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Coins & Currency | 04.28.2016

Why Is a Dollar Commonly Referred to as a Buck?

American FrontiersmanAs with many idioms or slang terms, the exact beginning of a word is difficult to pinpoint with one hundred percent certainty. However, the theory of the origin of the term “Buck” for “Money” is extremely plausible and backed up by a large number of early journal entries by frontiersman as documented evidence. Specifically, it is thought that a dollar is called a “buck” thanks to deer and their skins.

In frontier areas, both before and after the American Revolution, money was in short supply. In fact, it was such an uncommon thing in the everyday lives of the frontier people that they relied primarily on bartering as a means of exchange. Such being, one of the most valuable commodities traded on the frontier were deerskins, or “buckskins.” They could be used to make shirts, trousers, moccasins, hats, and so much more, plus, they could be easily exchanged in order to purchase items needed for other supplies to survive. These buckskins were so in demand that people would value various commodities in terms of how many “buckskins” they were worth.

There is also evidence that a “buck” didn’t simply mean one deerskin, but may have meant multiple skins, depending on quality. For instance, skins from deer killed in the winter were considered superior to those killed in the summer, due to the fur being thicker. It is thought that the highest quality skins were generally assigned a one to one value with one skin equaling one buck. In contrast, for lower quality skins, it might take several of them to be valued at a single buck. The specific value for given sets of skins was then set at trading.

This practice of valuing things in relation to buckskins became widespread and even habitual. For example, on the Pennsylvania frontier, an individual’s or family’s wealth was often measured in how many “buckskins” they were actually worth. The price of a day’s labor was stated in terms of the number of “buckskins” it deserved in compensation, even though the individual might be paid in barter with an entirely different commodity.

Conrad Weisner

One of the earliest references of the term “Buck” was in 1748, about 44 years before the first U.S. dollar was even minted, in a reference to the exchange rate for a cask of whiskey traded to Native Americans being “5 bucks”, referring to deerskins. In another documented reference from 1748, Conrad Weiser, well known for his success in negotiating a series of land treaties between colonists and Indians, while traveling through present-day Ohio, noted in his journal that someone had been “robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.” However, this use of skins as a medium of exchange gradually died off over the next century as more and more Europeans moved in and built towns and cities. By the 1780s, the word buckskin” was shortened to buck or bucks. Then, once the U.S. dollar was officially introduced after the passing of the Coinage Act of 1792, it quickly became the leading item used as a medium of exchange, but the term “buck” stuck around and by the mid-nineteenth century was being used as a slang term for the dollar. This is a term that is often used today.

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