The display claims that when Michigan was a young territory, deer were common and hunting was such a part of life that deer skins or a whole deer were used as money. A deer carcass was worth a dollar and hence the dollar became known for what it was worth–a buck.
A quick trip to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary should straighten this out, I thought. That and the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang give the oldest example as 1856, but another source http://www.wordorigins.org, finds examples as early as the 1820s; to wit:
From James Buchanan’s 1824 Sketches of the History, Manners, and Customs of North American Indians:
Each buck-skin one dollar.
From the 1826 Narrative of William Biggs, While He Was a Prisoner With the Kickepoo Indians:
McCauslin then sent for the interpreter, and the indians asked 100 Buckskins for me, in merchandize…the indians then went to the traders houses to receive they pay, they took but seventy bucks worth of merchandize at that time.
From Charles Cist’s 1841 Cincinnati in 1841:
They had sold the Indians whiskey that had frozen in the cask, before they reached their camp; they made an Indian pay for a rifle gun thirty, the Indians say forty, buck-skins, which they value at one dollar each, besides a horse of fifteen pounds price.
From Samuel Prescott Hildreth’s 1848 Pioneer History:
On the frontiers, and especially among the Indians, the value of property was estimated in bucks, instead of dollars or pounds—a buck was valued at one dollar. A copy of the following certificate, recorded in Colonel Morgan’s journal, among several others of the same tenor, is worth preserving:
“I do certify, that I am indebted to the bearer, Captian [sic] Johnny, seven bucks and one doe, for the use of the states, this 12 April 1779.”
From Henry Howe’s 1851 Historical Collections of Ohio:
A muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a racoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, “the almighty dollar.”
And finally from James Wickes Taylor’s 1854 History of the State of Ohio: First Period, 1650-1787:
The English said we should buy everything of them, and since we had got saucy, we should give two bucks for a blanket3 which we used to get for one: we should do as they pleased, and they killed some of our people to make the rest fear them.
3 The skin of a buck was “legal tender,” in the wilderness, for a dollar.
(Thanks go to Ben Zimmer for this information.)
A question comes to mind:
When Michigan was a young territory (1805-1837), were deerskins worth a dollar? After searching through several books on the subject of the deerskin trade, it became obvious that prices depended on many variables. The size and quality of the skin were obvious factors in its value, but so was the age of the deer, the sex of the deer (buckskins were worth more than doeskins which were worth more than fawn), and the degree of finishing. A dressed buckskin was worth more than a partially dressed one. Prices also varied according to geography and over time. Also, skins were often sold by the pound, not each. In short, the price received for deerskins varied a good deal.
Prices on the world market declined from the 18th century to the early 19th century, which affected the prices paid to hunters. Here are some details: In the late 17th century in Pennsylvania, a dressed buckskin brought 2 shillings 5 pence. In South Carolina in the early 18th century, dressed skins brought 5 shillings per pound; in North Carolina during that time, a buckskin brought 2 shillings, a doeskin 1 shilling 6 pence. (Hunting for Hides, Lapham, 2005, p. 12) In the 1780s in the southeastern U.S., a pound of dressed skins went for 6 shillings. By the 1790s, the price had dropped by 50% from pre-Revolutionary War years. (Deerskins and Duffels, Braund, 1993, p. 99-100, 178) I found no prices specific to the Michigan Territory, but since the main market was Europe, it seems reasonable to conclude that prices paid were fairly consistent throughout the colonies/states.
With all this variety and these price changes over time, I find it hard to believe that anyone could generalize and say that one buckskin was worth one dollar, or indeed, any precise amount. But what these examples suggest is that the Indians valued the skin of a buck at one dollar. What the traders got for them on the wider market would have varied. And when traders got less, they squeezed the Indians, as the 1854 example above shows, devaluing the buck to half its former worth.
Regarding the sign or exhibit label, I believe the claim that the word buck derives from the value of a buckskin is true. However, I find it really hard to believe that a whole deer carcass was used for money. That conjures up images of someone heaving a dead deer onto the store counter and saying, “Here, Joe. (Thud.) I’ll take a sack of flour.” While a parcel of skins, like a hogshead of tobacco, could have been used to settle debts, such as paying down what you owed the storekeeper, a deer carcass was surely a cumbersome form of currency, not to mention that it would have rotted before it could have been “spent.” I’m willing to be contradicted on this if anyone has proof otherwise.
I don’t know where this display came from–probably Michigan?–but I vote for its revision, deleting the words “or a whole deer” and changing “A deer carcass was worth a dollar” to “A male deerskin was worth approximately one dollar to the Indians on the frontier.”