Skip to main content
UNC Libraries

North Carolina Paper Money

North Carolina Paper Money (1810-1861)

North Carolina Bank Notes (ca 1810 to April 1861)

Bank of Cape Fear $5, Salem branch, 1858
Bank of Cape Fear, Salem branch, $5, 1858

This period can be characterized by the dominance of private--non-governmental--paper money. The federal government struck coins, but never enough. Only for a brief time during the War of 1812 did the federal government issue paper money. The need for circulating money, not met by the feds, was filled by paper money issued by banks, merchants, businesses, and a myriad of other private enterprises. It was a chaotic time for our money.

Two factors led to changes that brought the country into the modern era of stable and adequate money supply. One was the crisis of the Civil War (1861-1865). Coins were hoarded as much as possible, and the chronically annoying money shortage became critical. The federal government finally took responsibility for providing adequate circulating currency. It started to print paper money and made it legal tender. At the same time, it taxed the private issues out of existence. During the war, the Confederacy issued its own paper money. Many of the southern states also issued paper money, none more than North Carolina. At war's end, the federal government quickly established its monetary reforms thoughout the reunited country. The era of private money ended, paper money came to be widely accepted, and all citizens benefitted from stable, standardized money.

The University Libraries’ numismatic collection contains notes issued during the era of private paper money by North Carolina banks and by financial institutions located outside the state. This section features North Carolina currencies that represent banks with central offices and branches in towns and cities such as Asheville, Charlotte, Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Lexington, Murphy, New Bern, Raleigh, Salem, Salisbury, Wadesboro, Washington, Wilmington, and Yanceyville. North Carolina had about two dozen--the number depends somewhat on what is considered to be a bank--note-issuing banks. Currently, the earliest North Carolina bank notes in the collection date from 1815-1816, while the largest selection of antebellum bank notes date between 1850 and the weeks prior to May 20, 1861, when North Carolina voted to secede from the Union and made plans to join the Confederate States of America.

Bank of Charlotte $4, 1856
Bank of Charlotte $4, 1856

The Bank of Cape Fear in Wilmington, chartered in 1804, was the first private bank established in North Carolina.  It endured until the end of the Civil War and at one time or other had branches or agencies in Asheville, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Hillsborough, Raleigh, Salem, Salisbury, and Washington. The note shown above is from the Salem branch. Note the red cross stamp, often found on notes from the Salem branch.

The Bank of Charlotte issued the $4 note shown at left in 1856. Denominations were not as standardized as they are today, and there are many that are no longer used. The note makes reference to the "MECKLENBURG DECLARATION 20TH MAY 1775."  The building behind the image of the eagle is the United States Charlotte Mint.  It was established to produce gold coins from the North Carolina gold fields. It minted $1, $2.50, and $5 gold coins from 1838 until 1861.

Other North Carolina Specimens

Mt. Hecla Steam Cotton Mills, Greensboro $1, 1837
Mt. Hecla Steam Cotton Mills, Greensboro
$1, 1837
Thomas R. Tate, Greensborough, North Carolina
scrip, $5, 1830s

Bank notes were certainly not the only form of paper money used by North Carolinians in this period. Businesses in the state, such as textile mills and insurance companies, augmented the supply of currency in circulation by issuing their own scrip and notes of deposit.

In Guilford County, the town of Greensboro proved to be a hub of activity for enterprises and businessmen who produced moneys in these forms. They included the Mount Hecla Steam Cotton Mills, $1 scrip note right, top, Greensboro Mutual Life Insurance and Trust Company (example shown in section North Carolina Civil War Issues), and Thomas R. Tate, a prominent merchant and the son-in-law of Mount Hecla Mills owner Henry Humphreys. The Tate scrip note is right, below the Mount Hecla specimen, featuring an image of Sir Walter Raleigh.

The collection also contains other bank- and money-related items from this prewar period. One example highlighted in this section and shown below is an original stock certificate for ten shares issued in 1860 by the Bank of North Carolina to “M[ontford]. M. McGehee.” An alumnus of the University of North Carolina, Montford McGehee (1822-1895) was a lawyer and wealthy planter who at various times represented Caswell and Person counties in North Carolina’s General Assembly and later served as the state’s commissioner of agriculture between 1880 and 1887.

Bank of North Carolina stock certificate, 1860
Bank of North Carolina stock certificate


A Counterfeit Copper Printing Plate

Counterfeit copper printing plate Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852
Counterfeit copper printing plate
Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852, (image reversed)
Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852 counterfeit
Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852, counterfeit from plate at left
Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852 genuine note
Bank of the State of North Carolina $10, 1852
genuine note

Fraudulent issues of paper money were common. The great variety of notes in circulation from many issuers made it difficult for the public to tell good from bad. The collection holds a copper printing plate that was made by skilled counterfeiters. It copies an issue of the Bank of the State of North Carolina. This plate was used to produce most if not all the known surviving issues of that note.  Once the bank became aware of the deceptive counterfeits, it withdrew the genuine issues.

Engraving plates were cut by hand. A close, almost microscopic examination of the lines of the note at top right to those of the plate show that the note was printed from that plate. A comparison with a known genuine note reveals clear differences. The fraudulent note, while well-made, lacks the quality of images, especially the faces, of the genuine note. A genuine note, image courtesy of a private collector, is shown for comparison. An article publicizing the counterfeit appeared in the North Carolina Whig (Charlotte) newspaper on April 11, 1853. One of the differences the article notes is that "The upper border of the genuine notes consists of eighteen blocks, each containing the words "ten dollars"--the counterfeits have but seventeen."

See more images from North Carolina Paper Money