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In earliest years of Michigan statehood, unregulated “wildcat banks” ran wild

Apr 19, 2017

As banking and the transferring of funds continues to evolve from paper to electronic in the 21st century, let's think back to Michiganders in the 19th century. 

For them, procuring cash was way more complicated than rolling up to a nearby ATM and getting a stack of 20s. Without a National Bank issuing currency, states like Michigan chartered their own banks without federal oversight.

Without regulation, banks were pretty untamed. As a result, the term "wildcat banking" became part of the American lexicon.

Mark Harvey from the Michigan History Center joined Stateside to talk about what wildcat banking was and what life was like in that banking world of the mid 1800s. 

Harvey said the origin of the term "wildcat banking" comes from the story of a bank  that was printing its own bank notes with a picture of a wildcat on them. He said there's no physical evidence to back this up, but it makes for a good story.

In 1837, the general banking act was passed and Michigan became the first state in the country to allow for free banking, Harvey said, which allowed banks to print their own notes without federal oversight. Some banks operated as one would expect a bank to operate, with money to back up their finances. Others, however, did not. 

"When they were inspected by the commissioners they would show their resources that backed the bank, and it was a box of money but really ... on top was the currency, and underneath it were like nuts and bolts and other stuff," Harvey said.

Listen to the full interview above to hear how and where the notes were spent, and how Michigan's land speculation boom of that era closely resemble the 2008 housing crisis. 

 

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

 

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

 

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