Nature Bulletin No. 725 September 26, 1963
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist
What is wampum? According to stories about the early colonists, it
was Indian money made out of shells. However, wampum -- short for
the Algonquian word wampumpeag--means strings of shell beads or
belts woven from shell beads.
True wampum beads had certain sizes, shapes and colors. Each bead,
about one-fourth of an inch long, was cylindrical with a hole drilled
lengthwise to form a tube. There were two colors: white ones made
from a large sea snail called a whelk, and dark purple ones from the
quahog -- a saltwater clam of the north Atlantic coast. They were
polished glassy smooth and strung on sinew cords or embroidered in
patterns on strips of deer skin to make belts.
Wampum beads were valued highly because of the scarcity of the
shells from which they were made and because of the amount of
patient labor necessary to make a single bead. A piece of shell was
broken to about the right size, then ground into a cylindrical shape by
rubbing on sandstone. The hole was tediously drilled with a slender
reed, tipped with flint, which was rolled on the thigh with the right
hand while the bit of shell was held against it with the left.
Wampum was highly prized by the Indians for several purposes long
before it came into use as money in trading with the white settlers. It
was kept in the chief's cabin as the tribal treasury and as a symbol of
his authority. When they were defeated in battle it was often
surrendered to the victors. At councils between different tribes or
nations, and in treaties with the early colonists, belts of wampum were
exchanged as guarantees of their earnest intentions.
Since Indians had no written language, some tribes wove designs into
the pattern of a wampum belt which were reminders of past events,
laws and other important matters. For example, about 1570, in what is
now central New York -- a generation before the coming of white men
-- the terms of the League of Five Nations of the Iroquois was
commemorated in a wampum belt.
Since ancient times Indians have decorated themselves with necklaces,
bracelets, earrings and belts of wampum. They also wore ornaments
made of bone, stone, animal teeth, native copper, and glass beads
traded from the whites, but these had lesser value. In 1619 the early
French explorer Champlain described Huron Indian girls thus: "Gaily
dressed and adorned, they like to show themselves at dances, where
their fathers and mothers send them. I can assure you that at dances I
have attended, I have seen girls that had more than twelve pounds of
wampum on them, without counting the other trifles with which they
are loaded and decked out. .
The use of wampum for money with a more or less fixed value had its
beginning in trade between the European colonists and Indian tribes
from New England southward to Virginia. The Massachusetts Bay
Colony made it legal currency in 1641 for sums of ten English pounds
or less. A fathom of white wampum with 240 to 360 beads was worth
5 to 10 shillings. Purple was worth twice as much. Wampum was
currency honored in exchange for any commodity; including food,
tools, skins, furs, canoes, and even for purchase of wives and slaves.
Eventually, the white men with their steel tools began to counterfeit
the red men's money on a large scale and soon its value dropped
sharply in the colonies. However, tribes inland continued to accept it
in exchange for furs until the early 1800's. It spread to Ohio, to Illinois
and as far west as the Great Plains where a single wampum bead often
could buy a beaver pelt. In this way wampum played a part in
amassing the John Jacob Astor fortune from the American Fur
How about a fathom until pay day?
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Update: June 2012