Money and Credit on the American Frontier


This case, set on the American frontier in the 1840s, concerns a village store that issued credit to local customers. Like archaeologist-detectives, we can interpret an archival note that suggests that customers could exchange credit at the store. This case demonstrates the ingenuity of entrepreneurial social groups faced with a shortage of hard currency. It helps us question the nature of money, how credit is issued, the importance of social capital for developing financial capital, and the benefits and drawbacks of various early financial instruments. Lessons from the store that acted like a bank can be applied in the present day, as questions about digital currencies arise.

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Notes from archives held in the Missouri History Museum (Figures 1 and 2) offer a first-hand glimpse of the frontier credit system.

Figure 1. Benjamin J. Harris, St. Louis. Promise to Pay Will Clark $300, 17 Sep 1831

Source: The Missouri History Museum, A0289,

Figure 2. Abraham Chaplin. Promise to Pay George Rogers Clark the Sum Demanded of $150, 24 Sep 1779

Source: The Missouri History Museum, A0289,

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