- The shell money of the early Indians. It also was worn as necklaces,
bracelets, belts, and used in other ways for decoration. Wampum was
important in transactions between tribes, and especially in the building
Wampum consisted of beads made from the
interior parts of shells, such as those of the hard shell clam and the
periwinkle. It was usually strung on thread. The beads were
of two colors, white and purple. The purple varied in shade from
pink violet to a dark rich purple, and was worth twice as much as the white.
The beads themselves were from 1/8" to 3/16" in diameter and from 1/8"
to 7/16" in length.
As money, wampum was calculated in fathoms,
or six feet to the string. A string of this length consisted of 360
white beads and 180 black or purple beads and in colonial days was worth
five shillings, or approximately one dollar. Some Indians had tattooed
on the inside of the left forearm a set of lines measuring scale by which
they could measure the several standard lengths of wampum.
Like all money, wampum was counterfeited,
and on May 30, 1650, an ordinance was passed by the Director of Council
of New Netherlands in an attempt to remedy this evil. The best wampum
was termed "Manhattan wampum." The inferior, consisting of unpolished
and unperforated beads, was fixed at a smaller valuation, and the counterfeit
was declared worthless.
While wampum was used as money between
whites and Indians, the most important use among the Indians themselves
was in giving authority to intertribal communications. All messengers
from one tribe to another carried belts of wampum. Such belts had
the beads arranged to show figures, suggesting the nature of the transaction.
Wampum belts were used in the ratification
of every important treaty negotiation with the eastern tribes. from the
early colonial period to the great tribal treaty of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin,
in 1830. In 1843 at the intertribal council at Tahlequah, Oklahoma,
the Cherokee produced wampum belts which showed peace they had made with
the Iroquois before the Revolutionary War.
The Iroquois themselves still preserve
several of these ancient record belts. Others of historic importance
have been preserved, such as those in the archives of the New york State
Historical Society at Albany.
within this Site
][ Cherokee ][ Costume
][ Iroquois ][ Roanoke
][ Sewan ]