Thursday, May 10, 2018

Spanish Coins on American Notes

Until 1857, silver and gold coins from Mexico, Spain, France, Brazil, and other nations were legal tender in the United States. We know commonly that that US dollar was modeled directly on the "Spanish milled dollar" or "pieces of eight." However, the influence of international trade on the new republic was very deep and broad.
The website linked at left is replete with examples of private banks from the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s that issued paper money promising American federal dollars (most often, fractions, actually) but showing Mexican or Spanish coins as graphic images. 

We still sometimes call a 25-cent quarter dollar coin "two bits."  Two hundred years ago, one bit was was one Spanish real. Eight reales made a Spanish dollar. When I was in high school in the 1960s, it was a known cheer: "Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar. All for [our side] stand up and holler." Spanish Mexican culture continued in the West, of course. You can find The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso by Mike Cox (Tom Doherty Associates, 2009). The 5-peso dollar-sized coin of the United Mexican States of 1947 was a much later version of the Spanish dollar and the Republic of Mexico "Cap and Rays" silver 8-reales (1825-1897).

Thames Bank of Laurel, Indiana, 1856, promises Two Dollars
and shows two Mexican 8-reales
The website Spanish Coins on American Notes lists two dozen examples from twelve states. Most of them were "wildcat" banks from the era of unregulated banking. State regulation was no more successful than the constraints of market competition. Even numismatists look askance at that period of rampant laissez faire. A more objective appraisal would put banking in with other businesses. In the frontier era, economies were shaky at best. People enjoyed a lot of opportunity, but few guarantees. We think of "ghost towns" as a consequence of mining in the West, but Michigan has many from the lumber industry, as well from copper mining.

It is also true that along the eastern seaboard, where trade with the United Kingdom dominated, merchants often kept their books in pounds/shllings/pence into the 1830s. The florin and crown coins of the UK were their attempt to bring their currency into some accord with the dollar. Meanwhile the 4-dollar "Stella" gold coin of the United States was our attempt to align with the 20-franc gold coins of France and other nations.


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