The Paper Currency of the Mormon Migrations – 1837 to 1901. The history of the Mormon Currency follows the migration of this unique religious group from shortly after the founding of the Church in 1830 in upstate New York to twenty-first century Utah. The notes themselves are vivid reminders of the Mormon’s frontier struggles and their journey across the United States to establish their own community in order to practice their religion, subjected to much persecution in the early 1830’s to the late 1840’s.
The Mormon Currency saga begins in Kirtland, Ohio where a considerable Mormon community developed after leaving New York State. Joseph Smith, Jr. was the undisputed leader of the community at this time. He, Sidney Rigdon and other senior members of the Church believed a bank would be beneficial to the finances of the growing community. The bank, established in late 1836, was backed by virtually no specie or hard currency and was not chartered by the State of Ohio. As a result, the notes quickly became discounted and were part of the general malaise of the 1837 year banking crisis, which saw private banks across the nation failing at a rapid rate. Despite the near worthlessness of the first Kirtland banknotes and the first series “Anti-Banking Company” notes in Ohio, they would eventually fulfill Smith’s promise that one day they would “be as good as gold.”
The Ohio’s public displeasure with the Kirtland notes was one of the primary reasons that the Ohio Mormons migrated to Missouri and to Monroe, Michigan. Joseph Smith, Jr. and Sidney Rigdon were able to escape Ohio as well after losing a lawsuit against them. Oliver Cowdery, the Church official who went to Philadelphia to secure the Kirtland note plates, went to Monroe, Michigan and helped establish the Bank of Monroe, but soon were forced to abandon most of their property and possessions there due to religious persecution.
The approximately 15,000 Mormons crossed the river from Missouri into Illinois and established a community in Commerce that was eventually named Nauvoo. Smith was with the group at this time and its members were welcomed initially as new voters in the election of 1840. While in Nauvoo, Smith became quite powerful as the state had given him special powers to govern the community as he saw fit. However, in 1844 he, along with his brother Hyrum and others, were charged with treason for a second time. When his Nauvoo Legion surrendered its arms, Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot dead at the jail in Carthage, Illinois. Several types of notes were issued in Nauvoo including City issued scrip, Association stock that circulated, and Nauvoo Legion notes.
The situations that arose in Kirtland, Missouri and Nauvoo made the Mormons realize that a further migration westward was necessary if they wanted to practice their religion in safety. Brigham Young was an emerging Church leader beginning in the late 1830’s. Young was away when Smith was killed, but he was named the head of the Church after Smith’s death. In 1846-47 the first group of Mormon volunteers headed westward. Young entered the Great Salt Lake valley in July, 1847 and chose it as the place for their new city. The initial journeys or scouting trips had set up depots for grain for the emigrants from Nauvoo. With the “Gold Rush” of 1849, the Young’s community’s fortunes changed. Salt Lake City became a stop between the East and the California mining fields. At this time, the old Kirtland notes were countersigned and reissued with Brigham Young’s signature. They were backed by 80% in gold and became one of the earliest gold backed notes in the United States.
The Kirtland Safety Society Notes were reissued in $1, $2, $3, $5 and $10 denominations at par with the notes backed by 80% in gold dust as was the case for the Handwritten Valley notes. The notes received three counter signatures of Newell K. Whitney, Heber C. Kimball and Brigham Young. They also received the initials of the Mormon coiner Thomas Bullock in the form of an intertwined “TB” near the serial number.
The first notes were released in January 10, 1849 and over the next few days. The reissue was logged in a ledger carefully. Those records still exist. The notes circulated mainly in the valley and were redeemed quickly as gold coin became available. According to the records, 274 notes were reissued across the five denominations.
Printed on bond paper, these $5 notes are the standard obsolete banknote size. Both were engraved by Underwood, Bald, Spencer & Hufty, of New York & Philadelphia as stated at the base. The title “THE KIRTLAND SAFETY SOCIETY” appears across the center. Above, a man is seated with dog flanked by medallion heads. There are identical end panels with a boy and a shovel within the oval. Obligations and signature spaces appear at the bottom. As with all, these notes were issued from Kirtland, Ohio ‘March 8, 1837’ and “signed” by ‘J.[oseph] Smith’ as Cashier and ‘S.[idney] Rigdon’ as President. The serial number 1685 is hand written. These notes were reissued in Salt Lake City in early 1849 with face counter signatures of ‘N. K. Whitney’, ‘Heber C. Kimball’ and ‘Brigham Young’. ‘TB’ private mark of Thomas Bullock appears under serial number as with all of these notes. The embossed “All Seeing Eye” seal appears at the left.
According to the Alvin Rust research, only 135 Five Dollar notes were reissued in 1849. The present note is an excellent condition example from this very important issue. They were created just prior to Utah receiving its territorial status. The reissued notes made good on the eventual promise by Joseph Smith that these notes would one day be “good as gold”. This note has seven or eight vertical folds, but is very bright and well margined for the host note type. Bold signatures and nicely accomplished. The interest grows yearly in this series that combines Western Americana and numismatics in the richest traditions.
This note has it’s provenance from one of the John J. Ford collection sales in 2007 where it brought $27,600.