When the first company of Saints arrived in Salt Lake Valley, currency was not one of their surpluses, and a barter system was established. One pioneer complained: “Spent the day collecting debts. … Travel a mile, get 30 weight of flour, the same distance to get a bushel of potatoes. Half a mile in another direction for a few pounds of meat, then in a case of emergency, pack a bushel of corn to mill to get it ground to make a little dodger. … Often takes as long to collect the pay as it does to work for it.” 1
The Saints tried about a dozen different methods of creating a currency between 1847 and 1864 when Congress made it illegal for anyone but the government to produce money. The results, pictured here from the Church Historical Department, are curious and rare indeed, almost as rare now as coins were to the early pioneers.
1. Countersigned by various Church leaders, some notes from the Kirtland Safety Society circulated for a time in the Valley in denominations of one, two, three, five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred. A few stock certificates in the Nauvoo House Association also circulated in fifty and one-hundred-dollar denominations.
2. California gold dust, weighed and packaged in small amounts, was also used as currency in Utah Territory along with Spanish gold doubloons, which arrived in the Valley in 1848 as part of the $5,000 payment to the Mormon Battalion. 2 But, with the $85 in cash that Brigham Young brought back with him from his 1848 trip to Missouri, 3 it still didn’t make enough currency to fuel eastern trade. A person would pay for smaller purchases by letting the clerk take a pinch of gold dust between his thumb and forefinger; naturally, the more dust the clerk could “raise in a pinch,” the more valuable an employee he was. 4
3. Forty-six of these ten-dollar gold pieces were minted from California dust in December 1848 by a committee appointed by Brigham Young: John Kay, John Taylor, and Robert Campbell. The handmade crucibles could not withstand the strains of minting, however, and production was stopped. 5
4. While new crucibles were coming from the East, Brigham Young authorized handwritten notes, backed by gold dust in denominations of fifty cents, and one-, two-, three-, and five-dollar denominations. All of these notes were recalled when the new parts for the mint came.
5. The first really successful gold coins minted in Utah appeared in September 1849 in denominations of two-and-a-half, five, ten, and twenty dollars. The phrase “Holiness to the Lord” surrounded an all-seeing eye and a priesthood emblem. On the reverse side were two clasped hands above the date of issue, surrounded by the denomination and the letters G.S.L.C.P.G., an abbreviation for “Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold.” These coins were minted unchanged until 1860 except for adding nine stars to the five-dollar piece in 1850. 6
6. This new five-dollar gold piece was redesigned by J. M. Barlow and Douglas Dougall Brown in 1860. On the obverse (the front or principal side), “Holiness to the Lord” in Deseret Alphabet script frames a lion crouched under three mountain peaks by a stream. (The mountains were eliminated in the final minting.) On the reverse appears a beehive under an eagle gripping laurel branches and grain. The words “Deseret Assay Office Pure Gold” circle the edge. 7
7. Many other notes, usually based on goods or cattle rather than gold, were issued by such banks and corporations as the Drovers Bank, Deseret Currency Association, Deseret University Bank, Holladay and Halsey, Great Salt Lake City Corporation, ZCMI, and the General Bishop’s Store House. 8
Cited in Don L. Penrod, “Coin, Currency, and Barter in Early Utah,” Aug. 1966, manuscript copy on file, Church Historical Department, p. 3.
Francis Foster, “Money in the Valley,” Improvement Era (Sept. 1933), p. 657.
Leonard J. Arrington, “Coin and Currency in Early Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly, 20 (Jan. 1952): 60–61.
Ibid., p. 64.
Ibid., p. 71.
Sheridan L. McGarry, “Mormon Money,” Numismatist. Photocopies of reprints available in Church Archives.