Although I have acquired items of value pertaining to famous personages active on the Comstock during its heyday, my favorites in the collection are some that didn’t cost much but have interesting backgrounds.
This draft from the Agency of the Bank of California at Gold Hill (on the Comstock Lode) is one such item. It only cost me $11, and you can see that a portion of the draft is missing. So it is certainly not a high-grade specimen.
However, what’s unusual about this draft is what it was payable in. Many of these drafts indicated they were payable in gold. This one, however, goes out of its way to designate payment in U.S. Trade dollars. And it does so in four different places.
One appears in parenthesis, next to “One Hundred & Fifty.” Another is at the lower left, after the numeric designation of $150. And it can be found twice in red ink, vertically across the draft, as “Payable in Trade dollars.”
What further interested me is that the draft is dated June 17, 1876. A little more than one month later, the Trade dollar’s legal-tender status was revoked by Congress.
Originally intended for use in the Far East, shortly after issue, the coins became a nuisance in the United States, where they were legal tender only in small amounts. Silver had by then begun to fall in value, and by 1876 the silver in the Trade dollar wasn’t worth a dollar, even though the coin was still being paid out at full value—at a loss to most who took it.
That same year (according John M. Willem Jr.’s The United States Trade Dollar: America’s Only Unwanted, Unhonored Coin), the Aug. 3 issue of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise reported that there had been a meeting of area saloon owners, at the Delta Saloon in Virginia City, to discuss the fate of the Trade dollar. Only 24 of the businesses (or a scant one-seventh of those in this hard-drinking town) were represented.
Some barkeeps called for total refusal of the Trade dollar in payment for liquor. Others suggested taking the coins at 90 cents or as low as 87-1/2 cents.
Considering the obvious problems with Trade dollars (and their shameful lack of acceptance even for basic necessities such as fine two-bit liquor), it’s probably a wonder you could have found anyone who wanted payment in Trades rather than gold.