The Republic of Texas was born in the blood of patriots, but the stirring story of its origin also includes the hemorrhaging of money to keep the young nation financially afloat.
“Sustaining the Republic: The Paper Money of Texas,” a new exhibit launched earlier this month at the Texas Collection at Baylor University, explores the colorful role currency played in the newly minted Lone Star republic.
Library assistant Sean Todd, curator of the exhibit, said he was inspired by the fall 2012 presentation at the Carroll Library by Jim Bevill of Houston, author of “The Paper Republic: The Struggle for Money, Credit and Independence in the Republic of Texas.” The nonfiction work traces the social and economic history of Texas from its days as a Mexican colony through its annexation into the Union.
In Texas’ colonial days, a variety of currencies served the cash needs of Texans, Todd explained, including Mexican and Spanish bills and coins, bank notes from various American Southern states and script called “shinplaster” issued by private companies.
When the Republic of Texas first issued its own paper money in 1837, it was commonly called “star money” for the Lone Star design on the face of the one-sided bill. “Star money” was not face value currency, but rather interest-bearing notes (similar to the modern treasury bill) that circulated by being endorsed over to the next payee.
In 1838, the state treasury began issuing change notes with elaborate designs on the front. The backs were still blank, but that all changed the following year with the introduction of the “redback.” Texas printed more than $2 million in redbacks, initially worth about 37 cents against the Yankee dollar.
“The trick was to get the people of Texas to use them,” Todd said. “Generally, you have to have something backing the currency, like gold or silver.” But precious metals were too scarce in the young republic. In fact, coins were never minted in Texas for that reason.
At one point, the state government was so broke, it couldn’t afford to pay the sailors of the Texas Navy. Rather than risk mutiny, the state issued “payment certificates” the sailors could redeem at a later date for wilderness acreage.
By 1842, Todd said, citizens had lost faith in redbacks as legal tender, and the bills were nearly worthless. It wasn’t until after annexation in 1845 that Texas was finally able to move from the red into the black and that was only with a federal bailout to wipe the slate clean of debts.
In selecting the bills to go on display, Todd said, he was particularly enamored of the “18th-century ‘clip art’ ” used by engravers in New Orleans to beautify paper money. Institutions seeking to print their own currency had books of stock imagery from which to choose vignettes that could be customized.
For example, the Texas $3 bill featured a Roman goddess holding a shield with the design modified to make a five-pointed “lone star” in its center. Another drawing of a cowboy riding a bucking beast showed an “Easterner’s conception” of what a Westerner looked like.
Certain images were selected by early Texas treasury officials, Todd added, because they conveyed stength (a steam-powered locomotive belching vapor) or progress (a steamboat dwarfing a rowboat in the foreground).
Early leaders such as Deaf Smith (1787-1837) and Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836) were memorialized by their placement on the young nation’s currency, as founding fathers of the Lone Star republic.
The display will remain up through the summer months, Todd said, before the money returns to the vaults. An online exhibit will launch shortly, after it is announced on The Texas Collection’s Facebook page.