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

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, or so I thought. It says “origin obscure,” which usually means insufficient evidence. The OED 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 blanket 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.

(Thanks go to Ben Zimmer for this information.)

Joe Mirky pointed out some earlier, 18th-century references:

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.

But I wondered, were deerskins really worth a dollar throughout this time? 

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 over time and place. 

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.

So the statement above seems to be partly true. Deerskins were not worth a dollar, per se, but they were a form of barter on the frontier that could approximate value. The word buck could derive from that usage. 

However, there is another, equally plausible origin of the word “buck:” that it is a shortening of the word “sawbuck” which was slang for a 10-dollar bill (or any early US paper currency). Why? Because the ten dollar bill had a Roman numeral X on it, which is also called a sawbuck, which is an X-shaped brace, a tool for helping cut a long log into boards. This would date the association of the word “buck” with a piece of paper money to the mid-19th century. 

This could be an example of two origins that developed during different times and places, both correct. Dr. Russell A. Potter, who has taught History of the English language for 25 years, says, The derivation of buck (dollar) from the trade in deerskins is (in my view) unlikely, as the usage is quite scarce prior to the introduction of paper currency — but yes, words can sometimes have more than one origin. The “sawbuck” theory has the advantage of a clearer line of plausible transmission — but even with that theory, there are relatively few examples until late in this same period (as a casual slang term, it likely had a long gestation in common parlance before it began to see the light of print). All of which are reasons why the Oxford English Dictionary lists “origin obscure.” I would certainly say that the deerskin theory should not be presented as unquestionably true; offering it alongside the “sawbuck”/$10 theory is probably about the best that can be done.

 

Earlier Comments:

James “Jake” Pontillo says:
May 4, 2013 at 11:48 pm (Edit)
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

Reply
Marfy Goodspeed says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:49 am (Edit)
Check out this link:
http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/202/
Seems like this is not a myth after all.

Reply
oldud says:
May 5, 2013 at 6:57 am (Edit)
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.

Reply
Deborah Brower says:
May 5, 2013 at 1:13 pm (Edit)
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.

Reply
Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm (Edit)
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.

Reply
Charlie says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:05 pm (Edit)
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.

Reply
Mary Miley says:
May 15, 2013 at 6:09 pm (Edit)
Well, okay. I’m open to revision!

Reply
Leanne Keefer Bechdel says:
January 31, 2014 at 5:47 pm (Edit)
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.

Reply
Jake Pontillo says:
June 30, 2015 at 1:55 am (Edit)
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.

Reply
joemirsky says:
June 16, 2015 at 8:55 pm (Edit)
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

Reply

 

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14 Responses to Revisited Myth #113: A deerskin was worth a dollar, hence the origin of the word “buck.”

  1. “Buck” is a clip of the earlier “sawbuck” ($10 bill whose Roman numeral X resembled a sawbuck). It has nothing to do with deerskins (though doubtless such skins could be traded for other goods) whose value would have varied enormously over time.

    • Mary Miley says:

      You are correct that a sawbuck was a ten dollar bill. So how would that come to mean a one dollar bill? Deerskin values fluctuated, but a deerskin was never worth ten dollars.

      • profrap says:

        I’ve been teaching the History of the English Language for 25 years. There are quite a lot of “folk etymologies” such as the deerskin one out there, and they’re quite fascinating even though inaccurate. The key event was the introduction of the first national paper currency, “demand notes,” with a big Roman Numeral “X” on the back (a similar “X” also had featured on earlier state and local bills and scrip). These new bills also were printed a deep green color on that side, giving rise to the word “greenback.” It’s also telling that the new slang of “buck” for a dollar appears primarily in urban areas in the Eastern US, far from the western trading posts where a buck’s skin could be a common unit of value. As to the difference between $10 and $1, the “buck” in question was a general term for the newly-introduced paper bills, before it became quantified as a dollar; the un-clipped “sawbuck” was retained for $10 bills, and $20 bills were sometimes called “double sawbucks.”

  2. Rob says:

    Sawbuck gets its name from the fact that the term for rendering a long log into smaller logs for either firewood or clapboards is referred to as “bucking” a log; the actual process involves placing a wedge or “buck” under the log to support the uncut end. Even when this step is omitted, it is still referred to as bucking a log. When done with a saw, rather than an ax, the log must be propped up higher to avoid the blade getting pinched and for efficiency. The sawbuck was used for this purpose and thus the name. It has nothing to do with the origin of the term “buck” as currency.

  3. I posted a lengthy comment a day before “Rob” above, but it never appeared. As a linguist who has taught History of English for 25 years, I’d hoped to add some insight here, but it’s disappointing when it never gets approved. By the by, the connection between the X on the $10 bill and the term “sawbuck” is very well-documented (see the OED entry).

    • Mary Miley says:

      I saw your second comment and posted it–or tried to. Something went wrong. I’ll work on this. Sorry . . .

    • Rob says:

      I was not disputing whether or not sawbuck was a term used for a ten dollar piece, merely explaining what a sawbuck was. Ten dollar pieces would have gotten the term because the x looks like a sawbuck. Sawbucks did not receive their name because of looking like a coin/paper dollar. I have, in fact, heard this term in connection with Spanish coins for the same reason (which, as I am sure you are aware was a common tender used in the early colonies). As to the usage of buck as a stand alone please for a dollar, I have never heard the connection made between sawbucks and buck. Furthermore there is a significant enough evidence linking the term to the common practice of buckskins being used for currency that puts the theory outside the realm of folklore. You can find the term used frequently in this manner in documents from Ohio territory, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Western Virginia (which happens to be where this trade was the most common as they were harvested there and sold to European markets to suit the trend in buckskin breeches). I will definitely concede I was a bit too opinionated in say there was no connection, however this was motivated by the fact the term buck can be traced prior to the US being a country to say nothing of the fact it certainly predated our first and unfortunate adoption of paper currency. It was later that I remembered the connection also to Spanish coinage which would predate either so it is possible that the connection is there. Though I have a degree in history and specialize in American history, I am not so heavy handed to assume I have the right answer here and, being as those far smarter than myself concede that they don’t know definitively either, I think I’ll leave it at that

      • Rob says:

        an interesting side note, the height of the deerskin trade was in the 18th century rather than the 19th as often supposed. It was especially so in the latter half of the 18th century both due to a fashion fad in gentry wearing buskskin breeches to try to look like a gentleman farmer alongside of the usual trade demand (glove making, and work clothing) and the rising scarcity in hides as deer populations decreased. It was for this pay dirt that frontiersmen went on extended hunts to harvest them deep in the Ohio river valley and Kentucky on “long hunts” (which is where we get the modern term “long hunter” which is often erroneously attributed to being a historic term). The first references to references to things being valued in buckskins were east of the Mississippi. Incidentally, the initial comment I made was not directed at what you said but to another whose writing seemed to imply that the term sawbuck was originated in currency rather than the working tool.

      • profrap says:

        Didn’t mean to imply that actual sawbucks got their name from the bills — the reverse of that — so we agree on that. But as to the deerskin theory there are problems: Deerskins were sold by size/weight/quality and then by pound; the common trade with Indians was recorded in “chalks” not dollars. One source indicates “if the skin is small it goes for one chalk, if middling for two, if Large, for three & over. Sometimes four or five chalks is allowed for a very large buckskin.” When sold for currency, a common price in the early 1800’s was twenty cents a pound, a good deal less than a dollar (deerskins were relatively common and cheap, as opposed to more desirable pelts, such as beaver, and later fox).

        Since skins could vary quite a bit in size, weight, and quality, they would have been ill-suited for employment as a unit of currency. Some folks on this page have cited a figure of a certain number of skins for another skin, or (in one case, with Indians among whom currency would be scarce) whiskey — but this local trade parlance would be unlikely to spread to those whose usual encounter with furs was in a shop window. The earliest uses of “sawbuck” for a ten-dollar bill are in a New York magazine, The Knickerbocker, whose readers mostly lived quite a distance from the western wilderness. Lastly, “buckskin” at the market didn’t always correspond with bucks in the woods; the popular “buckskin breeches” you mention were often made from the skins of sheep, elk, caribou, or even beaver.

        It’s true as you say that, as the 19th century wore on, deerskins became scarcer and probably therefore were worth more — and yet, by that time, “buck” as a dollar was already long established.

      • Rob says:

        Allow me to start this reply by stating that I do not want to give the impression of being argumentative or hostile. Rather that I enjoy discussing history with others who are as passionate about it and are well versed in it. The challenge of presenting a case and hearing an opposing view is one that stimulates thought and further learning.

        Quick semantics issue on my part. I am not referring to buckskin breeches after the fashion of the rocky mountain fur trade era (so used to using 18th century terminology for pants/breeches/slops/trousers I neglected to take into account how that term has multiple applications). The breeches I am referring to are 18th century knee breeches that were made with deerskin rather than wool or linen. It was a popular fashion in England from the late Georgian period up through the early to mid Regency period. Think more Mr. Darcy rather than Davy Crockett. the preferred material for this fashion was deerskin due to its suppleness and how it hung on the wearer.

        Perhaps a few other things that might clear the air as to where I each stand might be helpful.

        1. The idea that a deer pelt was worth a dollar is indeed false as the varying price of such goods would preclude that (as you stated yourself). The association of deerskin to dollars as I have understood it was that the deerskin was generally the least valuable skin in that barter system and was consequently associated with the least valuable denomination. It is important to note that a straight line association is not there so this is a hypothesis and not an established fact. It is also upon the documentation from the period where individuals use the term buckskins or bucks to denote value of objects (their current value in skins not dollars) that leads to the theory that bucks came into the common vernacular.

        2. The bartering system where skins and furs are used between settlers is well documented(as opposed to the Indian trade where furs were valued according to plus [pronounced “plew”] or chalks which allowed more leeway for the company to manipulate values to benefit their profits much in the same ways as credits at a company store). What is misunderstood by many is that a skin was not necessarily viewed as a form of “paper currency” per se, but rather something of intrinsic value that could be turned into cash or goods if taken to place it could be sold. The Ohio frontiersman had the difficult challenge of their farming goods not being worth enough on the market out east to justify the cost of sending it there. Therefore, perishable items like crops were typically bartered among themselves for other perishable items until later when cheaper transport was available (not to mention the port of New Orleans being in our hands thus avoiding the fees leveled by either the Spanish or French). When something of more intrinsic value was bartered for such as a rifle or tool which couldn’t be manufactured in the backwoods, the seller would want something that could be exchanged for other goods of intrinsic value upon returning to civilization themselves (unlike the Disney inspired myths of the frontier, people in the frontier west of the Mississippi would return to towns with some seasonal regularity to sell goods and use the money or credit to obtain “civilized” goods in return). The two things obtainable on the frontier that could be guaranteed to fetch something back in town would be skins and alcoholic beverages. It was for this reason that the whiskey rebellion took place as the tax leveled shut out all the “over-the-mountain-men” of western PA out of the legal trade in whiskey (incidentally this was prior to corn whiskey/moonshine and was made with barley and other grains). It is also for this reason that items of intrinsic value were expressed in the amount of furs or goods the owner paid for them or what they would fetch presently were they to buy them again. You would also hear of items being valued in beaver, mink, and hogsheads of whiskey (there is a term I need to look up the origin of).

        The theory in favor of the Buck skins is that the term buck skins and even bucks to denote the value of an object can be found in documentation dating back to the mid 18th century in various areas along the eastern frontier. Most of these are references to loss, grievances (such as Indian raids, government blunders, or requests for reimbursement), or the disbursement of property. Many of the oft quoted references are contained within this very article upon which we are commenting. As this is the internet, I did take the liberty of verifying these references to ensure that are correct (no offense to the author just good scholasticism) and they are indeed documented references; some of them are even with works within my own library at home. The earlier references would have been at a period where the frontier began at the western portions of the east coast states, including New York and thus the phrase could have easily been adopted in the eastern portion of those states.
        The sawbuck term, however, I cannot find references to it that predate the adoption of the “greenback” from which it came which would put it at mid 19th century. I did mention the Spanish coin connection though I have only heard it said and have not found documentation so I must regard that as anecdotal until more hard evidence turns up (incidentally not because of the roman numeral 10 but because of the cross mark on a “piece of eight” which was used as a guide for cutting it into equal bits). All that being said, this does not automatically equate to buckskins being the definitive source of the term but the earlier date tends to steer me in that direction.

        The third answer may well be that they are both correct only the term was adopted in different areas for different reasons and became part of modern lingo.

      • profrap says:

        Well, you know your buckskins, sir. Words are my stock-in-trade. With “buck” for dollar, one would have to establish a chain of influence, documented along the way, before making a definite conclusion. It’s tricky, though, with words that were probably primarily spoken rather than written, and may have originated in areas where the press was scarce at the time (for an example of this see “shenanigan” — originally a singular noun — which dates from San Francisco right after the gold rush of ’49). When the OED says “origin obscure,” that usually means insufficient evidence — or perhaps competing explanations thought equally plausible, and they do that for both “buck” (in this sense) and shenanigans!

        Another problem is that search engines don’t have the capacity to separate out different uses of buck; I’ve tried various ways to work around this. Newspapers often are closer to the vernacular than other sources; on checking the phrase “ten bucks” at newspapers.com for the years 1800-1861 I found that all referred to actual bucks/deer; from 1862 onward to 1900 most refer to currency. But it’s a very imperfect filter. It does also seem that the “ten bucks” phrase doesn’t really catch on in a big way until after 1900, peaking around the WWII era (you can see this in Google’s nGram — though only includes printed books): https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ten+bucks&year_start=1800&year_end=2009&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cten%20bucks%3B%2Cc0

  4. Thanks, Mary, for finding and posting my earlier comment!

  5. Mary Miley says:

    Gentlemen,
    Clearly, you both know far more than I on this topic, so, since it seems I need to update the post in some manner . . . am I safe in concluding that because the earliest usage of the word BUCK relates to deer and not paper money (which came later), that that is the origin of the word? Or do we believe as Rob suggested that the word was adopted in different eras for different reasons, so both origins can be considered valid?

    • profrap says:

      Well, “buck” meaning the male of any of several species goes back at least to AD 1000, so no question it’s earlier. The derivation of buck (dollar) from the trade in deerskins is (in my view) unlikely, as the usage is quite scarce prior to the introduction of paper currency — but yes, words can sometimes have more than one origin. The “sawbuck” theory has the advantage of a clearer line of plausible transmission — but even with that theory, there are relatively few examples until late in this same period (as a casual slang term, it likely had a long gestation in common parlance before it began to see the light of print). All of which are reasons why the Oxford English Dictionary lists “origin obscure.” I would certainly say that the deerskin theory should not be presented as unquestionably true; offering it alongside the “sawbuck”/$10 theory is probably about the best that can be done.

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