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October 29, 2010

Old Money: Colonial Williamsburg Collects A New Stash of Antique Cash

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has acquired a large collection of colonial paper currency issued by North Carolina prior to the American Revolution.

Comprised of more than 6,600 notes in varying denominations issued between 1748 and 1771, the stash of cash was worth about 7,176 pounds sterling in 1775. If legal tender today, the currency would have purchasing power of more than $750,000.

Portions of the currency will be featured in a new coins and currency exhibit, “Dollars, Farthings & Fables: Money & Medals From the Colonial Williamsburg Collection,” opening in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum on Wednesday. Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving Day.

“As the only known hoard of pre-Revolutionary War colonial paper money, the Cornell Hoard is truly exciting,” said Erik Goldstein, Colonial Williamsburg’s curator of mechanical arts and numismatics. “Not only is the sight of such a huge pile of cash stunning, but it has much to offer students of early American coins and currency.”

Named the “Cornell Hoard,” the money was collected originally by Samuel Cornell, a transplanted New Yorker who became a wealthy merchant after moving as a young man to New Bern, N.C. in the mid-1750s. In addition to his activities as a merchant, Cornell also was involved in high risk currency speculation as evidenced by the hoard of colonial currency.

In 1769 as one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the North Carolina colony, Cornell underwrote the construction of a new governor’s house in New Bern — the Tryon Palace — with a loan to the government of £8,000 in “proclamation money,” or colonial paper currency, which helped earn him an appointment to His Majesty’s Council for North Carolina.

As an ardent Loyalist, Cornell seized another opportunity in 1771 to lend a lot of cash to North Carolina. He provided £6,000 to finance a military expedition to the western part of the colony to put down a small taxation rebellion. The skirmish became known as the Battle of Alamance, considering by some to be the opening salvo of the American Revolution. In addition to his loan, Cornell also sold £483 in supplies for the expedition to the colony.

On the eve of the Revolution, Cornell left New Bern and sailed for London in 1775. After two years there, he headed to British-occupied New York City. Before his death in 1781 at the age of 50, he was apparently able to transport his monetary cache to New York. His will, which specifically mentioned the “proclamation money of North Carolina,” left most of his wealth to his five daughters.

The bundles of currency apparently remained in the family until 1913 when it was offered, along with other Cornell papers to the New York Public Library, which published the letters as “Papers Relating to Samuel Cornell, North Carolina Loyalist.” The library, in turn sold the currency in its entirety to a dealer during the 1970s, who put half the collection up for sale. The other half, representing about 40 percent of Cornell’s original stash and the last remaining intact portion, is now part of the Colonial Williamsburg numismatic collection thanks to an anonymous donor.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational and cultural organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia. This town-sized living history museum tells the inspirational stories of our journey to become Americans through programs in the Historic Area and through the award-winning Revolutionary City program. Explore The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg and discover the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum featuring the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670 – 1830 and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, comprising more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Colonial Williamsburg Hotels feature conference spaces and recreation activities from spa and fine dining to world-class golf. Colonial Williamsburg is committed to expanding its thought-provoking programming through education outreach on-site and online. Purchase of Colonial Williamsburg products and services supports the preservation, research and educational programs of the Foundation.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s website at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7121