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Wampum - 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 of treaties.

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.

Related Information within this Site
[ Beads ][ Cherokee ][ Costume ][ Iroquois ][ Roanoke ][ Sewan ]