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

March 11, 2017

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

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