You might remember from history class that colonial Americans bought and sold things with Native Americans using wampum, that is beads made from shells. The Dutch in New Netherland used wampum too, but they called it “sewant.” This was an important but not the only form of money in the colony. In 17th century Virginia, hogsheads of tobacco were a unit of currency, but in New Netherland the account books tallied pelts of beavers. When New Netherlanders used actual coinage, it was often Dutch guilders. After the fall of New Netherland in 1664, guilders were gradually replaced by British pounds.
For much of the latter-half of the 17th century, however, account books in the Dutch areas of the Hudson Valley were kept in schepels of wheat. The schepel was unit of measurement for volume, essentially a large wicker basket holding technically .764 bushels or about 60 pounds of wheat.) What was weighed in a schepel of wheat was the grain that had already been cut in the field and beaten to separate the wheat from the chaff. This was generally not yet ground or “bolted” flour. According to an account from 1816, it took about one wagon load of wheat still on the stem to make a schepel of whole grains.
The schepel could also be used to measure bran, salt, rye, tobacco, corn, or peas, while liquids were measured in gallons and fabrics in ells.
In later years, the schepel was written as “schijpel”, “schijple”, or “skipple” and abbreviated a “sch” “scip” or “skip”.
From 1670s through at least the 1690s, court fines in Ulster County, NY, could be paid in guilders or schepels of wheat. The ratio was traditionally fixed at six guilders for one schepel. Slaves were bought and sold with schepels, or the promise of future deliveries of schepels of wheat. Personal debts were owned in schepels of wheat.
The ubiquity of schepels of wheat as a currency is clear in the account book of the Dutch Reformed Church in Kingston, NY. (Held told at the Ulster County Archives). The congregation gave to the church in schepels of wheat, the church debts were held in wheat, even the minister’s salary, shown below, was paid in schepels of wheat.
The Dutch cultivation of wheat was so common and so traditional in New York that Horatio Gates Spafford’s A gazetteer of the State of New York (Albany, 1824) appears to have use the term “Dutch farming” as a synonym for “grain farming.”
Ideally, the wheat could be converted into guilders or pounds sterling. This certainly happened when the Hudson Valley Dutch sent their wheat crop down river to be bolted (sifted, milled) in New York City.
Economists like to say that the best money is that which is durable, consistent, and divisible. It must also be easily moveable. Wheat was a decent form of money. The size of a schepel was regulated, wheat had a decent shelf life, and wheat could be carried on foot, by wagon, or on a boat. It was not an ideal form of money, but it was useful as such because it was also a commodity with its own value. Schepels of wheat were not subject to inflation by government fiat, nor could they be produced without labor.