Money in the Old West: Coins of America's Dramatic 1840s-1870s
Updated: Jul 24, 2022
If you like gold and silver from America's past, you should read this. Many people don’t know what the coins of the American West even look like and there are more differences than similarities between the 19th century currency system and the cash we spend today.
Dave Rodgers is Chief Editor of the Frontier American Illustrated News. He is a tribal member and westerner descended directly from Squire and Edward Boone (father & brother of Daniel Boone). With an old-west family lineage of farmers, ranchers, lawmen and desperadoes, he takes pride in the rich story of the land his family came from. As a resident of rural Arizona, he continues the traditions of the American West and promotes the western culture as it continues on today.
Carrying currency then as opposed to now, required more work. It was cash and carry for travelers since precious metals were king. However, the cash system of the mid 1800s is not as primitive as you would think. There were actually safe, efficient methods to transport cash as well as a user-friendly system of international exchange for travelers. Here is the rundown on money in mid-19th century America, its purchasing power and exchange value.
If one had too many coins to transport, it was common to use a bank draft. These were documents issued in triplicate (one to the home office; one to the branch that funds were transported to; and one for the bearer). If you were traveling with $1500 in gold, you could go to a reputable banking firm and check it all in for a bank draft for a minor fee. You would then instruct the clerk where you'd like your money to go. Ex. Check in $1500 specie in Stockton and pick up $1500 specie from the branch in Boston when you get there. They would issue you a slip that matches their signature and yours to the 2-other copies. When you arrive in Boston, present the note at the local branch so that they can match it with their copy. Then you collect your money. You could also ship funds to a 3rd party in the same manner. Large express companies with the reach to provide this service included names such as Adam’s Express, Wells Fargo & Co. and American Express. All of these firms still exist today.
Since ancient times, bronze and copper coins only bore a regional value. The US minted a series of half-cent (1793-1857), one-cent (1793-present), and 2-cent (1864-1873) coins for domestic transactions only.
Copper alloy coins pre-1857:
½ Cent (featured a bust of Columbia) was discontinued by the coinage act of 1857.
Large Cent (featured a bust of Columbia) was nearly the size of a half dollar and was discontinued by the coinage act of 1857.
Copper-nickel alloy Post-1857:
Us “small” cent was roughly the same size as today’s penny. It originally featured the image of a flying eagle from 1857-1858 and then featured the “Indian head” design that continued into the 20th century. Two bits of interesting trivia are:
The “Indian Head” is actually Lady Liberty in a Plains Indian headdress.
The slang term “Nickel” or “Nick” was in reference to the small cents. The 5¢ “nickel” coin we refer to now did not come about until 1866.
Copper coins were roundly unpopular in the western states and territories. Most communities preferred gold & silver while shunning the copper and bronze coins altogether.
Gold and Silver could travel anywhere in the states; to the frontier and internationally. To do this, the various nations published their own Coin Chart Manuals of exchange so if you traveled with your dollars to Rotterdam, the Dutch would know what your money looks like and how much it was worth. If a French traveler with his francs came to your shop in the US, you’d know what his coins looked like, how much they should weigh and what their exchange value was. To give you a quick overview, here is what a US Dollar can buy; how much gold and silver was worth; what Coins did the US make and how did it compare in foreign exchange.
What was a dollar worth in the mid-1800s?
Wages (average across states according to 1850 US Census)
Farm laborer (with room and board) $10 – 13.50 per month ($60 for California)
Carpenter/Skilled Labor (per day) $1.23- 2.36 ($7.60 for California)
If the average person with reasonable labor skills made upwards of $50+ per month, do the math on saving up for the trip.
Cost of basic essentials.
Farmland could sell for $1.25 to around 7.00 per acre.
Horse is about $25-100
Mule is about $50
Rifle is about $20
Colt’s Revolver is about $20-25
Half-ton of flour is about $20
100 lbs. coffee is about $8
600 lbs. bacon is about $30
Blanket is about $1.50 – $5
Felt Hat is about $2-8
Straw 'Leghorn' Hat is about 50¢ - $1
Boots are about $3-5
Shoes are about $1.50 - 3.50
Trowsers or Pantaloons are about $3-8
Flannel Shirt is about $1.50
Coat is about $3-8
Full set of tools for the homestead is about $7.50
Specie vs. Banknote
Paper money was very limited in its use. Right up before the US Civil War, ‘banknotes’ were issued by state and local banks or agricultural exchanges. They served their purpose in local communities but could not be spent abroad as they were not federally backed. If the bank or other financial institution issuing the banknote went under, the banknote became worthless. Communities often did the bulk of their business using store credit/accounts, barter and hard "specie" (gold and silver).
The banknotes shown here are all from the far west. They include a specimen from an assay office for 25-cents in gold dust (1849); a 1-Ruble Russian Fur Co. 'Walrus Skin' worth75¢ (1852); $50 company credit with the California Salt Lake Mail Line (1863) and a CS 50¢ fractional note printed in Mesilla, New Mexico Territory when occupied by Confederate forces (1862).
The US Government established a national bank in 1791 but the charter was discontinued 20 years later. A second national bank was established in 1816 but it too had its charter discontinued in 1836. The period from 1837-1862 had no issued federal paper money. California actually banned the issue and use of paper currency in its original constitution. It would not be until the American Civil War when the Federal Reserve Note came to stay. It simplified the process of making paper currency more universally received is not without its drawbacks. Detractors did not like the fact that a promissory note had essentially replaced tangible value (precious metal coins) in the consumer’s hand. In places like California and Nevada, this was especially unpopular.
US Silver Coins
US Silver Coins, The Design of (1837-1891)
The Value of Silver: Average for the early 1850s - $1.18 per oz. or .26936₵ per grain
The “Seated Liberty” design covers the bulk of the expansionist and antebellum periods that most living historians portray. The design featured the seated image of Columbia (The goddess Liberty) on the obverse with a wreath on the reverse for the 5¢ and 10¢ denominations. An eagle decorated the back of the 25¢, 50¢, and $1 denominations.
Seated Liberty 'half-dime' was the 5¢ denomination. It was one half the mass of the dime and were minted from 1837 to 1873
Seated Liberty dime was the 10¢ denomination. They were minted from 1837 to 1891.
Seated liberty Quarter was the 25¢ denomination. It was minted from 1838 to 1891.
Seated Liberty Half Dollar was the 50¢ denomination. It was minted from 1839 to 1891.
Seated Liberty Silver Dollar actually carried more than a dollar’s worth of silver in it from 1853 onward. These were typically hoarded and could be bartered at a higher cost than its actual face value. Their minting began in 1839 and would cease in the same year as the Coinage Act of 1873.
Odd denomination - The 3¢ "Trime" was created as a better means of paying for postage instead of using copper coins. They were first produced with less silver in the alloy than face value in order to avoid hoarding. These were used in lieu of copper coins on the Pacific coast from 1851 until minting ceased in 1873. There was also a nickel variant produced for the eastern states from 1865-1889. Original specimens of the 'trime' can be spotted in some of the photos used in this article.
US Gold Coins
US Gold Coins, The ‘Liberty Head’ (Coronet) Design of (1849-1908)
The Value of Gold: Average for the early 1850s - $18.84 per oz. or 4.3066₵ per grain
Bullion gold was 24 Karat or 24/24 parts purity (.999 fine of above) bullion coins could be less
American gold coins at this time were (.900 fine) per the Act of January 18, 1837
The start of the California Gold Rush spawned many privately operated mints. These produced everything from bullion to actual coins. The typical denominations were: 25¢, 50¢, $1, $2.50, $5, $10, $20 and even $50 coins (the latter were also called “slugs”). Private minted gold coins were quickly downgraded from their face value and did not share equal worth to the US minted coins of the same denominations through the remainder of the 1850s.
The US typically minted the following denominations: The most commonly circulated gold denominations were $1 (gold dollar), $2.50 (quarter eagle), $5 (half eagle), $10 (eagle), $20 (double eagle)
Gold dollar (various types from 1849-1889) 90% gold & 10% copper 0.04837 troy oz.
Three-dollar piece “Indian Princess” (1854-1889) 90% gold & 10% copper 0.1451 troy oz.
· Note these were unpopular and circulated mostly on the West Coast.
$2.50 “Quarter Eagle” Liberty Coronet (1840-1907) 90% gold & 10% copper 0.13649901 troy oz.
$5 “Half Eagle” Liberty Coronet (1840-1907) 90% gold & 10% copper 0.242 troy oz.
$10 “Eagle” Liberty Coronet (1838-1907) 90% gold & 10% copper. 0.48375 troy oz.
$20 “Double Eagle” Liberty Coronet (1850-1907) 90% gold & 10% copper. 0.0.9675 troy oz.
$50 “Quintuple Eagle” or “Slug” Moffat & Co. Eagle. 88.7% gold & 11.3% copper or 90% gold & 10% copper as marked. Roughly 2 ½ troy ounces. *This is a US Assay office bullion coin created by the firm under Federal statute on September 30, 1850. They were circulated as cash in the far West/Pacific Coast.
Measuring the Weight of gold coins
Banker's Tip! - Gold coins may be clipped or made light by other means which will diminish their value. Here is a way to determine the value by measurement against silver coins. This is a good way to determine value when two different values may be found in two different coin chart manuals.
Half-Eagle is equal in weight to … 31 ¼ cents (use one US quarter with a fair Spanish sixpence)
Sovereign is equal to … 30 cents in silver (quarter + half dime or 3-dimes)
Napoleon is a shade lighter than 25 cents in silver
10-Thaler is a shade lighter than 50 cents in silver
10 Guilders is equal in weight to 25 cents in silver
One Doubloon is equal in weight to 100 cents in silver (One Silver Dollar)
International and Domestic Exchange
Exchange in Gold
California Private Assay Offices
Samples of private assay office coin values
California $20 piece $19.50
California $10 piece 9.50
California $5 piece 4.75
After a change in coin grading in 1834, earlier issues of US gold coins actually had more gold than their face value.
US American Eagle (pre Jul. 31, 1834) $10.66
US American Half Eagle (pre Jul. 31, 1834) $5.33
Samples of International Gold Coin Exchange Values
English/Australian Sovereign 4.75-4.87 *Different sources
10 Thaler (German) & 20 Guilder (Dutch) 7.50
5 Thaler / 10 Guilder 3.75
20 Francs (French) 3.75
5 Rubles (Russian) 3.75
Ducat (Austrian) 2.00
Doubloon (Spanish) 15.58 - 16.00 *Different sources
Doubloon (Mexican) 16.00
Half Johana (Brazil) 8.53
Napoleon (France) 3.86
Exchange in Silver
The Spanish and Mexican "Pieces of Eight" remained legal tender in the US until 1857. They would continue to be exchanged in the far west after that. There are definitely some similarities between the types of coins used by the US and its southern neighbor. The "Spanish Milled Dollar" was equal in value to the US silver dollar. Its eight 'bits' or reals were worth 12 1/2¢ each so a 2-real coin was equal to an American Quarter (or '2-bits'). The US & Spanish dollars are also equal in weight to the doubloon ($16 gold piece). Here are a few rates of exchange. (*Note the diverse nationalities in coinage entering the US at the time.)
Samples of International Silver Exchange Values (*Note: there are minor variations in value between various coin guides that were no doubt resolved by individuals haggling in the marketplace.)
Spanish Dollar (8R) $1
Mexican Dollar (8R) $1
Peruvian Dollar (8R) $1
Chilean Dollar (8R) $1
Central American Dollar (8R) $1
Florin (Southern German States) 40¢
Florin (Austrian Empire) 48.5¢
Specie Dollar (Norway & Sweden) $1.06
Specie Dollar (Denmark) $1.06
Thaler (Prussia, Germany) 69¢
Pound (Great Britain) $4.40
Pound (N. Scotia, N. Brunswick, Newfoundland, Can.) $4
Franc (France, Belgium, Livre of Sardinia) 18. 6-10¢
Ducat (Naples) 80¢
Piastre (Turkey) 4.2-5¢
5 Franc (France) 93¢ *87.5¢ (Other reports)
Rupee (Indian) 40¢
Travel is the best way to learn about other cultures and a sophisticated method of exchange allowed pre 20th century people to see the world using the specie in their pockets. Theft and loss during travel were prime concerns and appropriate countermeasures were taken to safeguard a traveler's money. Bank Drafts allowed large sums to be moved freely and they were properly insured against loss. Still, it was vary common for individuals to carry large sums on their person should any need arise.
The people of the American west were more international-minded than they often get credit for. Boom communities brought cultures together and turned strangers into neighbors. It wasn't always amicable and there are many stories of conflict between various ethnicities. However, there were also happy endings as well and people learned to coexist more likely than not as we still do today. Learning about the value and exchange of a foreigner's coins in a bustling marketplace often became a common link that brought our western ancestors together.