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WAMPUM ... America's First Currency


Wampum, ke`kwuk, squau-tho-won; all are Algonquian words for shell beads or string of shell beads. Wampumpeage is a Narragansett word for "white beads strung". Throughout northeastern America, wampum was used for jewelry, gifts, communication, historical record of important events, religious ceremonies, and trade. It was the earliest form of currency known in North America. Its value was derived from the difficulty involved in producing the cylindrical bead from both Quahog and Whelk, and the scarcity of suitable shells. White beads were made from Whelk, purple-blackish from Quahog.

The beads were produced from the inner spiral of the shells. The spiral or columna must be thick enough to withstand grinding, shaping and drilling. The shells were collected along the coastal shores during the summer, and worked in the winter months. The inner spirals were cut into cylinders measuring 1/4 inch long by 1/8 inch diameter. Each bead was then smoothed through grinding, polished, drilled, and finally strung on hemp fibers or sinew. It was difficult, tedious, and time consuming work. The proportionate scarcity of the Quahog dark beads doubled their value to that of white wampum.

Though wampum is most often associated with the Iroquois, and there are claims that the Iroquois were the first producers of wampum beads, it is more likely that the Iroquois were introduced to wampum by trade. The Iroquois lived in the interior, whereas sea shells could be found only in the coastal regions. The Narragansetts were most probably the first producers of wampum, with other coastal Algonquians, including the Delaware, following shortly thereafter.

Wampum was a firmly established base of currency by the time of increased European colonial settlements in the 17th century. Though it did have a monetary value, its sole purpose for the colonials, it was by no means limited to an economic role. As stated above, wampum was used for a multitude of purposes, not least of which was the binding truth to words "written" in wampum. So respected and important was it that an accompanying belt of wampum gave great solemnity to messages, speeches, and agreements. A message delivered via a wampum belt is said to have been greater than a thousand words, and it was accepted as truth. It was the seal, the proof of covenants made. The oldest extant wampum belt is the Huron belt given to the Jesuits to commemorate the first mission house built in Huronia. Offered and accepted in 1638, the Huron belt is currently housed in the Vatican.

With the influx of more Europeans in the 17th century, notably the Dutch and English, metal tools became widely available to Indians in the east. Among these tools were slender metal drills which greatly facilitated the production of wampum. These new tools enabled the Indians to produce uniform beads more quickly and with greater ease. Applying basic economic principles to wampum as a commodity/currency in the 17th century, it might be assumed that wampum decreased in value as its production was sped up. On the contrary, its value remained stable. Again applying the basic economic rule of supply and demand, though the Europeans brought tools that helped to increase wampum production, they also balanced their contribution with an increased demand for the shell beads.

Wampum remained the standard legal tender of both Indians and New England colonists until nearly the end of the 17th century. It was, in the words of New England economic historian William Weeden, "the magnet which drew the beaver out of the interior forests." Though the New Englanders prized it solely for its economic value, the Algonquians and Iroquois continued to utilize wampum for ornamentation, communication, ceremonial use, and as a reminder of the solemnity of agreements.

For communication purposes, wampum remained the "bead" of choice. Runners carried wampum belts from one village to another bringing news. The recipients of these messages knew as the runner approached whether or not he brought tidings of great joy, or that he was the bearer of bad news. A belt primarily worked in white beads was a good sign. A belt with a predominance of purple was cause for fear and apprehension. It may mean war, disaster, or a death announcement.

Ornamentation uses of wampum included bracelets, anklets, necklaces, belts, straps, and headbands. Decorative items of wampum were signs of wealth. One who wore several adorning items of wampum was a well off, or respected person. Sachems would have need of much wampum, as they had need of many other valuable possessions. An expectation of a New England sachem was that he be a generous gift giver. A gift of any of these was much appreciated, deserving of a fine return (the term "Indian giver" arose from the Indian custom to expect a gift in return for a gift). A woman would often have wampum earrings, perhaps a sash, and anklets. Delaware women frequently wore belts and headbands of woven strands of wampum, while the Iroquois and Mohicans, men and women, favored several single strand wampum necklaces.

As the New England colonists adopted wampum as their standard currency, incidents of fraud (wampum counterfeit) increased. Both Indian and Englishman were known to pass off inferior or fraudulent wampum to unsuspecting colonials. In time, regulation and a standardized measure of wampum strands was implemented. A fathom (6 feet) was the most usual measurement and instantly denoted a specific monetary value measured against English shillings, pence, pounds, and so forth. The fact that legislation was introduced, regulations regarding wampum manufacture were set down, penalties for counterfeit or inferior quality wampum trading were harsh, and in some colonies the rejection of dark wampum for only white (though its value was greater, it was easier to counterfeit by way of dye), all illustrate how dependent the colonists and Indians were on these shell beads. There was some fluctuation in wampum's value, as is always the case with currency, but by and large, it remained uniformly acceptable and desirable to nearly the end of the 17th century in the colonies and into the 18th century along the frontiers. Its worth, however, was tenable. Wampum was only good as long as the Indians prized it. If or when that was no longer the case, an economic crash could occur throughout the English colonies that would have had serious consequences in New England, and subsequently, in the mother country as well. It was this realization, along with the declining demand for fur, that moved the New Englanders to gradually phase out wampum as a currency standard. With silver from the West Indies beginning to circulate in North America, wampum was slowly being replaced by that universally valued commodity, metal coinage.

The Mohicans and Mohawk both operated as brokers in the wampum exchange throughout the 17th century. It was a lucrative venture to all involved, a point that is highlighted by Mohawk frustration at their inability to access the wampum producing coastal tribes during the Mohican/Dutch alliance. It was important enough to be the object of diplomacy and compromise during the treaty discussions in which the Dutch mediated. (The Dutch even tried their hand at producing wampum beads, but the Indians would not accept it, thereby making it useless.) The resulting agreement upheld the Mohicans possession of their Hudson Valley lands and rights to the fur trade, while the Mohawk were to be permitted to cross these lands to access the wampum makers. Both tribes traded wampum to others in the west and north, and were major suppliers to the Seneca.

By the mid 18th century, during the French and Indian War, the use of wampum as currency had declined so much that the Indians themselves were rejecting it as payment. They too wanted silver in exchange for their furs and services, and would often turn to the Dutch settlements, rather than the English, for their trading ventures.

Wampum remained long in use for ornamentation purposes, though even in this area it began to decline. More and more trade items were being adapted to suit the styles and traditions of Indian people in the east. Wampum belts, however, as proof of good will and binding agreements, continued. Some Indian people still possess the belts their ancestors wove to record and commemorate events and covenants of earlier days. With great respect, these belts are kept by the people. Wampum belts that serve as solemn reminders of past agreements are still extant. The most famous of these is the Iroquois Covenant belt, given in 1794 to the Iroquois Confederacy by the United States government to mark the great covenant between the two nations.

It is interesting, if not ironic, to note that wampum remains valuable even today. A single wampum bead made from Quahog or Whelk, manufactured in New England coastal areas can cost up to $10! Overseas wampum is less expensive, but still demands a good price. Wampum, the first currency of the new world, has survived as a desired item long enough to be considered a classic.

Next in the History Series Pages: THE DELICATE ART OF SCALPING

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For a glimpse into frontier life: 1750's TRADE GOODS

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