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Spain and the Dollar Sign

When you google “how did the dollar sign originate?”, you find many entries, but not all give the same answer. In New Orleans, we stand by our belief that a local resident, Oliver Pollock, used it first.

Who was Oliver Pollock? No portraits or images have survived. All his belongings were destroyed during the Civil War bombardment of St. Francisville, Louisiana. There is, however, a very modernistic bust of Pollock on Gálvez Plaza, in front of the Public Library in Baton Rouge. The statue was designed, with much artistic license, by Frank Hayden in 1979.

Oliver, an Irishman, accompanied Spanish governor Alejandro O’Reilly (also of Irish origin) to Louisiana when Spain took over from France in 1768. This was after a war known in Europe as “The Seven Year War” and in the Thirteen Colonies as “The French and Indian War”. Locally, O’Reilly was nicknamed “Bloody O’Reilly”, but that is another story.

Oliver Pollock was one of the greatest single financiers of the American Revolution. Based in New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi, he smuggled guns upriver for the American cause. Theaters as far north as Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania and the Illinois Territory under George Rogers Clark were his “clients”. By 1778, the upper Mississippi and Ohio were under American control.

Pollock’s gunrunning went on with the silent approval of Bernardo de Gálvez, the 4th Spanish governor of Louisiana. After all, Spain was not at war with Britain, so Gálvez could not openly support the American cause. However, after Spain declared war on Britain in 1779, Gálvez played a pivotal role in eliminating the British presence on the Mississippi and in the Gulf of Mexico.

Serving under Gálvez, Oliver was instrumental in the surrender of Natchez, but that, too, is another story, well documented in different studies, most recently in Brothers at Arms (Ferreiro, 2016).

Back to the dollar sign. In New Orleans, Pollock was in constant contact with many American shippers and merchants who were involved in trade. At that time, an owner of an export and import business would rely on his trust in men in other port cities engaged in the same business. Both parties needed to standardize their financial communications, which is where the dollar sign story really begins.

Oliver’s main commercial associate was Robert Morris, Jr., of Philadelphia. Morris was an English-born merchant and a Founding Father of the United States. He served as a member of the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. He was named Superintendent of Finances of the Congress in 1781.

It is in Oliver’s invoices to Morris that we see the dollar sign for the first time. As he began to abbreviate dollars as “PS” for pesos, he merged the letters to form what we know today as the dollar sign: $.

Now that we know the story behind the symbol, we need to understand the story behind the currency. For this, we must bring in Thomas Jefferson, whom we know as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President of the United States, and the man behind the Louisiana Purchase. It turns out he is also the father of our currency!

An article which appeared recently in The Numismatist (Nancy Oliver and Richard Kelly, 2019) provides us with background on the new country’s need to create a standard currency, and the role Jefferson played.

The British monetary system did not operate smoothly in the colonies. Constant shortages of British coins were filled by the silver and gold coins of other nations. In addition, each colony established its own exchange rate, forcing shippers, merchants, and travelers to write down the value of each of their coins based on the coinage of the colony involved.

Referring to Jefferson’s writings on the subject, we find that before the country’s independence, he utilized a variety of coins for his personal transactions: Portuguese moidores and johannes; German ducats; doubloons and pistoles from Spain; and guineas, shillings, and half crowns from England.

It was not simple for the new United States to create the U.S. dollar as a monetary system. Some of the colonies thought it best to create a new currency based on England’s currency, but Jefferson did not care for that. In 1776, he advocated using the Spanish dollar as the basis for a currency system based on the number 10.

In 1784, Jefferson wrote his Notes on the Establishment of a Money Unit, and of a Coinage for the United States. Here he outlined his decimal system using the Spanish dollar as the basic unit. Congress voted to adopt Jefferson’s system, as did many other countries around the world.

By 1797, Morris and the new U.S. government would use Oliver’s symbol to tie it all together. It was cast in type in Philadelphia as the official symbol for the new nation’s currency. Interestingly, although Congress passed the Coinage Act in April 2, 1792, Spanish coins were legal tender until the year 1857!

For this reason, the people of Louisiana are proud of the importance of Oliver Pollock and his U.S. dollar sign in American history. Even though Spanish Louisiana was not one of the original Thirteen Colonies, it was a key actor in the birth of the nation and its symbols!

Robert Gray Freeland
La Habana George Washington Arthur Lee Fernando de Leyba Marblehead John Jay Bilbao Oliver Pollock El Conde de Aranda José Solano y Bote El Conde de Floridablanca México Francisco de Miranda Nueva Orleans José Antonio George Farragut Pensacola Bernardo de Gálvez Mobile Juan Miralles San Luis Bárbara de Arias Macharaviaya Diego Gardoqui Nueva York