The year was 1901; the United States was had just entered the 20th Century. There were 45 states in the Union and William McKinley was President. But McKinley would not survive the year because of an assassin’s bullet. The average American male’s annual salary was $450 per year.
The United States had been issuing large size paper money since 1861 and 40 years later one of the most beautiful notes ever designed was being printed at the Treasury Department by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP).
One of the types of currency printed by the BEP was Legal Tender notes. These notes, first printed in 1861, were notes that were not backed by Gold or Silver, but by the “full faith and credit of the United States government.” The government demanded that these notes be accepted as payment for all debts, public or private. At the turn of the 20th Century, BEP engravers had raised their engraving skills to an art form.
It had been very popular to place the images of important but deceased American heroes on our currency. In 1904 we were going to celebration the travels of two very famous American explorers – Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. Debate raged in the BEP whether to issue a note with only their images on it or whether there should be some other symbolism on the note.
(Portraits of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis)
Lewis and Clark explored the lands from St. Louis west to the Pacific Ocean and back again. They opened “the West” and had traveled through unexplored territory and land where only Native Americans had dared to tread. This “Corps of Discovery” was very important but the symbolism of the opening of the American West was the important fact.
To that end, the engravers at the BEP decided to take a universally recognized symbol of the American West and let it play the dominant image on the 1901 Issue of the new Legal Tender note. It was agreed that an American Bison would be the central vignette of the note.
The engravers needed images of American Bison for their preliminary models, but being in Washington, DC, there were no wild Buffalo nearby for them to study. There was, however, a stuffed American Bison on full display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. That animal had been killed in the Montana Territory back in 1886 and taxidermists restored the animal to resemble its life-like majesty. Once the specimen was discovered, it was determined that it would make a handsome exhibit in our National Collection.
The engravers used the American Bison as the main theme, but they placed oval portraits of Lewis and Clark on each side of the Bison. For the back of the note, they chose an allegorical representation of “Columbia.” Columbia usually is displayed as wearing an American flag gown or a Roman-style toga and a Phrygian Cap. The Phrygian cap is a soft cap, usually red in color, often adorning the top of a pole, and it symbolizes freedom and the pursuit of liberty.
(The Front and Back of the 1901 $10 Legal Tender American Bison note.)
One of the popular misconceptions about this note is that the Buffalo is actually “Black Diamond,” the Bison featured on James Earle Fraser’s “Buffalo Nickel.” That is not true as Fraser’s animal was alive and living in the Bronx Zoo in 1913.
The engravers did a spectacular job of creating an image of the “Giant of the Plains” as American Bison were known. The same Bison image was duplicated on a 30-cent postage stamp of 1923 and on a Military Payment Certificate used during the Viet Nam war era.
(The 1923 30-cent US Postage Stamp, left, and the Series 692 $1 Military Payment Certificate, right.)
This $10 note, while representing more than one-week’s pay for the average American, was still very popular with the public due to the Bison image, just as the Buffalo Nickel would be popular a dozen years later. The popularity stems from the truly iconic American images. The notes, all dated 1901, were still being printed in the early 1920’s, due to the signature combinations used on the notes.
This iconic American note has earned a place in all large size currency collections.