A bead researcher can't say enough about wampum. It is the most written about bead in the world. It is the most important bead in American history. Yet, few people know what it is.
Wampum (wampumpeake) consists of small, tubular beads made of white or violet seashells. True or "council" wampum is about a quarter of an inch (6 mm) long and half as wide. Larger wampum beads were made in white-run factories in New York and New Jersey, the last one closing about 100 years ago.
Wampum was not Indian money. Even the best dictionaries tell you it was, but this is an error. Native Americans, especially in the Iroquois Confederacy, greatly valued wampum. It was used to call a council, seat council members in the correct order, speak at the council, elect a chief, depose a chief (the chiefs were always men, but women elected and deposed them), for an adoption ceremony, during mourning, as records and deeds, as gifts and as ornament. But not for money.
Wampum did serve as money for the colonists. Many Europeans did not view the American adventure favorably. Whether this "wild country" would ever repay the money invested to colonize it was not certain. There were many failures. And European governments certainly didn't want any of their precious money lost in the jungles and woods of this New World. So, they didn't send coins. This was no problem in silver-rich Mexico. The Mexican "dollar" soon became a standard coin all over the world
[The Mexican dollar was an 8 real piece. It was often subdivided by the expedience of cutting it into halves, quarters and eighths. This is why cheerleaders say: "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for Ellsworth stand up and holler." (Well, they don't all say that because they didn't all go to Ellsworth High School, but you get the point.)]
Without coins, it was difficult for the colonists to do business. But there was already an item that could be used as currency. Wampum had value, was easily divisible and was scarce because it took a lot of labor to make. So, it was adopted as money. It was legal tender in all 13 original colonies, and at least as late as 1701 New York was still setting the official rate. White wampum was made from various shells, but the violet wampum (called also black or blue) came only from the purple portion of the quahog clam and was more valuable. Generally the rate of wampum was six white or three black beads for a penny.
If you read the adventures of early visitors to America who kept track of their expenses, wampum shows up everywhere. For example, when Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter came to New York to look for a home for their Dutch church in 1679, they paid to have their baggage brought from the ship to the hotel, customs duties, meals, ferries (including the Brooklyn ferry) and their tailor all in wampum. Church ministers complained that people were putting broken wampum, undrilled wampum or imitation wooden wampum into the collection plates.
The Iroquois maintain that Hiawatha (not of the Longfellow poem; he chose the name because he liked the sound of it) formed the Iroquois Confederacy and introduced wampum. There is nothing to contradict this story and the evidence tends to support it, though many scholars prefer to scorn native tradition.
Wampum was commonly strung up into what are called "belts." The contrast between the dark and light beads made patterns. These patterns had definite meanings, and their interpretation was an important task. Usually a man was designated as "wampum keeper," and kept the wampum of his people, bringing it out when required. Belts were also exchanged, often as a form of treaty. If a quarrel arose between two parties who had exchanged belts, the wampum keeper would bring out the appropriate one and, using it as a mnemonic device, recite the terms of the original treaty
This use of wampum declined. Since the white men broke all the treaties anyway, it didn't matter whether they were enshrined in wampum or on paper. Native Americans went through an extremely rough period and those who were not exterminated were thoroughly demoralized. That is changing - has changed - significantly in the last few decades. Native religious rites have been revived that demand wampum. The wampum collected (not uncommonly by getting the wampum keeper drunk and buying them for a pittance) and housed in museums is now being repatriated. So, after centuries, these little beads are playing the role they were made for once again.
The belts pictured here are authentic reproductions done with glass beads.
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