Oliver Pollock – Supporter of the Revolution, Creator of ‘$’

Today’s post was written by Jackie Kilby, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Oliver Pollock is a name not widely known in American History.  He was an Irish immigrant who settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and later found work as a successful merchant and trader in Philadelphia.  After the end of the French and Indian War, he moved to New Orleans in 1768 during the transition from French to Spanish rule, and married into a prominent Irish family.

The city of New Orleans soon found itself in danger of famine, as the population swelled with Spanish troops and the food reserves were quickly depleted.  Pollock was able to use his connections to Philadelphia to provide food shipments at the city’s most dire hour.  In response, the Governor of New Orleans, Don O’Reilly, gave Pollock free trading rights within the Louisiana Territory. 

With his new found fame and the gratitude of Spain, Pollock was able to gain a substantial fortune in the merchant business.  It was with this fortune, as well as Pollock’s connections and importance to the Spanish in New Orleans, that Pollock almost single-handedly bankrolled the Revolutionary War campaign of General George Rogers Clark.  To aid and foster support of the American cause, Pollock began a war bond (or bills of exchange) campaign in New Orleans.

Not too long after his war bond campaign began, Pollock did some re-negotiating and became the liable party.  To his detriment, the creditors came looking for repayment on the war bonds.  Soon after Pollock began reaching out to any Americans who might offer assistance.  Pollock’s letters for aid were read on the floor of Congress, sent to the Commercial Committee, the Treasury Department, and even to Robert Morris, Governor of Virginia Beverley Randolph, and President George Washington.

These desperate letters asking for assistance were found in the bound volumes of the Letters Received (NAID 583574), in Record Group 59 – Records of the Department of State.  Pollock was in serious financial trouble, and ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1782.  As a result the land he owned was liquidated and eventually became the home of Louisiana State University.  By 1783 Pollock was appointed agent of the United States in Havana, but was then jailed by his Cuban creditors. Pollock spent more than a year in a debtor’s jail in Cuba before being bailed out by the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. In the certification of his bail, Gálvez wrote of Pollock’s honorable contributions to Louisiana and the Revolutionary War, citing a monetary figure of $79,087.

  Upon his release, Pollock returned to Pennsylvania and continued his attempts to recoup his contributions to the American Revolution.  He was unsuccessful, only receiving $108,605.02 from the United States government in 1792. In 1811, he received a letter from Thomas Jefferson, who unfortunately could not recall the details of his case or asking for compensation, and ultimately could not provide any assistance.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Oliver Pollock, 5/4/1811 Records of the Library of Congress

He lived out his life with family, having moved in with his daughter in 1820.  Pollock died in Mississippi in 1823.

In his correspondence with numerous American officials, Pollock is thought to be the first person to write the dollar symbol ($).  With more commercial interaction with the Spanish, Pollock is the first known user of “ps,” or pesos, to be used as a symbol, thus becoming the dollar sign.

Detail of Letter from Oliver Pollock to George Roger Clark, showing use of ‘$’ Wisconsin History Library, Madison, Draper Collection

Pollock was a major source of funds for General George Rogers Clark, who led the crucial victories during the Illinois campaign, and was dubbed the Conquer of the Northwest by George Mason.  And yet, Pollock could never regain his burgeoning career, nor the wealth he achieved before the Revolutionary War.  Pollock was instrumental in the American Revolution, but at a great cost to his success.