I interrupt my multi-part series in ancient and Medieval wonders for a quick nod to my friends over the Atlantic. In honor of today’s Independence Day, here is the amazing tale of one of the best-known symbols of all time: the dollar, or $. No keyboard is complete without it, nor any Scrooge Mc Duck comic.
So, how did this symbol came to be? The answer is to be found in a fascinating post by Atlas Obscura.
A Wealthy Irish Merchant Named
Wars cost money. So when the Revolutionary War broke out, the Colonies turned to a number of sources for backing. The top contributors to America’s Independence were the Kingdoms of France and Spain, the Dutch banking conglomerate, and a single Irish merchant based in New Orleans. His seldom remembered name was Oliver Pollock.America was a British colony in revolt, so the preferred currency became the Spanish dollar, also known as Spanish peso. This was commonly obtained through illicit trade in the Spanish Caribbean, and Pollock had made a fortune this way. As an Irish, he believed that fighting Britain was his duty. So, he reached into his own deep pockets and made available to the American war cause 300,000 Spanish pesos – or roughly one billion US dollars in today’s currency.
It was a massive sum, even for someone as wealthy as Pollock, but he gladly parted with it in order to back the revolution. The primary beneficiary of Pollock’s finances was General George Rogers Clark, whose successful campaigns across the American frontier and especially in Illinois opened up the Northwest for the Colonial forces. In fact, the accomplishments of Clark would have been impossible without the contributions of Pollock.
Pollock the Diplomat
Not satisfied to simply pay for the cause, Pollock became active diplomatically as well. After being named the official representative of the Colonies in New Orleans by the Continental Congress, Pollock approached “neutral” individuals, providing support however needed.
It was in this capacity that he approached the skeptical Spanish Colonel and Governor of Louisiana Bernardo de Gálvez when it came time to launch a crucial campaign against the British military in the South to prevent them from encircling the American rebels and keeping open a vital conduit for supplies. Pollock convinced him of General Washington’s ability to win this war. He then sweetened the pot by personally raising the troops and supplies Governor Gálvez used to capture British forts in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. The campaign was a massive success. It was also a huge drain on Pollock’s personal fortune.
Nearly bankrupt, Pollock drew up bills of exchange, or war bonds, to sell to supporters of the colonies. When Pollock reached out to the Founding Fathers to support his new plan, they had no problem backing their man in New Orleans, especially since Thomas Jefferson personally endorsed him.
Even so, the expensive cost of raising of armies and supplies left Pollock with nothing. To make matters worse, as a result of some favorable re-negotiating on the bills of exchange he had issued, he was made personally liable for them, as opposed to the merchant companies and the state congresses who originally backed them.
When his creditors came looking for repayment, Pollock had no choice but to turn to his Northern friends for help, asking for $20,000. But neither Congress or the state of Virginia had twenty thousand dollars to spare. America’s coffers were earmarked for nation-building and, unfortunately for Pollock, he had accrued his massive debt supporting the American cause in the West and the South–territory that was then handed over to France and Spain for their support during the War.
A Lasting Contribution
Ironically, said nation-building included Secretary of Finance Alexander Hamilton’s plan to establish a strong central bank and currency. Washington’s Superintendent of Finance, and Pollock’s close friend and business partner, Robert Morris–himself a key financial backer of the Revolution–began the process by sifting through the countless ledgers sent to Congress by Pollock, who had kept careful record of these amounts, noting both the Bills which he received and the supplies which he purchased.
It was with those ledgers that Oliver Pollock finally achieved his dream of providing America with an important, lasting contribution. Not the numbers, alas. No, his contribution was the poor penmanship that accompanied them. Pollock entered the abbreviation ‘ps’ by the figures for ‘peso.’ Because he tended to run both letters together, the resulting symbol resembled a ‘$,’ and this is the earliest appearance of the symbol.
Robert Morris chose to adopt the symbol and by 1797 had it cast in type in Philadelphia as the official symbol for new nation’s own currency.
Meanwhile, Oliver Pollock declared bankruptcy in early 1782 and liquidated his assets and personal possessions. This included the Mississippi River lands near Baton Rouge and Pointe Coupée upon which Louisiana State University would be built.
Pollock thought he had caught another break in 1783 when he was appointed an agent of the United States in Havana, but that backfired when his Cuban creditors decided he owed them $150,000. He spent more than a year languishing in a Havana debtors prison until he was bailed out by his old war buddy, Governor Gálvez.
The return to the US
Pollock returned to the U.S. in 1785 and continued his attempts to regain his wealth and stature. His efforts to do so are best illustrated by a missive he received from his old friend Thomas Jefferson: “All the particulars of the transactions concerning you while I was governor, are obliterated from my mind. I only recollect generally that we had considerable transactions with you,” wrote Jefferson in May of that year.
It wasn’t until 1791 that Jefferson’s memory improved and Congress finally discharged Pollock of his debts. He moved to Cumberland county, an Irish immigrant enclave in Pennsylvania, where he ran for Congress –and lost–three times. When his second wife died in 1820, he went to live with one of his daughters, who had married a plantation owner in Pinckneyville, Mississippi, which is where he died in 1823.
In one final ignominy to his memory, a gunboat shelled the property during the Civil War and all of his personal effects were destroyed in the ensuing fire. All that remains of him is a single gravestone in the defunct Pinckneyville Episcopal Church cemetery, and an impressionistic bronze sculpture on display since 1979 in Galvez Plaza in downtown Baton Rouge.
Oliver Pollock is proof that while money can buy many things–from victorious armies to powerful connections–it can’t guarantee what sometimes happens by accident: a legacy.
Read the full post on Atlas Obscura and happy Independence Day!