"To John H. King", Williamsport

184 _

In the 1800’s, the U.S. Mint was unable to produce enough coins to fill the needs of the growing nation, and there were often shortages of coins outside major cities such as New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. Adding to the difficulty of keeping local economics functional, the federal government did not issue paper currency at that time.

As a result, private companies started to issue their own currency notes. These notes were widely recognized and were accepted in local communities in place of U.S. currency. One such place was the town of Williamsport, Maryland in the 1840’s.

Williamsport is located on the Potomac River in western Maryland. It was named for Otho Holland William, a Continental Army officer who fought in the American Revolution. Williams planned a grand city that he hoped would become the permanent national capital, and George Washington visited Williamsport while considering sites for the capital. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal reached the town in 1834, connecting it to Washington, D.C. and bringing prosperity to the region.

The 1840’s Williamsport notes were printed in sheets of three different denominations: 25 cents, 50 cents and one dollar. Before being placed into circulation, the notes would have been cut apart and signed by officials to authorize their release. Each note has a different design:
* 25 cents – A sailor aboard an American sailing ship of the era is shown on the left, while the vignette on the right depicts a maiden and a cow to represent the importance of farming in early American history.
* 50 cents – The image on the left is the 1829 painting ‘Pat Lyon at the Forge’, which celebrates the benefits of labor: on the right are a farming scene and a woman with her child.
* One Dollar – The boat on a canal signifies Williamsport’s importance as a thriving town of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Also shown are three cherubs protecting the town’s farming and industry.

Private-issue notes were widely known as “wildcat” notes, because they were frequently redeemable for face value only in remote locations (i.e., where wildcats lived) that were almost impossible for the average person to reach. The Willamsport notes, for example, were redeemable for “current Virginia bank notes” only at the offices of John H. King in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washing, D.C. – about 75 miles away via the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. The notes were likely given as change to customers and as payment to workers, and they circulated until the Civil War era when the U.S. government began issuing federal bank notes. The National Bank Acts brought an end to private bank notes around 866.