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The Beads of Lewis and Clark

Meriwether Lewis, secretary to President Thomas Jefferson, was commissioned by the President to lead the Corps of Volunteers for Northwest Discovery. Lewis chose his friend, William Clark, to help him.

The young United States had just purchased Louisiana from the French. Negotiations went on for years, and the boundaries were a subject of contention even longer (the final claim was not resolved until 1920). But the upshot was that a million square miles (2,590,000 sq. km) was bought for about four cents an acre (ten cents a hectare) and eventually was carved up into ten states and most of four others.

This enormous territory had to be explored, maps made and observations taken of the natural history of the region. So in May 1804 Lewis, Clark and their men set out on a two and a half year journey up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River and back. They knew beads would be useful, so they had them with them. The records show they had:

5 pounds of white wampum
5 pounds of glass beads, mostly small
20 pounds of red glass beads, assorted
5 pounds of yellow or orange beads, assorted
2 cards of beads
3 pounds of beads
73 bunches of beads, assorted
8 1/2 pounds of red beads
2 bead necklaces for young women
10 maces of white round beads for girls
2 maces of sky blue round beads for girls
3 maces of yellow round beads for girls
3 maces of red beads for girls
14 maces of yellow round seed beads for girls
5 maces of mock garnets

[A pound is about 454 grams. I don't have any idea what a "card" is. Nor can I figure out what a "mace" is in the context of early nineteenth century America. A "bunch" cannot be further identified, as there are many types, depending on the maker, the bead and the destination.]

So, we really can't tell much from this list (actually a composite of three lists) except that most of the beads were monochrome glass, many of them seed beads. The mock garnets are probably Bohemian, though they might be Venetian. Wampum was also included. There was no "Lewis and Clark" bead.

The beads were fine until they got to the Columbia River system. There they were no good. Wampum was refused. Lewis wrote that the people had their own wampum. He was apparently describing dentalium (one screen down), a mollusk shell that is a natural bead because it is a somewhat curved open tube. They were fished along what are now Oregon, Washington and British Columbia and traded up to Alaska.

Try as they might, the explorers could not get rid of most of their beads. On a couple of occasions red beads, so popular in the Northeast, were flatly refused. Only the blue and white beads were acceptable.

On the way home they did strike a bargain for a canoe in exchange for wampum, but the man who made the bargain came back and demanded the return of his canoe. Lewis commented, "To this we consented, as we knew this method of trading to be very common and deemed perfectly fair." Apparently the origin of "Indian trader" was not initially a pejorative.

Actually, the expedition nearly starved because it didn't have the right beads. The explorers had little to trade for food. At one point, some blue beads were found because they had been accidentally left in the pocket of a waistcoat. They were immediately traded for salmon, no doubt eagerly devoured.

So, what beads did the Native Americans want? They knew very well and were very specific about it. Lewis learned about them the hard way:

[T]he object of foreign trade which is the most desired, are the common cheap, blue or white beads, of about fifty or seventy to the penny weight, which are strung on strands a fathom in length, and sold by the yard, or the length of both arms; of these [,] blue beads, which are called tia commachuck, or chief beads, hold the first rank in their ideas of relative value; the most inferior kind, are esteemed beyond the finest wampum, and are temptations which can always seduce them to part with their most valuable effects. Indeed, if the example of civilized life did not completely vindicate their choice, we might wonder at their infatuated attachment to a bauble in itself so worthless. Yet these beads are, perhaps, quite as reasonable objects of research as the precious metals, since they are at once beautiful ornaments for the person, and the great calculating medium of trade with all the nations on the Columbia.

[Meriwether Lewis 1814 History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark reproduced in 1966 in the March of America Facsimile Series No. 56, Ann Arbor, Vol. 2, p. 144]

What were these beads? They were wound, opaque, light blue glass beads from China. They are similar to, likely identical to, "Padre beads" in the American Southwest.

They came into the Northwest via Alaska, first with Vitus Bering and the Russians. They were long in demand in Alaska. American skippers brought them because they sold Russian fur to China and Chinese goods to the Russians in Alaska (the Russians were barred from Chinese ports). The beads quickly moved south. Captain Cook was amazed to see them in an area he knew the Russians had not yet reached.


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