Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Oliver Pollock: The Man and the Symbol


The name Oliver Pollock may not be considered among the “Founding Fathers” or counted as one of the heroes of the American Revolution, but he most certainly had a great impact on the founding of the republic. If he is remembered at all, it is usually because of a symbol he is credited with inventing, even if his “invention” might be due to poor penmanship.

Oliver Pollock (1737-1823) came to North America in 1760. A native of Ireland, he arrived in Philadelphia and settled in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. At age 25, Pollock began a career as a merchant in the West Indies. With his headquarters in Havana, Cuba, he traded mainly with the Spanish. In Cuba, he established a relationship with Governor-General Alejandro O’Reilly (left). Like Pollock, O'Reilly was from Ireland, but left his native land to fight in foreign armies, serving in both the Austrian and Spanish military. O’Reilly married into the family of the Spanish governor of Cuba, and quickly rose in influence in the region. In 1769, he was sent to Louisiana to put down a rebellion by French Creoles, a task he completed with flying colors.

Following his friend to New Orleans, Pollock worked there as a merchant and was given free trade status within the city because of his relationship with O’Reilly. As a result, he because a very successful businessman, particularly in dealing with flour, which was a highly sought-after commodity. To help the colonists, Pollock sold the flour at half price, no doubt endearing him to the populace. In 1770, he married Margaret O'Brien (no doubt a good Irish Catholic girl), with whom he had eight children. Margaret died in 1799.

With his growing wealth, Pollock gained political influence. In 1777, he was appointed as the commercial agent of the United States government in New Orleans, essentially making him the representative of the colonies. Utilizing his enormous wealth, Pollock financed American military operations west of the Mississippi, including George Rogers Clark’s campaign in Illinois in 1778.  That same year, he borrowed $70,000 from the Spanish governor of Louisiana and served as his aide-de-camp during a campaign against the British. Throughout Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, the Spanish defeated the British, culminating with the Siege of Pensacola in 1781. Pollock, through his diplomatic skills, helped gain the surrender of Fort Panmure by the British in Natchez.  

Two years later, Pollock was appointed as a U.S. agent in Havana. Unfortunately, he had not paid his debts, and was thrown into prison because he owed $150,000. He was paroled in 1785 and returned to Philadelphia, where he met Robert Morris (above), another financier of the war and former Superintendent of Finance for the United States. Morris had also fallen on hard times due to personal debt, and the nation itself was in a deep financial crisis. As such, neither the Commonwealth of Virginia nor Congress could or would repay Pollock’s or Morris’ debts from the war, despite the fact that both had used their personal wealth to support the revolution and despite a thorough accounting of what Pollock was owed in 1803. (left).

Neither man was ever able to clear himself completely of the financial burden, but by 1800, Pollock able to acquire some property, and he remarried in 1805. When his second wife died in 1820, he left Pennsylvania for good and moved to Mississippi to live with one of his daughters, who had married a plantation owner in Pinckneyville in Wilkinson County. After a full life, Oliver Pollock died on December 17, 1832. Pollock's grave (right) is located in Pinckneyville. Unfortunately, no image survives of Pollock (most of his papers were lost in a fire). However, the modern sculpture below is of Pollock, and is located in the Galvez Plaza in Baton Rouge.

Despite a life filled with adventure, Oliver Pollock is perhaps best known for his poor handwriting. In New Orleans, Pollock kept financial books as the U.S. agent, and entered the abbreviation ‘ps’ by the figures for ‘peso,’ which was the standard currency at the time. Because Pollock recorded these Spanish “dollars” or “pesos” as ‘ps” and because he tended to run both letters together, the resulting symbol resembled a ‘$.’ It was Robert Morris, Pollock’s old friend and business partner in Pennsylvania, who first adopted the new symbol in an official document, and by 1797 it was cast in type in Philadelphia. Thus, Oliver Pollock is credited with creating, by design or not, the symbol for the dollar, now perhaps the most widely used symbol in the world.

14 comments:

  1. Jim excellent web page. Very attractive and very informative. Thanks.

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  2. I'm working on a Galvez writing project and would love to hear from you.

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  3. Thanks for highlighting an unsung hero of the American Revolution. I will be visiting Baton Rouge and plan to see the modern sculpture commemorating him.

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  4. I am one of Oliver Pollock's descendants and I left a long explanation here about what has been left out, and then my post didn't get posted... Trying again here!

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  5. Steve, I'm happy to publish your comments, but I do not see your post.

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  6. Okay - let me try this again.. Excellent article Jim - thank you! I am a descendant of Mary Pollock, who is Oliver Pollock's daughter. I just wanted to briefly state some additional information.
    Oliver Pollock paid for the entire George Rogers Clark expedition which increased the size of the US by over 30%, was the commercial agent to the continental congress in New Orleans, was an adviser to George Washington, was intimate friends with Thomas Jefferson, sent supplies and ammo to George Washington, was the unofficial ambassador to Spain because George couldn't write or read Spanish, and was basically the largest personal financier of the American Revolution and only surpassed by countries, namely, France, Spain and Holland. The amount he loaned the US is about $750 million in today's money, of which only 2/3rds was paid back. If it were not for him, the entire northwestern territory would have belonged to the British, and if you can only imagine that, we probably would have lost the war if we had not controlled that area. The book by James Alton James says that Oliver was one of the most patriotic men of all time, and his story needs to be told - not to bring notoriety to him, but to explain the truth. To me and my family, he was more than a hero. He was the perfect example of what it means to be American. But, in William Heth's own words, who was the congressional accountant assigned to look into the books and accounts of Oliver Pollock to see if his records were true, Oliver was "mistreated and abused by congress." Unsung heroes don't go around blowing their own horns. Check out the documentaries on Washington and Adams - they WANTED to be recorded in history - it was their secret drive - their passion. Oliver didn't care. He just wanted what was best for the American people and he got squashed for doing so.

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    1. Awesome, awesome, awesome. I'm buying a copy of James Alton James' book today. Thanks for sharing this information, and from the sound of it I'd be proud to be a descendent of him.

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  7. It worked! Thank you for the additional info.

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  8. Very good. Thanks for posting it.

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  9. Very good. Thanks for posting it.

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  10. You might be interested to know that the Ulster Historical Society plan to unveil a plaque to Oliver Pollock later this year, in the little village of Bready (Co. Tyrone ) where records have recently come to light showing that he was born here and not Coleraine (Co. Londonderry)

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  11. Wow, thanks for the update. That's cool.I'm working on a documentary film about Fr. Serra right now, so I had to push back the Pollack project.
    Patty

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  12. Oliver Pollock came from Coleraine in Northern Ireland and was of Scots Irish or Ulster Scots lineage

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  13. Excellent information from everyone! I love reading tidbits about Oliver Pollock because I too am a descendant. Steve, you and my father, Bill Owen, traded stories back and forth about Oliver. (Also, your pics were always at my grandmother's home as she loved her brother - your father (I believe). A documentary of his life would be fascinating to see. I think many would enjoy it. Steve, I like how you specifically named Mary. I would love to know more about her.

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