History of Campbell County, Tennessee
 

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WAMPUM, NORTH AMERICA ’S FIRST MONETARY SYSTEM

By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. 

     Practically every nationality has their own structure of currency. At this time we shall look into North America’s first monetary system, “Wampum.”

     Wampum is the Algonquian word for shell beads, or string of shell beads. The Indians of Northeastern America used wampum for jewelry, gifts, communications, long-ago records of main events, religious ceremonies, and most of all, trade. Wampum’s value was acquired from the difficulty occupied in producing the cylindrical bead from both Quahog and Whelk shells, and the shortage of appropriate beads. White beads were constructed from Whelk, purple-blackish beads from Quahog.

     The beads were produced from the inner spiral of the shells. Requirements for the construction of the spiral are that it must be thick enough to endure grinding, shaping and drilling. (Collection of these shells was along the coastal shores during the summer, and ultimately worked in the winter months.) Construction of the inner spirals were cut into cylinders measuring 1/4 inch long by 1/8-inch diameter. The finishing touch found the beads being polished, drilled, and lastly, strung on hemp fibers or sinew. The work was most complex and time consuming. The scarcity of the Quahog dark beads doubled their value to that of white beads.

     Wampum is most often linked with the Iroquois Indian tribe; it is said that this tribe was the first manufacturers of the precious beads. The Iroquois made his home in the interior, however, sea shells could only be found in the coastal regions. There is the possibility that the Narragansett Indian tribes were the first producers of wampum, with other coastal Algonquians, including the Delaware tribes, closely following behind.

     As the European colonial settlements increased in the 17th century, wampum had already been extensively established. In the beginning, the monetary value of wampum had little purpose so far as the foreigners were concerned.

     This form of currency was considered “binding” so far as the “truth of words.” Wampum was considered so important and respected that an accompanying belt of these “beads” gave seriousness to messages, speeches, and unification. A communication delivered by means of a wampum belt was said to equal a thousand words. It was affirmed to be the seal, the proof of pledges made. The oldest existing wampum belt is the Huron belt, which was given to the Jesuits commemorating the first mission house built in Huronica. It was offered and accepted in 1638, and is presently housed in the Vatican.

     The Europeans, mainly the Dutch and English, began their influx into America in the 17th century. With this migration, the Indians in the East broadly accepted metal tools. Among these tools were metal drills, which, to a great extent, made it possible for the Native Americans to increase a consistent and more uniform production of wampum. It was assumed that the higher production of wampum decreased its value. Its value, however, remained unwavering. Furthermore, the Europeans helped balance the production of wampum with an increased demand for the shell beads.

     With the increased production of the beads, wampum remained the customary legal tender for both the Indians and New England colonists. Historian William Weedam, New England economists, said that it was “the magnet which drew the beaver out of the inferior forests.” As production increased, the New Englanders cherished it exclusively for its economic value. For the moment, the Algonquians and Iroquois unrelentingly continued the use of the “beads” for ornamentation, communication, ceremonial use, and as a reminder of the earnestness of agreements.

     Runners traveled many miles carrying wampum belts from one village to another bringing the news. The messenger who brought white beads was a good sign that everything was fine. On the other hand, a belt with beads of purple generally caused fear and uneasiness. These beads could mean that a war, disaster, or a death announcement was prevalent.

     Decorative uses of wampum included bracelets, anklets, necklaces, belts, straps, and an occasional headband. These ornamental decorations of wampum were signs of wealth. The Indian who wore many items of wampum was considered a well off or respected individual. Sachems, or religious persons, needed much wampum, as well as many other costly possessions. An exception to this rule was that of a New England Sachem who was considered a generous giver. A gift from the New Englander was much appreciated, worthy of a fine return (the term “Indian Giver” arose from the Indian custom to expect a gift in return).

     A woman often wore wampum earrings, perhaps a sash, and anklets. Delaware women often wore belt and headbands of woven strands of wampum; moreover, the Iroquois and Mohicans, men and women alike, preferred single strand wampum necklaces.

     The New England colonists accepted wampum as their customary currency. With this practice came occurrences of fraud (wampum counterfeit). Both Indian and Englishmen somehow passed off inferior or counterfeit wampum to innocent colonials. Meanwhile, regulation and a uniform system of wampum was put into practice. After legislation was introduced to control this fraud, penalties for counterfeiting were intolerant. In some colonies the rejection of dark wampum for white wampum only illustrates how reliant the colonists and Indians were on these shell beads. (Though the value of the white beads was greater, it was effortless to counterfeit by way of dye).

     Variations of the value of wampum generally remained rather stable to the end of the 17th century and into the 18th century along the frontiers. Wampum was only good so long as the Indians cherished it. So long as this situation continued, it cancelled out any economic crashes that might be inflicted upon the colonists. If wampum should ultimately lose its value, a financial crisis could occur resulting in serious consequences in New England and possibly in the Mother Country. Subsequently, with the declining demand for fur, the New Englanders slowly phased out wampum as a currency measure. Silver from the West Indies began its distribution in North America which little-by-little replaced wampum as the nation’s currency in the form of metal coins.

(Many thanks to Elaine Federici, who has written several articles on the site, and the Mohican Press for submitting the material for this article. Web site: http://www.mohicanpress.com)

 

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