Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863

By George Byron Merrick | Go to book overview

Chapter XXII
Wild-cat Money and Town-sites

Both of these specimens of natural history were bred, nurtured, and let loose in countless numbers to prey upon the people in the early days that witnessed the opening of the Northwestern territories to settlement. The wild-cat dollars waxed fat upon the blood and brawn of the settlers who had already arrived; wild-cat town-sites found ready victims in the thousands of Eastern people who desired to better their fortunes, and who lent ready ears to the golden tales of unscrupulous promoters, that told of wonderful cities in the West, whose only reality was that blazoned in the prospectuses scattered broadcast through the East.

The younger generation, whose only acquaintance with the circulating symbols of wealth that we call “money”, is confined to the decades since the close of the War of Secession, can have no idea of the laxity of banking laws of the fifties, in the Northwestern states and territories, nor of the instability of the socalled “money” that conprised nine-tenths of the medium of exchange then in use in the West. Nowadays, a bank bill stands for its face value in gold, if it be a National Bank issue. If a state bank—and bills of this sort are comparatively few in these days— they are also guaranteed, in a measure, by the laws of the state in which the bank is situated. In the days of which I am writing, and especially in the unsettled and troublesome times just before the war (from 1856 to 1862), the money that was handled on the river in the prosecution of business, except of course the small proportion of gold that was still in circulation, had little or no backing, either by federal or state enactments.

A man went into an embryo city, consisting in that day of two or three thousand town lots, and from fifty to a hundred inhabitants, with an iron box costing twenty-five dollars. In this

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