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Wampum are traditional, sacred shell beads of Eastern Woodlands tribes. They 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. Woven belts of wampum have commemorated treaties or historical events.

Quahog and whelk wampum made by Elizabeth James Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag/Eastern Band Cherokee)


Description and manufacture

The 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.[1] Sewant or suckauhock beads are the black or purple shell beads made from the quahog or poquahock clamshell, Mercenaria mercenaria. Common terms for the dark and white beads, often confused, are wampi (white) and saki (dark).[2]

The white beads are made from the inner spiral of the channeled whelk shell.

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, but one 17th century Seneca wampum belt featured beads almost 2.5 inches long.[1] Wampum beads are traditionally made 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.[3]


The term "wampum" is derived from the Wampanoag word, Wampumpeag, which means white shell beads.[3] Variations of the word include the Maliseet word, Wapapiyik meaning "white-strings [of beads]"; the Ojibwe word, Waabaabiinyag, or "white-strings [of beads]"; Proto-Algonquian *wa·p-a·py-aki, "white-strings [of beads]."[4]

In New York, wampum beads have been discovered that date from before 1510.[1] The Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace, the founding constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, was codified in a series of wampum belts, held by the Onondaga Nation. The oral history of the Haudenosaunee says that Ayenwatha, a cannibal by reformed the Great Peacemaker, invented wampum to comfort himself. The Peacemaker uses wampum to record and relay messages.[5] The League of the Iroquois was founded, according to estimates, in 1142.[6]

Dutch colonists, upon discovering the importance of wampum as a unit of exchange among tribes, mass-produced wampum in workshops. A factory established by John Campbell of Passaic, New Jersey manufactured wampum into the early 20th century.[1]


Wampum is used for engagement, marriage, and betrothal agreements, as well as for ceremony and condolence ceremonies. In earlier centuries, Lenape girls would wear wampum to show their eligibility for marriage. After marriage had been arranged, a Lenape suitor would give his fiancé and her family gifts of wampum.[1]

Perhaps because of its origin as a memory aid, loose beads were not considered to be high in value. Rather it is the belts themselves that are wampum. Belts of wampum were not produced until after European contact. A typical large belt of six feet in length might contain 6000 beads or more. More importantly, such a belt would be a great sanctity, because it contained so many memories. Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in Oral tradition, where the wampum was a token representing a memory. Belts were also sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices of an indigenous culture such as the Iroquois. They were traded widely to tribes in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the mid-Atlantic.


When Europeans came to the Americas, they realized the importance of wampum to Native people. While the Native people did not use it as money, the New England colonies used it as a medium of exchange. Soon, they were trading with the native peoples of New England and New York using wampum. The New England colonies demonetized wampum in 1663.[7] Meanwhile it continued as currency in New York at the rate of eight white or four black wampum equalling one stuiver until 1673, when the colonial government issued a proclamation setting the rate at six white and three black to one penny. This proclamation also applied in New Jersey and Delaware.[8] The black shells were considered worth more than the white shells, which led people to dye the latter, and diluted the value of the shells. The ultimate basis for their value was their redeemability for pelts from the Native Americans. As Native Americans became reluctant to exchange pelts for the shells, the shells lost value.[9]

Their use as common currency was phased out in New York by the early 1700s. Shinnecock oral history ascribed the wampum market demise to a deadly red tide that decimated the whelk and quahog populations.

With stone tools the process is labor intensive, and the shells were available only to coastal nations. 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.

Robert Beverley, Jr. of Virginia Colony, writing about tribes in Virginia in 1705, 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 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.[10]


Wampum belt given to William Penn at the "Great Treaty" in 1682

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."[11]

Wampum is also used for storytelling. The symbols used told a story in the oral tradition or spoken word. Since there was no written language wampum is a very important means of keeping records and passing down stories to the next generation. Wampum is also durable and so could be carried over a long distance. The Wampum Belt is an important symbol in the polar cult.

Recent developments

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 1700s and had been away from their tribes for over a century.[1]

Shinnecock, Wampanoag, and other eastern tribes still make wampum today. Wampanoag and Eastern Cherokee artist, Elizabeth James Perry of Massachusetts creates wampum jewelry and belts, including replicas of significant historical designs.[3]

Popular cultural references

Flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f 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.
  2. ^ Geary, Theresa Flores. The Illustrated Bead Bible. London: Kensington Publications, 2008: 305. ISBN: 978-1402723537.
  3. ^ a b c Perry, Elizabeth James. About the Art of Wampum. Original Wampum Art: Elizabeth James Perry. 2008 (retrieved 14 March 2009)
  4. ^
  5. ^ Gawyehnehshehgowa: Great Law of Peace. Degiya'göh Resources. (retrieved 14 March 2009)
  6. ^ Johansen, Bruce E. Dating the Iroquois Confederacy. Akwesasne Notes. Fall 1995, Volume 1, 3 & 4, pp. 62-63. (retrieved through, 14 March 2009)
  7. ^ Oberg, Michael Leroy. Uncas, First of the Mohegans. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003: 158. ISBN 0801438772.
  8. ^ Samuel Smith, The History of New Jersey p. 76
  9. ^ Galbraith JK. (1975). Money: Where It Came, Whence It Went. pp. 47-48. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  10. ^ The History and Present State of Virginia by Robert Beverley
  11. ^ William James Sidis, 'The Tribes And The States: 100,000-Year History of North America' (via

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

WAMPUM, or Wampum-Peage (Amer. Ind. wampum, " white"; peag, " bead"), the shell-money of the North American Indians. It consisted of beads made from shells, and, unlike the cowry-money of India and Africa (which was the shell in its natural state), required a considerable measure of skill in its manufacture. Wampum was of two colours, dark purple and white, of cylindrical form, averaging a quarter of an inch in length, and about half that in diameter. Its colour determined its value. The term wampum or wampum-peage was apparently applied to the beads only when strung or woven together. They were ground as smooth as glass and were strung together by a hole drilled through the centre. Dark wampum, which was made from a "hard shell" clam (Venus mercenaria), popularly called quahang or quahog, a corruption of the Indian name, was the most valuable. White wampum was made from the shell of whelks, either from the common whelk (Buccinum undatum), or from that of Pyrula canaliculata and Pyrula carica. Wampum was employed most in New England, but it was common elsewhere. By the Dutch settlers of New York it was called seawan or zeewand, and roenoke in Virginia, and perhaps farther south, for shell-money was also known in the Carolinas, but whether the roenoke of the Virginian Indians was made from the same species of shell as wampum is not clear. Cylindrical shell-beads similar to the wampum of the Atlantic coast Indians were made to some extent by the Indians of the west coast. This was manufactured from the Mytilus californianus, a mussel which abounds there.

In the trading between whites and Indians, wampum so completely took the place of ordinary coin that its value was fixed by legal enactment, three to a penny and five shillings a fathom. The fathom was the name for a count, and the number of shells varied according to the accepted standard of exchange. Thus where six wampum went to the penny, the fathom consisted of 360 beads; but where four made a penny, as under the Massachusetts standard of 1640, then the fathom counted 240. The beads were at first worth more than five shillings per fathom, the price at which they passed current in 1643. A few years before the fathom had been worth nine or ten shillings. Connecticut received wampum for taxes in 1637 at four a penny. In 1640 Massachusetts adopted the Connecticut standard, "white to pass at four and bleuse at two a penny." There was no restriction on the manufacture of wampum, and it was made by the whites as well as the Indians. The market was soon flooded with carelessly made and inferior wampum, but it continued to be circulated in the remote districts of New England through the 17th century, and even into the beginning of the 18th. It was current with silver in Connecticut in 1704.

Wampum was also used for personal adornment, and belts were made by embroidering wampum upon strips of deerskin. These belts or scarves were symbols of authority and power and were surrendered on defeat in battle. Wampum also served a mnemonic use as a tribal history or record. "The belts that pass from one nation to another in all treaties, declarations and important transactions are very carefully preserved in the chiefs' cabins, and serve not only as a kind of record or history but as a public treasury. According to the Indian conception, these belts could tell by means of an interpreter the exact rule, provision or transaction talked into them at the time and of which they were the exclusive record. A strand of wampum, consisting of purple and white shell-beads or a belt woven with figures formed by beads of different colours, operated on the principle of associating a particular fact with a particular string or figure, thus giving a serial arrangement to the facts as well as fidelity to the memory. These strands and belts were the only visible records of the Iroquois, but they required the trained interpreters who could draw from their strings and figures the acts and intentions locked up in their remembrance" (Major Rogers, Account of North America, London, 1765). 1765).

See Holmes, "Art in Shell of the Ancient Americans" in Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, for 1880-1881; W. B. Weeden, Indian Money as a Factor in New England Civilization (Baltimore, 1884); E. Ingersoll, "Wampum and its History," in American Naturalist, vol. xvii. (1883); Horatio Hale, "On the Origin and Nature of Wampum," in American Naturalist, vol. xviii. (1884); C. L. Norton, "The Last Wampum Coinage," in American Magazine for March 1888.

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