No Change for a Greenback

“A Pioneer Homestead” by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1854.

Snippets 197. John Muir (1838-1914) was a celebrated naturalist known as “John of the Mountains”, a key figure in the push for the establishment of National Parks in the USA. The following quote is taken from his account of A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, from the 1916 edition edited by William Frederic Bade:

Passed the poor, rickety, thrice-dead village of Jamestown, an incredibly dreary place. Toward the top of the Cumberland grade, about two hours before sundown I came to a log house, and as I had been warned that all the broad plateau of the range for forty or fifty miles was desolate, I began thus early to seek a lodging for the night. Knocking at the door, a motherly old lady replied to my request for supper and bed and breakfast, that I was welcome to the best she had, provided that I had the necessary change to pay my bill. When I told her that unfortunately I had nothing smaller than a five-dollar greenback, she said, “Well, I’m sorry, but cannot afford to keep you. Not long ago ten soldiers came across from North Carolina, and in the morning they offered a greenback that I couldn’t change, and so I got nothing for keeping them, which I was ill able to afford.”

“Very well,” I said, “I’m glad you spoke of this beforehand, for I would rather go hungry than impose on your hospitality.”

As I turned to leave, after bidding her good bye, she, evidently pitying me for my tired looks, called me back and asked me if I would like a drink of milk. This I gladly accepted, thinking that perhaps I might not be successful in getting any other nourishment for a day or two. Then I inquired whether there were any more houses on the road, nearer than North Carolina, forty or fifty miles away. “Yes,” she said, “it’s only two miles to the next house, but beyond that there are no houses that I know of except empty ones whose owners have been killed or driven away during the war.”

Arriving at the last house, my knock at the door was answered by a bright, good-natured, good-looking little woman, who in reply to my request for a night’s lodging and food, said, “Oh, I guess so. I think you can stay. Come in and I ll call my husband.”

“But I must first warn you,” I said, “that I have nothing smaller to offer you than a five-dollar bill for my entertainment. I don’t want you to think that I am trying to impose on your hospitality.”

She then called her husband, a blacksmith, who was at work at his forge. He came out, hammer in hand, bare-breasted, sweaty, begrimed, and covered with shaggy black hair. In reply to his wife’s statement, that this young man wished to stop over night, he quickly replied, “That’s all right; tell him to go into the house.” He was turning to go back to his shop, when his wife added, “But he says he hasn’t any change to pay. He has nothing smaller than a five-dollar bill.” Hesitating only a moment, he turned on his heel and said, “Tell him to go into the house. A man that comes right out like that beforehand is welcome to eat my bread.”

It is notoriously difficult to quantify the value of past sums of money in modern terms, as there are so many different ways of calculating that, but it is fair to say that a five dollar bill in 1867, when the events of this journal took place, was roughtly equivalent to $150 today.  It is therefore unsurprising that people living in an isolated area found it difficult to provide change for a bed and a meal for one night, when presented with a “greenback”.

“A Pioneer Homestead” by Cornelius Krieghoff, 1854.

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About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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