Isaac Young (Saint Paul, MN)
Isaac Young (January 12, 1812 – November 3, 1875) was a craftsman turned banker in the mid-nineteenth century. 
Almost as soon as they made their public debut, notes of the Bank of Saint Croix were perceived as fraudulent. While the bank never had a physical presence or the sanction of a Minnesota legislature, an argument can be made that the man behind the notes was more naïve than corrupt. His idea to create a bank of issue in the new Minnesota Territory was instead a poorly conceived plan to start a new career at a time of mid-life change. This is the untold story of Isaac Young, the man who was responsible for the earliest of Minnesota banknotes.
Before St. Louis claimed its title of Gateway to the West, there was Cincinnati. Its location on the Ohio River greatly facilitated travel to points west before overland routes became established. Opportunity was everywhere, especially for young men anxious to learn a trade. By 1836, a 24-year old man in Cincinnati named Isaac Young had put away his timber saw and taken up a new skill as saddler and leather worker, opening a shop on busy Main Street. He was quite good. In just a few short years he and his teenage apprentice were routinely being recognized by their peers and winning awards at competitions for the quality of their work. Among Isaac’s achievements were accolades from the fairs of the Mechanics’ Institute in Cincinnati and the American Institute in New York. He would later judge competitions of the trade at state fairs. Correspondingly, his business enterprise at 100 Main Street prospered. His elegant engraved full page advertisement in the 1844 city directory was the publication’s virtual centerfold, and suggested a level of sophistication associated with his products.
On his 32nd birthday, on January 12, 1844, Isaac married Eliza McLean, daughter of Major Nathaniel and Hester McLean, at their home in Lebanon, Ohio, just to the northeast of Cincinnati. Eliza was almost twenty years old, and undoubtedly met Isaac through her father, who viewed the talented saddler as being a good choice of husband for his daughter. Isaac and Eliza had a son later that year.
By 1847, Isaac reached the pinnacle of his profession by earning the U.S. Government contract for making mail carriers’ saddle bags for the next four years. But this time marked a turning point in his life, and his growing family probably had much to do with it. Influences from the family, both his own and that of Eliza’s parents, led Isaac to sell his business on Main Street to Slocum & Hickey in 1848. Nathaniel McLean was about this time appointed to be the next Indian Agent at Fort Snelling in the unorganized area known as Minnesota, which was on the path to soon become the nation’s newest territory. The role of the Indian Agent was to be an advocate for Indians in their dealings with white men, something that Nathaniel thought was both noble and adventuresome.
For better or worse, Isaac and Eliza decided to follow her father and their family to start a new life in the West. The entire population of Minnesota at that time was only about 5,000 inhabitants, whereas Cincinnati alone was a city of over 100,000. Resuming his profession as a saddler was not a practical option. Having the proceeds of his former shop put Isaac in the class of “capitalists,” so he thought, and the concept of putting his money to work appealed to him. Having seen the success of local bankers, and having considered the opportunities of a new territory, he conceived the idea to open the first bank in Minnesota.
In preparation for his bank, Isaac contracted with Danforth and Hufty in New York to execute a $1-$2 plate of banknotes. His knowledge of their new destination suffered as he directed the location to be engraved as “St. Pauls, Minesota” (sic). As a matter of Ohioan pride he also selected the portrait of Ohio Senator and politician Thomas Corwin, who was also from Lebanon, to appear on the $1 note. Certainly Isaac personally knew Corwin, at least through the McLean family, and while it would have lent credence if the notes were to circulate in Ohio, it was a bit shortsighted for Isaac to assume that Minnesotans would recognize or appreciate the Corwin effigy. Nonetheless, all agreed that the notes were handsomely engraved and professionally executed, and not the routine work of fly-by-night fraudsters that plagued the era.
Isaac likely tried to reach out to individuals who could help steer authorization of a bank through the political process. Congress approved the establishment of Minnesota Territory on March 3, 1849, but the government was not installed until June 1, when Alexander Ramsey took office as governor. It was later said that Henry Jackson, a legislator in the first Minnesota Territorial House of Representatives, was supportive of granting authority to the Bank of Saint Croix, but after the fiasco that would eventually erupt, he flatly denied it.
Nathaniel was also busy in preparing for the move, as he decided to resume his former career as a newspaper publisher, an activity with which he could engage while Indian Agent. Rather than starting anew, he bought an interest in an existing paper, and formed the partnership of McLean & Owens, publishers of the Chronicle and Register. Nathaniel learned the printing business at the office of the Liberty Hall in Cincinnati. In 1806 his brother, John McLean, who would much later become a Supreme Court Justice, started a newspaper in Lebanon called the Western Star. Nathaniel was one of the first printers who worked on the Star.
As the expected time to move approached, it became clear that there would be delays. Eliza was expecting another child, who was born in Cincinnati on June 14, 1849. The McLean family was also delayed due to illness. The families finally arrived in St. Paul via riverboat in August 1849. Nathaniel’s newspaper enterprise took off immediately, publishing their first edition the same month he arrived. There was no apparent progress on getting recognition for the Bank of Saint Croix in the legislature, however. At this time Isaac made the critical mistake of acting outside of his good judgment, and tried to make his Bank of Saint Croix gain popular support through his own promotion. It was a complete failure that would result in his self-imposed exile from Minnesota. The Pioneer of St. Paul rendered its account on November 15, 1849:
- Sometime in September last there came to Saint Paul a burly looking middle aged man of medium stature dressed in a drab suit and wearing a drab colored fur hat who called himself Isaac Young and represented that he had formerly been a saddler in Ohio. This man closeted himself with a Mr. Sawyer who was then in Saint Paul and got him to sign a large number of handsomely engraved pieces of paper on which were engraved the words Bank of Saint Croix Saint Paul Minnesota or something of that purport. Mr. Young disappeared from Saint Paul. The next we hear of Mr. Young he is in Saint Louis buying printing paper and negotiating for goods to send to Saint Paul. Notes of the Bank of Saint Croix at Saint Paul are quoted in the Eastern bank note lists at one per cent discount the quotation being furnished by some accomplice in the fraud living in Wall street New York. Mr. Young has not reappeared in Saint Paul and probably never will. Mr. Sawyer we learn was duped in this affair.
We don’t know who Mr. Sawyer was. Whether Isaac told a convincing story of his future plans for the bank, or how much Sawyer was paid will be forever unknown. It is interesting to note that in St. Louis Isaac used his banknotes to buy printing paper for his father-in-law’s newspaper business. This account also begs a second question, of how did Isaac get the banknote reporters to extend a favorable quotation for his notes. In the January 1850 edition of their Counterfeit Detector, the St. Louis publisher Presbury & Co. stated that they had stricken the Bank of Saint Croix from the Detector, and gave the following explanation:
- A few days previous to the issuing of our October number Mr. Daniels of this city introduced to us a gentleman by the name of Young who informed us that he with some other capitalists were about to establish a bank at St. Paul and showed us two notes one of the denomination of one dollar and one for two dollars. He also stated that but few had been signed and that no more would be issued until the charter had been sanctioned by the authority of law. He left those two notes with us and money sufficient to redeem all that was issued. Upon this representation we mentioned the money in the Detector giving holders of the notes information when they would be redeemed. Since the mention of the paper above alluded to we have been advised that it is improbable that the Legislature of the Territory will grant any such charter.
If nothing more was known of Isaac Young than these commentaries surrounding the Bank of Saint Croix, then the conclusion that his contemporaries drew do not seem overly harsh. But there is more to his story. The scheme would have been a fraud if Isaac floated notes that could not be redeemed, regardless of whether there actually existed a Bank of Saint Croix. While we don’t know how much money Isaac left with Presbury & Co. for the redemption of notes, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone of the public was left holding worthless banknotes. Contemporaries cite as much as $700 of Saint Croix notes were circulated, which is an amount that is relatively constrained; that is, he could have issued much more if he was determined to execute a fraud. Furthermore, Isaac would a couple years later make it relatively easy for any such note holder (or newspaper) to track him down, as he resumed to use his name and his familiar looking banknotes in a quasi-legitimate banking operation downstream in Memphis.
According to the 1850 Federal Census, the McLean family had settled at Fort Snelling in the newly organized Minnesota Territory. Nathaniel’s occupation was given as printer. Also living with them was Eliza Young and her children, but Isaac was not among them. In fact, he was not in enumerated in any Federal census. It was clear to Isaac that his reputation in Minnesota, and in river cities as far south as St. Louis, was severely damaged due to his imprudent actions. He made himself scarce in the upper Mississippi River valley through 1851.
In early 1852 a group of capitalists in Memphis, including Isaac Young, sought a charter from the Tennessee legislature to open a savings bank, patterned after one already operating in Nashville. This one would be known as The Memphis Savings Institution. Having learned his lesson, Isaac secured the proper authorization before circulating banknotes. After receiving the charter, Isaac had the plate of the Bank of Saint Croix notes altered to that of The Memphis Savings Institution.
The overall design similarity is readily apparent. Close examination of the Memphis notes shows where the lettering of the Minnesota bank was worked out of the plate, and then engravers at Danforth engraved new text into the plate. Some elements of the original design, like the date line that passes through the large numeral “1” could not be removed, and remain on the Memphis version. Sometime after the earliest of the Memphis notes circulated, the plate was altered again to include a line for Register, which seems to imply that the notes carried an endorsement from a state authority. In point of fact, the Savings Bank charter had little in the way of consumer protection, and it is evident that Isaac took the easiest possible route to the profession of banker. Isaac himself signed his name as Register on some of those early notes. The Memphis banknotes were certificates of deposit instead of traditional banknotes, and were loosely regulated as such. There is little doubt that Isaac depended on the typical non-redemption of a percentage of banknotes and lack of regulation for the profitability of his bank.
In connection with his Memphis Savings Institution, Isaac operated under the name of the Bank of the State of Tennessee. He advertised his bank in Evansville, Indiana, and likely other towns along the river highways. Some of The Memphis Savings Institution notes are stamped with a guarantee by the Bank of the State, seemingly a self-serving gesture.
It is unknown if Eliza and the children moved to Memphis with Isaac, or whether she chose the stability of her parents and siblings in Minnesota Territory. The journey from St. Paul to Memphis was closed for the winter months, but otherwise the Mississippi River was a virtual highway, with frequent and routine steamboat traffic in the early 1850s. It would not be difficult for either party to venture to St. Paul or Memphis.
Isaac may have had a good sense of timing when it came to start a new career. In May 1857, after the river had opened for transportation for the season, Isaac left the banking business in time to avoid the financial conflagration of the Panic of 1857. He and his family moved to Leavenworth, Kansas Territory to start a new life once again. By 1860, Isaac had redirected his capital into a saw mill in Leavenworth, returning to the occupation of his youth, although this time he was running the operation. His mill had ten workers who on average earned $40 per month and produced 80,000 board feet of lumber a year worth $120,000. At this time his daughter Hessie was eleven years old, but her siblings were no longer living with the family.
Isaac had taken on the title of Colonel upon moving to Kansas, another self-serving effort. It certainly sounded like it commanded respect, though it is doubtful that Isaac shared much of his previous life with the people of Leavenworth. He came in with wealth to start a new business, and that is all that people needed to know. In these later years he would go on to earn the trust of Leavenworth and become a public servant to some measure. The highlight of his public service was to represent Kansas at the 1867 Paris Exposition, where he spent four months promoting the merits of Kansas to the world. Isaac’s wanderlust of 1849 returned in 1875 as he moved with Eliza to Dodge City, Kansas, trading in the saw mill of Leavenworth for a grocery and provision business. The Leavenworth Daily Commercial early that year recited a newspaper clipping from Dodge City:
- Col. Isaac Young, who is well known to every Leavenworthian at this place, he looks as hale and hearty as ever and weighs almost as heavy as “fatty Brown.” He has a splendid tract of land adjoining the city, besides several houses and town lots. He has been recently in Colorado where he invested largely in silver mines which promises to yield largely. The Colonel attends strictly to his business.
But his obituary appeared only a few short months later in the Leavenworth Times:
- At Leavenworth, Kansas, Wednesday, November 3rd, 1875, Col. Isaac Young, in the (63rd) year of his age. Funeral, Friday at 10 a. m., from the late residence, No. 510 Shawnee street. Friends are invited to attend.
Thus ends the story of Isaac Young. There is no question that he was skilled with his hands in the manufacture of leather goods. When it came time to change careers he was determined to succeed, although he would be among the first to concede that he made mistakes along the way. He quietly redeemed himself in later years and earned again the respect in his community that he cherished during his early years in Cincinnati.
Bank Officer Summary
During his banking career, Isaac Young was involved with the following bank(s):
Bank of Saint Croix, Saint Paul, MN
Memphis Savings Institution, Memphis, TN
Thanks to Wendell Wolka for identification of the Corwin portrait, and to Dennis Schafluetzel for data on the Memphis Savings Institution.
- This article was originally published in Paper Money, the journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors. See https://www.spmc.org/journals/paper-money-vol-lv-no-5-whole-no-305-septemberoctober-2016.
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