By George L. Miller
In 1957, I found a Civil War token in a roll of pennies from the Clarkston State Bank. Back then I had a Detroit Free Press paper route and on Saturdays I would get $10 worth of pennies from the bank and go through them looking for dates with mintmarks that were worth saving to trade to others.
My best find was a Civil War token from Clarkston. The obverse of the token had an Indian that was very much like an Indian head penny. The reverse read M. H. CLARK / DRY / GOODS / HARDWARE / BOOTS / & / SHOES / CLARKSTON, MICH.
On my paper route there was a Mr. Lee Clark who lived on Holcomb Street. I took the token to him and he said it was from his grandfather, Milton Henry Clark, who had his store in Clarkston. After the tokens became illegal in 1864 his grandfather used to let the grandkids play with them, but some would take them to town and spend them.
They were so close to what an Indian head penny looked like that this was easy to do. The merchants who were stuck with the tokens would take them back to Milton Clark and complain to him. Lee Clark said that as a result, his grandfather threw the bag of them into the mill pond. Using snorkels and masks we tried to find them but did not have any luck.
What are Civil War tokens? During the Civil War, the United States government issued a series of green back currency notes to meet the need to finance the war effort.
These notes were good for all debts public and private, but could not be used to pay tariffs on import duties. The value of the green back notes in relationship to hard currency of gold, silver and copper dropped and caused coins to be hoarded by those who had them.
The exchange rate between the green backs and hard currency fluctuated with the winning and losing of battles during the Civil War.
As Sir Thomas Gresham said, “Bad money drives out good money (Gresham’s Law).”
The hoarding of coins created a problem in making change, so the government issued greenbacks fractional currency beginning in August of 1862 to help make change. Denominations issued as fractional currency included notes for 3, 5, 10, 15, 25 and 50 cents, but nothing replaced the pennies that were being hoarded.
The hoarding of hard currency created problems in the market place for merchants such as Milton H. Clark. Diesinkers, those that make dyes for minting the tokens, began to produce copper tokens to sell to merchants who needed them to facilitated business transactions.
In Michigan, 260 merchants in 56 cities and villages commissioned the minting of such tokens with their names, businesses and locations on them.
These private coins served their purpose, but they were outlawed by an Act of Congress passed on April 22, 1864 forbidding private individuals from issuing any form of money.
This resulted from a law case brought by the Third Avenue Railway in New York City. They had taken in a large number of tokens issued by Gustavus Lindenmueller, who refused to redeem them claiming that they were his business card and not money.
Thus, merchants were forced to stop using these tokens in 1864. The vast majority of Civil War tokens are dated 1863 with a few dated 1864.
Milton Henry Clark was born on Jan. 13, 1820, in the state of New York. The 1850 census lists him as a merchant in Clarkston with real estate worth $1,000.
The 1860 census lists him as a merchant in Clarkston with real estate worth $4,000 and personal property worth $7,000. Ancestry.com lists Milton Clark as having passed away on Nov. 8, 1892.
His grandson, Lee Milton Clark, was born in 1881 according to the Clarkston History web site. Thus he would have been eleven years old when his grandfather died. Perhaps Lee was one of the grandchildren spending the M.H. Clark tokens that caused them to be thrown into the mill pond.
George L. Miller is a graduate of Clarkston High, Class of 1961. He left Clarkston in 1963 and has many fine memories of growing up here. He is a retired archaeologist who has been involved in a number of excavations in several states.
By George L. Miller