October 15, 2008

Money in the Old West

by Vickie McDonough

“Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for our team, stand up and holler.” Remember that catchy cheer from your junior high football days? Ever wondered what it meant? How about the phrase “a little bit?” Both refer to a form of money used in the 19th century.

Bartering was a commonly accepted way of exchanging goods and services in the West for many decades. Trappers swapped pelts for necessities like tobacco, clothing, ammunition, and food. Indians traded for anything from jewelry and cooking pots to slaves and horses. Early settlers often had little cash and also bartered for food, clothing, and goods. Two of the most traded items in the West were eggs and milk.

Handling money must have been a headache for early 19th century businessmen. Coins in circulation throughout the U.S. included Russian kopecks, Dutch rix-dollars, French and English coins. The Spanish real was commonly used throughout the United States in the early to mid 19th century and was known as a “bit” in the West and worth 12 ½ cents. Two bits later became a quarter. The half-bit, also known as the fip, picayune, or medio was worth 6 ¼ cents and used mostly in Louisiana. In 1857, all foreign coins were banned in the U.S.

Other commonly used coins were an “eagle,” a gold coin worth $10. It had a Liberty head with a coronet on the front and a heraldic eagle on the back. The “double eagle” equaled $20 in value and had the same design as the “eagle” except for the word “twenty” was embossed on the side with the eagle design. The “half eagle” was worth $5 and the “quarter eagle” equal to $2.50.

The silver dollar, known as the trade dollar, was also widely used. “In God We Trust” was added in 1872. The “slug,” a $50 gold piece, was used mainly in California, but also circulated in the rest of the United States. During the 1850s, a Liberty head gold dollar became readily available.

Prior to 1861, all paper money was issued by private or State Banks, often with little funding available. The notes could be redeemed for coin at the above-board banks, but notes issued by dishonest banks, called Wildcat banks, were worth little or nothing. In 1863, National Bank notes replaced State notes.

Needless to say, there were countless other coins and paper money printed, but hopefully, this will give you a basic understanding of money used in the Old West.

(Information was obtained from The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the Wild West and The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s)


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Vickie, good information about monehy. I love this blog because I always learn something when I read the posts, which in turn is great fodder for our books. Thanks!

Rhonda said...

Good job Vickie, thanks for the information.

Jeanne Marie Leach said...

Great job, Vicki. I had known about the two-bits, but that's all. This is great information that we 19th Century writers will need to know sooner or later.

Carol Burge said...

Wow, confusing, but good to know for those of us who write about the Old West. :)

I have both of these Writer's Digest books, but haven't looked at them in a while. Guess I'll have to dig them out. :)

Great article!

Susan Page Davis said...

I believe the Spanish dollar was sometimes actually cut into pieces--8 "bits" making a dollar. And that is what pirates called "pieces of eight." I didn't look this up today, so I may be a little off, but I recall this from reading several years back.

Sean said...

I've never heard that before, Sue, but it makes perfect sense.

Molly Noble Bull said...

Interest post and great info.