currency by creating ‘ratings’ or value on the coins. Once they were rated, they became legal tender. It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that paper bills made a comeback in order to finance the war effort. When the war ended in 1815, the British government redeemed the military bills at full value. The renewed interest in paper currency lead to the first bank, Montreal Bank (later changed to the Bank of Montreal) to be opened in 1817, issuing money in dollars. The rise of banks solved the problems associated with foreign currency in circulation with different ‘ratings’.
By the 1840’s Political Union in Upper and Lower Canada created the Province of Canada which led to a currency reform. By 1857 the currency changed to 1, 5, 20, and 50 cent denominations with the first Canadian coinage authorized in 1858.
The sweeping changes of Confederation in 1867 ushered in a responsibility for the government to legalize it’s own currency. Ottawa issued a new series of coin denominations; 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 cent coins which were legal in the four provinces that signed the confederation act.


Works Cited

Powell, James. A History of the Canadian Dollar. Ottawa: Public Works, 2005.

“The Royal Canadian Mint Currency Timeline.” Royal Canadian Mint.

What’s On- Maple Harvest Festival

This hafted stone axe head would have been used to chop, split, or shape wood. This object, along with many other Indigenous woodworking tools will be on display in the Permanent Gallery during the Maple Harvest festival

As Canada commemorates its 150th anniversary with hundreds of events scheduled throughout the country this year, here at MOA we are taking advantage of the opportunity to highlight the life-ways and practices of the First People who were living here for millennia before “Canada” even existed. Many First Nations traditions and practices, such as maple harvesting, are still very much alive today and part of the traditions we consider to be quintessentially Canadian.

As part of growing up or living in southern Ontario, most of us enjoy, or have enjoyed at some point in our lives, the opportunity to walk or even ride on a horse drawn-sleigh through a snowy woodlot in late winter, observing the spiles and buckets (or today, the acres of tubes!) hanging from trees, collecting maple sap.  An isolated cabin, wood smoke billowing from the chimney and smelling of sweet, caramelised syrup is the highlight of our tour (short for the pancakes!), where sap is boiled in metal kettles or large, flat pans, reducing the liquid after many, many hours to the sweet, sticky, sugary treat that we all know and love.

First Nations of the eastern Woodlands would collect and even boil tree sap in birch bark baskets such as this

These traditions that we associate with the Sugar Bush can be traced to First Nations origins, in which families would leave their homes and villages in late winter to set up small camps in the deciduous forest to collect maple (and/or birch, box-elder and white walnut) sap. Trees were scored, sap was collected and reduced. Before metals were introduced to the region from European settlers and traders, sap collection and processing used perishable containers such as wood and bark. Raw sap, rich in nutrients after the lean winter months, was also enjoyed as a tonic and a flavour enhancing base for soups, stews, and porridge. Processed syrup and sugar would preserve the taste of spring long into the year, used to sweeten culinary dishes and drinks and serving as a source of trade and commerce if collected in large enough quantities.

At our Maple Harvest Festival on March 11-12th, we will be honoured to have local First Nations Elders Dan and Mary-Lou Smoke on site to awaken the forest and conduct a sweet water blessing, thanking the trees for their nourishing gift. Anishinaabe Elder Larry McLeod will also be joining us from North Bay to teach us about the importance of birch bark, including its use as a basket to collect and even boil sap. We will also have sagamite, a traditional corn soup/stew made from fresh sap for tasting in the longhouse and an exhibition of archaeological objects relating to First Nations maple harvesting in our museum gallery.

We welcome our visitors to join us in this celebration of spring that has been honoured since time immemorial, the awakening of the forest (in the Forest City!) and the first harvest of the year. This is a festive time, marking an end to hunger and darkness as we welcome the return of light, life, and nourishment from the land around us. We hope to inspire in our visitors a wonder for the unique environment of this region in which maple trees flourish, an awareness of the wisdom and ingenuity of First Nations cultural practices and an appreciation for the rich heritage of Ontario which lies beneath our feet.