Wampum are traditional shell beads of the Eastern Woodlands tribes of the indigenous people of North America. Wampum include the white shell beads fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell; and the white and purple beads made from the quahog, or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam.
Wampum were used as money by the Native Americans, and were kept on strings like Chinese cash. European colonists adopted wampum as their own currency; however, the Europeans' more efficient production of wampum caused inflation and ultimately the obsolescence of wampum as currency. The slang phrases "clams" and "shelling out" come from wampum.
Strings of wampum were also used instead of writing, and were created to record treaties or historical events.
Description and manufacture
This term initially referred to only the white beads, which are made of the inner spiral, or columella, of the Channeled whelk shell, Busycotypus canaliculatus or Busycotypus carica. Sewant or suckauhock beads are the black or purple shell beads made from the quahog or poquahock clamshell, Mercenaria mercenaria. Sewant or Zeewant was the term used for this currency by the New Netherland colonists. Common terms for the dark and white beads, often confused, are wampi (white and yellowish) and saki (dark).
In the area of present New York Bay, the clams and whelks used for making wampum are found only along Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. The Lenape name for Long Island is Sewanacky, reflecting its connection to the dark wampum.
Typically wampum beads are tubular in shape, often a quarter of an inch long and an eighth inch wide. One 17th-century Seneca wampum belt featured beads almost 2.5 inches (65 mm) long. Women artisans traditionally made wampum beads by rounding small pieces of the shells of whelks, then piercing them with a hole before stringing them.
Wooden pump drills with quartz drill bits and steatite weights were used to drill the shells. The unfinished beads would be strung together and rolled on a grinding stone with water and sand, until they were smooth. The beads would be strung or woven on deer hide thongs, sinew, milkweed bast, or basswood fibers.
Care must be taken while crafting or incising wampum. If one does not keep the shell wet while drilling or scratching, the shell will crack, split, or break. The same trouble occurs if one tries to remove too much material at once.
Wampum (WAHM-pәm) was introduced to the Haudenosaunee by Aion:wahtha (Hiawatha), who used the beads to console himself from the loss of his family. This was the first Condolence Ceremony, which is still practiced today among the Haudenosaunee.
The word wampum means “white shell beads” in the languages of the Narragansett of Rhode Island and Wampanoag of Massachusetts. Wampum are purple and white beads made from quahog (KWA-hog) clam and whelk shells. Native nations that lived along the Atlantic coast collected the shells from their shorelines and produced beads from them. Long before Europeans came to America, the Haudenosaunee traded with their Algonquian speaking neighbors, who lived along the Atlantic coast, to obtain the highly valued shell beads. In exchange for wampum beads, the Haudenosaunee provided furs, corn, beans and squash. The mostly white quahog shells contain a small amount of purple. The rareness of the purple beads makes them much more valuable than white beads. The process of making the beads is very difficult and time consuming. Today, they are made using power tools but formerly they were created using a bow drill.
A very important use for the wampum was to make belts, consisting of rows of interlaced wampum woven on a bow loom. The placement of the purple and white beads in the belt formed symbolic designs and codes. The designs in the belts recorded the laws of the Confederacy, oral tradition used for ceremonies, and important political interactions between Native nations, and later between the Confederacy and Europeans. Wampum belts were presented at Grand Council meetings or other official gatherings.
Wampum belts were never worn as clothing. Though they are all different sizes, the name alludes to the belt-like shape featuring long and narrow bands. Wampum continues to play an important role in Haudenosaunee society.
The Haudenosaunee never used wampum as money. However, due to the scarcity of metal coins in New England, Europeans and Americans recognized the value of wampum and began producing wampum in factories to use for trade among themselves and with Native people. The Narragansetts and Pequots played a critical role in the manufacture and exchange of wampum in the New England area in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The two tribes collected the shells and produced the beads, which they traded to Europeans in exchange for newly introduced goods. By the 1700s, Dutch settlers established wampum factories, including the Campbell Wampum Factory, founded in Bergen, New Jersey, in the 1780s. The Campbell Wampum Factory continued to operate until the 1880s. 
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The use of wampum beads has been much debated throughout the years with many claiming that Aboriginal people used the beads as currency. For the Haudenosaunee, wampum held a more sacred use. Wampum served as a person’s credentials or a certificate of authority. It was used for official purposes and religious ceremonies and in the case of the joining of the League of Nations was used as a way to bind peace. Every Chief of the Confederacy and every Clan Mother has a certain string or strings of Wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station the string will then pass on to the new leader. Runners carrying messages would not be taken seriously without first presenting the wampum showing that they had the authority to carry the message.
As a method of recording and an aid in narrating, Haudenosaunee warriors with exceptional skills were provided training in interpreting the wampum belts. As the Keepers of the Central Fire the Onondaga Nation was also trusted with the task of keeping all wampum records. To this day wampum is still used in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving ceremonies. True wampum is scarce today and only wampum strings are used. Many belts have been lost or are in museums to this day.
When Europeans came to the Americas, they adopted wampum as money to trade with the native peoples of New England and New York. Wampum was legal tender in New England from 1637-1661. Meanwhile it continued as currency in New York at the rate of eight white or four black wampum equalling one stuiver—meaning the white had the same value as the copper duit coin—until 1673. The colonial government issued a proclamation setting the rate at six white or three black to one penny. This proclamation also applied in New Jersey and Delaware. The black shells were rarer than the white shells, and so were worth more, which led people to dye the latter, and diluted the value of black shells.
Writing about tribes in Virginia in 1705, Robert Beverley, Jr. of Virginia Colony describes peak as referring to the white shell bead, valued at 9 pence a yard, and wampom peak as denoting specifically the more expensive dark purple shell bead, at the rate of 1 shilling and 6 pence (18 pence) per yard. He says that these polished shells with drilled holes are made from the cunk (conch), while another currency of lesser value, called roenoke was fashioned from the cockleshell.
With stone tools, the process to make wampum was labor-intensive. Only the coastal nations had sufficient access to the basic shells to make wampum. These factors increased its scarcity and consequent value among the European traders. Dutch colonists began to manufacture wampum and eventually the primary source of wampum was that manufactured by colonists, a market the Dutch glutted.
Wampum briefly became legal tender in North Carolina in 1710, but their use as common currency was died out in New York by the early 18th century.
The American William James Sidis wrote in his 1935 history;
"The weaving of wampum belts is a sort of writing by means of belts of colored beads, in which the various designs of beads denoted different ideas according to a definitely accepted system, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language is. Records and treaties are kept in this manner, and individuals could write letters to one another in this way."
Perhaps because of its origin as a memory aid, loose beads that were within a common size, shape, and color spectrum were usually not considered to be high in value. Conversely, large ornate, storytelling belts were valued much more highly. Belts of wampum were not mass-produced until after European contact. A typically large belt of six feet (2 m) in length might contain 6000 beads or more. Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in Oral tradition, where writing could be encoded in wampum strings. Belts were also sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices of indigenous culture, such as the Iroquois. They were traded widely to tribes in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the mid-Atlantic.
The mark of authority one had when one carried wampum is an important thing. Carriers often earned wampum for saying hard things, instead of taking the easy path. The 1820 New Monthly Magazine reports on a fiery speech given by the chief Tecumseh, in which he vehemently gesticulated to a belt, pointing out treaties made 20 years earlier and battles fought since then.
It is also important to note that wampum belts are read right to left, not the left to right direction common to most written languages used by Europeans in the early post-Columbian period.
Wampum was also used for storytelling. The symbols used told a story in the oral tradition or spoken word. Since there was no written language, wampum was a very important means of keeping records and passing down stories to the next generation. Wampum was durable and so could be carried over a long distance.
The National Museum of the American Indian repatriated eleven wampum belts to Haudenosaunee chiefs at the Onondaga Longhouse Six Nations Reserve in New York. Sacred to the Longhouse religion, these belts dated to the late 18th century. They had been away from their tribes for over a century.
Cayuga, Shinnecock, Wampanoag, and other Northeastern Woodland tribes still use wampum today. The Seneca Nation commissioned replicas of five historic wampum belts completed in 2008. Artists continue to weave belts of a historical nature as well as designing original belts based on contemporary concepts.
- Great Law of Peace
- The Hiawatha Belt
- Economy of the Iroquois
- Shell money
- Quipu, Quechua recording devices made of knotting and dyed strings
- Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999: 170-171. ISBN 0-8109-3689-5.
- Jaap Jacobs. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-century America. Cornell University Press, 2009. pg. 14
- Geary, Theresa Flores. The Illustrated Bead Bible. London: Kensington Publications, 2008: 305. ISBN 978-1-4027-2353-7.
- Perry, Elizabeth James. About the Art of Wampum. Original Wampum Art: Elizabeth James Perry. 2008 (retrieved 14 March 2009)
- Samuel Smith, The History of New Jersey p. 76
- Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia
- William James Sidis, The Tribes And The States: 100,000-Year History of North America
- New Monthly Magazine Vol. 14 p.522 http://books.google.com/books?id=uDoaAQAAIAAJ
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Wampum.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Wampum.|
- Wampum article, Iroquois Indian Museum
- Wampum History and Background
- "The Tribes And The States: 100,000-Year History of North America"
- X-ray showing inner spiral and entire shell of the Busycotypus Canaliculatus - Channeled Whelk Shell, Europa
- "Money Substitutes in New Netherland and Early New York", Coins, University of North Dakota