MYTH # 113 Revised: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

 

cool-dollar-buck-deer-skin

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.” 

11 Responses to MYTH # 113 Revised: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

  1. a_pounts says:

    Woohoo, I’m on the Internet! I’m famous!

    Love

    Adam

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. James "Jake" Pontillo says:

    I Have got to go with the idea of a BUCK. ‘Dollar” as a short form of BUCKSKIN which was a trade item. The online Etymological Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=buck&searchmode=none)
    Lists buck
    “male deer,” c.1300, earlier “male goat;” from Old English bucca “male goat,” from Proto-Germanic *bukkon (cf. Old Saxon buck, Middle Dutch boc, Dutch bok, Old High German boc, German Bock, Old Norse bokkr), perhaps from a PIE root *bhugo (cf. Avestan buza “buck, goat,” Armenian buc “lamb”), but some speculate that it is from a lost pre-Germanic language. Barnhart says Old English buc “male deer,” listed in some sources, is a “ghost word or scribal error.”

    Meaning “dollar” is 1856, American English, perhaps an abbreviation of buckskin, a unit of trade among Indians and Europeans in frontier days, attested in this sense from 1748

  3. Marfy Goodspeed says:

    Check out this link:
    http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/202/
    Seems like this is not a myth after all.

  4. oldud says:

    I always wondered what created the demand for deer hides in Europe until I read that they were favored by the trade class (i.e. masons, carpenters, wheelrights, etc.). They provided durable, long-lasting breeches used under hard working conditions, similar to wearing today’s jeans. The skins also provided a favorite material for glovers, at a reasonable price. Eventually, the French traders in Louisiana preferred the hides to be unfinished (dried) since the manufacturer wanted to tan them to their specifications rather than receive the hides already brain-tanned.

  5. Deborah Brower says:

    Then there is “sawbuck”, how does that relate? As Mary said this is a complex question and the simple rules of commerce would effect it. One thing Mary did not bring was the value of currency. Are we talking Spanish dollars, American dollars or something else?

    Then there are the various meanings of the word buck. Even the Online Entomology Dictionary has at least three definitions.

    The earliest reference at Wordorigins.org is 1824. The others are clustered between 1841 and 1854. Are they influenced by James Buchanan’s book? Where the heck did he get it? I think at best the jury is out without better references.

    I get the feeling that this is like many of the myths here. Someone comes up with a simple, appealing thought. It catches on and through repetition takes on the aura of truth.

    • Charlie says:

      A sawbuck is an x-shaped brace used when bucking felled timber for logs. This part I know for fact (I’ve used them).

      Supposedly, because early ten dollar bills had large roman numeral ten (X) on them, and twenties carried the double-X this led to the names “sawbuck” and “double sawbuck”. I have no idea if this etymology is true, although the bills certainly did have roman numerals on them.

  6. Charlie says:

    As for shopkeepers taking entire dressed animals in trade, my mother’s father certainly did so in the 1930s in rural Virginia. He’d have been much less successful than he was if he hadn’t allowed the poorer members of his community to barter for finished goods like cloth and gunpowder! He sold the meat, garden truck and live stock he received in trade to the wealthier folks for cash, and everybody involved was better off for it.

  7. pretty certain the deer hides were tanned- smoke tanned so they would not be raw and rotting. Current trade rate for Indian tanned (smoked) buck skin is about 100 bucks. Soft- and waterproof and great for making clothing.

    • Yes indeed,Ms. Bechdel, although $100 for a good smoked brain tanned hide would be a very good price. I think nowadays more in the line of a 135- 150- T
      he hides could have been sent out dried as rawhides and the re hydrated and bark tanned in Europe.

  8. joemirsky says:

    The word “buck” for dollar comes from buckskin, deer hide, that the colonials used to trade with the Indians.

    Conrad Weiser, a German immigrant to England and then to America spent a year as a youth with the Mohawk Indians and learned their language. He became an interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania colony and later one of the founders of Reading and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

    He recounts addressing Indians in his journal in 1748:

    Whiskey shall be sold to You for 5 Bucks in your Town, & if a Trader offers to sell Whiskey to You and will not let you have it at that Price, you may take it from him & drink it for nothing.

    and

    Here is one of the Traders who you know to be a very sober & honest Man; he has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks, & you all know by whom; let, therefore, Satisfaction be made to the Trader.

    Copyright © 2015 Joseph Mirsky

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