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America's Most Important Shell Bead

Most everyone has heard of Wampum, but few people really know what it is.

Wampum is a small bead made from shell. The story of Wampum is a crucial chapter in American history.
You can explore it here.

On this page we will discuss the shells behind Wampum. There were two types of these beads. The more common one was white. The move valuable (two to three times the value of the white) were violet in color, though they were also called black or blue.

White Wampum was made from a variety of shells, mostly univalves (whelks and conchs). It was common to make them from the columella, the central supporting column of these shells. (see here).

These beads are known as "council wampum," because they were made by Native Americans and not in later Euro-American factories. They were picked up around Lake Oneida, New York by Ray Fadden, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. Note the spirals on several of them, attesting that they were cut from columellas.

The dark wampum had only one source. The quahog clam, which lives along the Atlantic coast, has a patch of deep violet in its interior. That was the material for "black wampum. The quahog is a Venus clam, the most diverse mollusc family. When Linnĉus was developing his classification system he was well aware of the use of Wampum for money (among the European settler, not the Native Americans) and named this animal Mercenarius (Venus) mercenarius. "Mercenarius" come from the Latin, ultimately meaning money. Compare mercenary, merchant, mercantile, etc.

A portion of a quahog clam, showing a large violet patch. These animals have been overexploited and are becoming increasingly rare. Additionally, pollution of the near-shore waters has shrunk the size of the purple patch.

Donated by Albert Summerfield.

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