The Rise And Fall Of Wampum As Currency

An examination
by Chris Hibbard

The rise and fall of Wampum as currency

One thing that caught my interest in this class in the last few weeks was the idea of shells and beads being used as currency with Puritans, early Christian missionaries, and traders.

The introduction of Wampum is chapter 5 of David Murray’s book was not the first time I have thought about Native American shells in the last few years. Last semester in fact I wrote a paper for a Native Studies class with Lois Frank in which I explained the shamanistic or sacred significance of white seashells, Migis Shells. While in that case the shells were used for ceremonial or oral tradition reasons, not to mention health and status, in this class the shells are used as a form of trade, barter, or sale. I will no longer linger on the Migis shells and will turn my attention to my investigation of Wampum.

Wampum belts were made of shell beads, predominantly white in colour that were known as “knobbed whelk” or “Knobbie” shells. Interspersed throughout the white shells were black shells and purple shells, commonly known as the “quahog”, or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam. Both types came from North Atlantic waters. The term Wampum is derived from an Eastern Algonquin word “wampumpeag” which described them quite literally, as “white strings of beads”.

Pre-contact, the white beads were generally used to express events and emotions of ‘light and brightness’ while dark ones had connotations of ‘solemnity, war, grieving and death.’ Wampum exchange among tribes embodied a medium of gift-giving that was used for many things. Daniel Gookin, a Massachusetts missionary stated in 1630 that “it answers all occasions, as gold and silver doth with us”; ornamentations, tribute, ransom for captives, compensation for crimes, presents between friends, prizes for victory in games or sport, fines, incentives to maintain peace or to wage war, payments for services of shamanism, and marriage proposals. The giving and taking of wampum among tribes and members of tribes, helped to maintain social and political equilibrium.

To the aboriginal peoples of North America, it was not the individual beads that were of any value. It was the meaning behind the ‘belts’ or wampum that was important, and rightfully so, when one considers that some of these belts contained over 5000 beads, and each bead might represent a specific memory, going back generation upon generation.

The designs embedded in the belts could be quite complicated, with corresponding complicated meanings. A belt with white designs on a purple background but surrounded by a white border, indicated a relationship that was once hostile but was now peaceful. A wampum belt painted red was sent as a summons for war. Wampum had the power to equalize feelings of resentment and humility. A gift of wampum from a murderer, if accepted, freed him from the vengeance of the dead man’s family and friends, forestalling additional bloodshed.

These ‘beads’ were so revered on so many levels in fact, that when Europeans came to the Americas, they mistook the importance of wampum to Native people as one of financial or monetary nature. Soon enough, wampum was introduced into a trade economy between Dutch colonists and the native peoples of New England and New York The Dutch began both accepting and distributing wampum as a currency at their trading stations also began an aggressive campaign of buying as much wampum as possible from coastal Algonquians and transporting it up to the Hudson Valley, where it was scarcer, to trade for pelts among the Mahicans.

This led to a rather sudden influx of ‘commodity money’ and wealth for the Mahicans, who had been previously considered a ‘peaceful people’ and brought them into conflict with the Iroquois tribes, resulting in the Mohawk-Mahican War. ‘Commodity money’ often comes into being in situations where other forms of money are not available or not trusted. Since European governments had not permitted the use of gold or silver bullion in the New World, commodities such as wampum, pelts and tobacco became quite standard.

As in many other ways, European traders and politicians exploited the traditional usage of wampum as gift exchange to gain Native American favour or territory. They began mass producing the wampum beads and belts themselves with their slender metal drill bits, which allowed them to create the beads faster than the delicate Native stone tools which had been used for millennia. While this ‘counterfeit’ wampum was not appreciated as much by Native peoples as their own hand-crafted beads, this mass production is how, in the 1600s, wampum became a standardized currency, its value set at a fathom (six feet of strung beads, containing between 200 – 400 beads) of white wampum being worth ten shillings, and a fathom of the black or purple beads worth twenty.

At the peak of demand, for wampum, counterfeiting became such a problem that Massachusetts passed laws to regulate the trade and standardize the bead. All wampum was to be strung in uniform units of one, three, and twelve pence in white and blacke at values of a pence 6 pence, 2 shillings 6, and 10 shillings. Connecticut ordered that “no peaque, white or blacke, be paid or received but what is strung in some measure, suitably, and not small.”

The new increased value of wampum correspondingly increased the demand for it, and native people in northern regions eagerly traded their furs which were coveted in European markets for it. Fur bearing animals were hunted out of the forests in the north, and customary lifestyles were abandoned in favor of wampum manufacture along the coast, causing native dependence on European goods and food, items which were no longer being produced by the natives for themselves. The Indians of New England and New York were now entangled in a world trade network with expanding needs, the satisfaction of which required an accelerated trade effort by native people for which they received in return a constantly diminishing portion.

Traditionally tending to regard the exchange of goods as being symbolic of establishing friendships and alliances, without notions of possession or profit, Native Americans were quickly ‘tricked’ into selling their own land for incredibly low prices. One example of this I found states that “in 1640, the Norwalk Indians sold a large part of their territory to Roger Ludlow of Fairfield, Connecticut. Its depth into the country was as far as a man could walk from the sea in a day’s span; its price; 8 fathoms wampum, 6 coats, 10 hoes. 10 hatchets, 10 scissors, 10 jewsharps, 10 pounds tobacco, three kettles and 10 looking glasses…”

Even as their land began to trickle away however, and their culture with it, native people still used wampum in the traditional way; sending communications, declaring war, procuring peace, and wisely so. Between the counterfeit ‘Dutch’ wampum and the Indians response to the demand for ‘real’ wampum, the market was soon flooded and the demand fell accordingly. Indians on the Southern Coast found themselves isolated from markets on which they had come to rely. Indians for whom pelts had been their main access to trade had comparable experiences when supplies ran out.

By 1660, wampum had decreased in value for the Dutch and English settlers so much that it was discontinued as legal tender in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It remained in use as currency in the native economy and in rural colonial areas until the Revolutionary War.

I found the use of wampum among North American tribes to be downright fascinating on many levels.
It permeated native lives so heavily for so long, in politics, romance, war and recreation, that to hear of it becoming a commodity equated with dollars and cents, only to be legalized and then illegalized within a 60-year span of events is kind of shocking. There was so much information available on the subject, approaching it from so many angles, that I had a hard time keeping this paper to the length that it is. I hope you found it as interesting as I did.

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~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Rise And Fall Of Wampum As Currency”

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