Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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 Company.

How about a fathom until pay day?

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