By Vicki Hunt Budge
The plot of my newest book, A Cherished Gift, involves counterfeiting which became fairly common in the West after the Civil War.
Many banks used to print their own money back in the late 1800s and early 1900s and the federal government backed the value of the notes. It was easy for people to think that if banks could print and circulate money, they could too. It turns out many a talented artist with a printing press did just that. A lot of the counterfeiters were skilled artisans who engraved notes for a bank by day and created their own illegal banknotes at night. They had sophisticated knowledge about paper and dyes, and they had expertise with printing machinery.
|Twenty dollar banknote.|
Here’s an idea of the number of banknotes printed by western banks during this time. The Consolidated National Bank of Tucson printed $3,228,770 worth of brown back national bank notes between 1890 and 1935. The First National Bank of Cheyenne printed $1,897,250 worth of national banknotes between 1871 and 1935. The Colorado National Bank of Denver printed $5,621,700 worth of banknotes between 1866 and 1935. The United States National Bank of Portland printed $25,832,230 worth of banknotes. With a few exceptions all the territories and states in the west were printing their own money.
The First National Bank of Idaho printed $3,393,540 worth of national currency in Boise, Idaho between 1886 and 1932. It is in this southern Idaho setting that I placed my characters in A Cherished Gift.
|Buying counterfeit money|
One of the reasons the average man might justify his desire to buy counterfeit money for a cheap price and then pass it on for the face value was that in the late 1800s and early 1900s many people falsely believed that counterfeit notes helped the economy, keeping merchants in business and helping the average man have a better life. Another reason was that for a long time, no one seemed to know or care if banknotes were legal or counterfeit. Merchants accepted both without question and simply passed the counterfeit money on to the next person. Also, the country’s economy was growing, but the prosperity didn’t reach everyone. Laborers who eked out marginal wages in the work force found that they could supplement their income with counterfeit money.
Sometimes the border between real and counterfeit became blurry. Allan Pinkerton, who got his start prosecuting counterfeiters, claimed that many businesses “preferred a good counterfeit on a solid bank to any genuine bill of a shyster institution.”
Counterfeit money is actually a threat to any nation and always has been because it reduces the value of real money and causes inflation. During wartime, many countries have actually tried to saturate another nation’s currency with counterfeit money. Great Britain tried to flood the U.S. with fake money during the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, the north purposely flooded the South with counterfeit money.
By the end of the Civil War, over half the money in the South was counterfeit and it was also a huge problem in the North and in the West. It was estimated at this time that one-third of the nation’s currency was counterfeit.
|Counterfeit Confederate Money|
One of the last acts of President Abraham Lincoln was signing a bill authorizing the Secret Service in order to stop currency counterfeiting. The Secret Service was so successful in routing out counterfeiters and doling out long prison terms that it forced counterfeiters to move further west and into small-scale local operations.
Dan Dedrick and his two younger brothers are good examples. They ran a counterfeit printing operation in Lincoln County New Mexico in 1880. Dedrick acquired several ranches in New Mexico, one of them by using money he printed. One of the more prominent outlaw names associated with Dedrick’s “counterfeit lodge” was Billy the Kid.
Not every counterfeit operation in the west was as big as Dedricks, but printing paper money became a common problem because it was easy to do with the proliferation of the printing press. Small operations in the west could go a long time before the Secret Service caught up to them, if they caught up to them.
The idea for A Cherished Gift, came from a story my father used to tell about his older brother. It seems that Uncle Andy considered counterfeiting in California in the early 1900s when he was a young man. The story goes that he worked with a buddy in the shipyards who always had more money than a common laborer earned. It turned out that his buddy was buying counterfeit money for cheap and then passing it on as a consumer for the face value. My uncle was impressed with his buddy’s extra money. So, one night his buddy took him to meet the man who made the counterfeit money with the idea that they were both going to buy the fake money. However, Uncle Andy started having second thoughts. By the time he and his buddy walked into the counterfeiter’s house, all he could think about was how disappointed in him his mother would be. When it was time to make the deal, his buddy bought; but Uncle Andy backed out.”