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The History Of Wampum, America's First Currency

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EDITOR'S NOTE: As we sit here in 2021 with inflation rising and the U.S. dollar in decline, Indian Country Today shares a fascinating story of a simpler time. The tale is about the rise and fall of wampum, the Native American “decorative beads made from whelk and clam shells,” as the first currency in American history. From the invention of wampum to its rise as currency between Native Americans and Europeans to the mass production that cost wampum its value, this story is a comprehensive look at not just interesting Americana, but the way currency gains and loses value as well.

A story about the history of wampum. 

When Prince Philip of the Pokanokets (later known as the Wampanoags) proudly wore his wampum—decorative beads made from whelk and clam shells—he was proudly declaring several things about himself: his station, his value (and obligation) to his people, as well as the spiritual message conveyed by the design of those shells. The Englishmen he encountered, however, could only see the commercial value of that wampum, and 20 pounds sterling meant Philip was wearing some very pricey bling.

How wampum changed from bling to money is a complicated story. The colonists back then did not have printed currency, so their trade economy was mostly based on the barter of commodities such as corn and pelts. When wampum became a prime commodity in the Northeast corner of North America in 1630, it forever altered the Native systems of reciprocity and balance in life, labor and trade.

Wampum had a short run, but a long tail. It was a coin of the realm for just 30 years but wampum was commonly used as slang for money well into the second half of 20th century, along with other colorful terms such as moolah, loot, lucre and—more relevant to this discussion—clams. Even today, wampum usually is the answer to this crossword puzzle clue: used as Indian money in the Northeast, even though Natives did not traditionally use wampum as money, in part because they did not use money at all.

Purple Beads of Death
Wampum was white or purple beads and discs fashioned from two shells: the white beads from the whelk, a sea snail with a spiral shape, and the quahog, a clam with purple and white coloring.

Quahogs are found in the waters from Cape Cod south to New York, with a great abundance in Long Island Sound.

The clams were harvested in the summer, their meat consumed, and the shells were then worked into beads. Wampum beads were difficult to make back then. Drilling (with stones) could shatter the clam and the dust from the drilling contained silica that cut up lungs if inhaled. Water was used to limit the dust. The shells were ground and polished into small tubes with a stone drill called a puckwhegonnautick. They were placed on strings made of plant fiber or animal tendon and woven into belts, necklaces, headpieces, bracelets, earrings—a variety of adornments depending on the status of the wearer.

The color of the beads had meaning. For the Algonquians, white beads represented purity, light and brightness, and would be used as gifts to mark events that invoked those characteristics, such as the birth of a child. Purple beads represented solemn things like war, grieving and death. The combination of white and purple represented the duality of the world; light and dark, sun and moon, women and man, life and death. Wampum was given as a gift for many occasions: births, marriages, the signing of treaties, occasions for condolence and remembrance. In his book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, David Graeber says the Iroquois believed wampum was so spiritually powerful it could bring back the spirit of dead loved ones. He includes a Jesuit account of the Huron practice of hanging wampum around a captive Native’s neck; if the captive accepted the necklace, he became the living embodiment of a deceased loved one.

Early English accounts of wampum in the coastal Native nations report that huge strings of wampum were hung from the rafters at days-long games that were similar to rugby and soccer. These games were watched and wagered on by hundreds and sometimes thousands of Natives, and the winning side received the wampum bounty. In Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber writes that “[wampum] was a representation of a value that could only be realized through its exchange.”

It took Europeans some time to realize how important wampum was to indigenous cultures. Fur pelts were the globally desired commodities in those early days. Beaver fur in particular was the prime choice for coats and hats—castor gras (greasy beaver) was especially prized. (In possibly history’s only instance of an item preworn by indigenous people being more valuable, castor gras was beaver fur that had been worn by Natives for 12 to 18 months, by which time the long hairs had been rubbed off through wear and tear so the fur was shiny and pliable.)

The white man’s indifference to wampum changed in 1622, when a Dutch West India Company trader named Jacques Elekens took a Pequot sachem hostage and threatened to behead him if he did not receive a large ransom. When more than 280 yards of wampum were handed over, the light bulb above Elekens’s head exploded. The Dutch had been using Venetian glass beads for centuries to trade with Indigenous Peoples in Africa, India and—more recently—North America. (Recall the well-known but probably fictional story of Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan Island for $24 worth of glass, multicolored beads.) Note, however that the long strings of wampum given to Elekens were not, strictly speaking, a “cash payment.” It represented the symbolic value or status of a sachem. As Graeber writes, “there’s no evidence that even the Indians living in the closest proximity to Europeans used wampum to buy and sell things to one another.” The Pequots had traded with the Dutch and knew they sometimes used glass beads and perhaps thought they would appreciate wampum.

The Dutch start trading furs acquired along the Hudson River for wampum from the coastal nations. They then used the wampum for their transactions with Native fur traders. This influx of wampum piqued the interest of the more northern Native fur-trading nations that normally conducted business with the French hunters and traders. (The French had no wampum, so they suddenly found it hard to compete with the Dutch for the furs.)

Now that they were using wampum as currency, the pragmatic and profit-minded Dutch knew it would be cheaper and easier to manufacture beads in the New World. Graeber says, “English and Dutch colonists apparently found it a relatively simple matter to force [the Narragansetts and Pequots] to mass-produce the wampum beads, stringing the them together in belts of pure white or pure purple and setting fixed rates of exchange with the Indians of the interior; so many fathoms of wampum for such and such a pelt.” The Narragansetts and Pequots and their tribute nations and tribes saw the advantage of becoming integral players in a lucrative trade market with a rare local commodity they could control. These powerful neighboring nations were the favored trade partners of the Dutch, and within a few years, wampum production became the primary occupation for both. The Pequots made an alliance through marriage with the Mohegans and their influence increased. The Dutch, meanwhile, expanded their operations up the coast into Narragansett Bay and set up a trading post in 1627 near present-day Warren, Rhode Island. This incursion prompted the Plymouth colonists to demand that the Dutch stop trading with their Native allies, and the Dutch and English soon reached an agreement to stay off each other’s trade turf.

Tribes boxed out of this trading loop—such as the Montauks and Shinnecocks—paid tribute to the larger nations with wampum. Neal Salisbury explains the consequences of that dynamic in his book, Manitou and Providence: “In order to trade, the disadvantaged bands paid tribute.… Thus, the ceremonial exchange of goods which had once reinforced equality among bands became a source of inequality.”

William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, recorded that the Natives the English dealt with were initially hesitant to use wampum as currency, but Salisbury says, “After two years of trader persistence, wampum became an item of mass consumption, and Plymouth had effectively eliminated most of its small-scale competitors.… [Once] a symbol of prestige, wampum had become a medium of exchange and communication available to all, leading Indians through-out New England toward greater dependence on their ties with Europeans.”

In 1630, great numbers of English Puritans landed in America, ready to acquire land and make a living. They brought fake wampum beads to present to the “squaw sachem” of the Massachuset tribe in exchange for land. Now there were two English colonies competing for economic success. Both were using wampum to trade.

As wampum production was ramped up in the south, hunting and trapping was ramped up in the north. The Abenaki were so focused on supplying large amounts of furs and pelts in order to acquire more wampum that mass depletions of fur-producing animals resulted. The beaver and marten populations were hardest hit.

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