Forgotten Stories of the Oregon Trail: Money Matters

The Six-and-One-Fourth-Cent Piece

In 1846, Tabitha Brown was 66 years old and ready to make a big move. She decided to leave Missouri and move west to Oregon—and convinced two of her adult children, their families, and her elderly brother-in-law, Captain John Brown, to go with her. It was a difficult journey, with the group getting stuck in the mountains and food supplies running out. “Much crying and many tears were shed by all but one,” Tabitha wrote. But she held on to her faith that she and her family would reach their destination. “[I] had passed through many trials, sufficient to convince [me] that tears could avail nothing in our extremity. Through all my sufferings in crossing the plains, I had not once sought relief by shedding of tears, nor thought we should not live to reach the settlements.”

Arriving in Oregon Country, Tabitha emptied her glove of what she thought was a pebble but turned out to be a six-and-one-fourth-cent piece: "This was the whole of my cash capital to commence business in Oregon. With it I purchased three needles. I traded off some of my old clothes to the squaws for buckskin, and worked it into gloves for the Oregon ladies and gentlemen. This cleared me upwards of $30 extra." She also helped nurse the sick and cared for children. Brown soon established a school for Oregon Trail orphans; her small school grew to become Pacific University. Tabitha Brown died in 1858 at the age of 78. In 1987, the Oregon Legislature designated her the “Mother of Oregon,” saying she “represents the distinctive pioneer heritage, and the charitable and compassionate nature, of Oregon’s people.”

Teaching about Money

Teachers for Grades 3–6: share this story with your students and then have them design a coin of their own like the six-and-one-fourth-cent piece that Tabitha discovered!

Begin by describing the different coins students may be familiar with. They should know U.S. pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. They may also know foreign coins or rarer U.S. coins such as dollar coins. But Tabitha Brown wrote, “I found . . . a six and one-fourth cent piece. . . .” How could there be a coin worth six and one-fourth cents?

Tabitha was originally from Massachusetts. When her family began its journey out west, the United States did not yet have standard currency that was used and accepted throughout the entire country—different states used different money. In some places, Americans used Spanish coins to pay for goods or services. In Massachusetts, eight Spanish dollars were considered equal to one U.S. dollar. In the activity below, students will think through how many Spanish dollars Tabitha's coin must have been worth, and then design a new coin of their own!

Download the teacher and student versions of the activity below.

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For more free activities, check out our full list of K–12 Free Learning Resources, updated daily.

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