Wampum is a traditional shell bead of the Eastern Woodlands tribes of Native Americans. It includes white shell beads hand-fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell and white and purple beads made from the quahog or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam.

Quahog and whelk wampum
A representation of the original Two Row Wampum treaty belt
The process to make wampum was labor-intensive with stone tools. Only the coastal tribes had sufficient access to the basic shells to make wampum. These factors increased its scarcity and consequent value among the European traders. Wampum Georgina Ontario[clarification needed]

In New York, wampum beads have been discovered dating before 1510.[1] Before European contact, strings of wampum were used for storytelling, ceremonial gifts, and recording important treaties and historical events, such as the Two Row Wampum Treaty[2][3] and the Hiawatha Belt. Wampum was also used by the northeastern Indigenous tribes as a means of exchange,[4] strung together in lengths for convenience. The first colonists understood it as a currency and adopted it as such in trading with them. Eventually, the colonists applied their technologies to more efficiently produce wampum, which caused inflation and ultimately its obsolescence as currency.[5] [better source needed] Wampum artists continue to weave belts of a historical nature, as well as designing new belts or jewelry based on their own concepts.[6]

Linguistic origin


The term wampum is a shortening of wampumpeag, which is derived from the Massachusett or Narragansett word meaning "white strings of shell beads".[6][7] The Proto-Algonquian reconstructed form is thought to be (wa·p-a·py-aki), "white strings".[8]

The term wampum (or wampumpeag) initially referred only to the white beads which are made of the inner spiral or columella of the channeled whelk shell Busycotypus canaliculatus or Busycotypus carica.[1] Sewant or suckauhock beads are the black or purple shell beads made from the quahog or poquahock clamshell Mercenaria mercenaria.[9] Sewant or zeewant was the term used for this currency by the New Netherland colonists.[10] Common terms for the dark and white beads are wampi (white and yellowish) and saki (dark).[11] The Lenape name for Long Island is Sewanacky, reflecting its connection to the dark wampum.

Description and manufacture

The white beads are made from the inner spiral of the channeled whelk shell.

Wampum beads are typically tubular in shape, often a quarter of an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. One 17th-century Seneca wampum belt featured beads almost 2.5 inches (65 mm) long.[1] Women artisans traditionally made wampum beads by rounding small pieces of whelk shells, then piercing them with a hole before stringing them. Wooden pump drills with quartz drill bits and steatite weights were used to drill the shells. The unfinished beads would be strung together and rolled on a grinding stone with water and sand until they were smooth. The beads would be strung or woven on deer hide thongs, sinew, milkweed bast, or basswood fibers.[6]

The process to make wampum was labor-intensive with stone tools. Only the coastal tribes had sufficient access to the basic shells to make wampum. These factors increased its scarcity and consequent value among the European traders. The introduction of European metal tools revolutionized the production of wampum, and by the mid-seventeenth century, production numbered in the tens of millions of beads.[12] Dutch colonists discovered the importance of wampum as a means of exchange between tribes, and they began mass-producing it in workshops. John Campbell established such a factory in Passaic, New Jersey, which manufactured wampum into the early 20th century.[1] Eventually the primary source of wampum was that manufactured by colonists, a market glutted by the Dutch.[citation needed]



Record-keeping and memory aids

Wampum belt given to William Penn at the "Great Treaty" in 1682

As William James Sidis wrote in his 1935 history:

The weaving of wampum belts is a sort of writing by means of belts of colored beads, in which the various designs of beads denoted different ideas according to a definitely accepted system, which could be read by anyone acquainted with wampum language, irrespective of what the spoken language is. Records and treaties are kept in this manner, and individuals could write letters to one another in this way.[13]

Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in oral tradition, and were sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices in Indigenous cultures, such as the Iroquois. For example, the 1820 New Monthly Magazine reports on a speech given by chief Tecumseh in which he vehemently gesticulated to a belt as he pointed out treaties made 20 years earlier and battles fought since then.[14]

Social purposes

Iroquois Chiefs from the Six Nations Reserve reading Wampum belts in Brantford, Ontario, in 1871

Wampum strings may be presented as a formal affirmation of cooperation or friendship between groups,[15] or as an invitation to a meeting.[16] In his study on the origins of money, anthropologist David Graeber placed wampum as it was used by indigenous peoples of the Northeastern Woodlands before European colonization in a category of things with symbolic cultural value that were "mainly used to rearrange relations between people" rather than being used in exchanges of everyday items.[17]: 53 

The Iroquois used wampum as a person's credentials or a certificate of authority. It was also used for official purposes and religious ceremonies, and as a way to bind peace between tribes. Among the Iroquois, every chief and every clan mother has a certain string of wampum that serves as their certificate of office. When they pass on or are removed from their station, the string will then pass on to the new leader. Runners carrying messages during colonial times would present the wampum showing that they had the authority to carry the message.[18]

As a method of recording and an aid in narrating, Iroquois warriors with exceptional skills were provided training in interpreting the wampum belts. As the Keepers of the Central Fire, the Onondaga Nation was also trusted with the task of keeping all wampum records. Wampum is still used in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Iroquois Thanksgiving ceremonies.[18]

Wampum was central to the giving of names, in which the names and titles of deceased persons were passed on to others. Deceased individuals of high office are quickly replaced, and a wampum inscribed with the name of the deceased is laid on the shoulders of the successor, who may shake it off and reject the transfer of name. The reception of a name may also transfer personal history and previous obligations of the deceased (e.g., the successor of a person killed in war may be obligated to avenge the death of the name's previous holder, or care for the deceased person's family as their own).[19]: 120–122 

... the Iroquoians (Five Nations and Huron alike) shared a very particular constitution: they saw their societies not as a collection of living individuals but as a collection of eternal names, which over the course of times passed from one individual holder to another.[19]: 120 

Just as the wampum enabled the continuation of names and the histories of persons, the wampum was central to establishing and renewing peace between clans and families. When a man representing his respective social unit met another, he would offer one wampum inscribed with mnemonic symbols representing the purpose of the meeting or message. The wampum, thus, facilitated the most essential practices in holding the Iroquois society together.[19]: 124–127 



When Europeans came to the Americas, they adopted wampum as money to trade with the native peoples of New England and New York. Wampum was legal tender in New England from 1637 to 1661. It continued as currency in New York until 1673 at the rate of eight white or four black wampum equalling one stuiver, meaning that the white had the same value as the copper duit coin. The colonial government in New Jersey issued a proclamation setting the rate at six white or three black to one penny; this proclamation also applied in Delaware.[20] The black shells were rarer than the white shells and so were worth more, which led people to dye the white and dilute the value of black shells.[21]

In the writings of Robert Beverley Jr. of Virginia Colony about tribes in Virginia in 1705, he described peak as referring to the white shell bead, valued at 9 pence a yard, and wampom peak as denoting the more expensive dark purple shell bead, at the rate of 1 shilling and 6 pence (18 pence) per yard. He added that these polished shells with drilled holes were made from the cunk (conch), while another currency of lesser value called roenoke was fashioned from the cockleshell.[22]

Wampum briefly became legal tender in North Carolina in 1710, but its use as common currency died out in New York by the early 18th century.[citation needed]

The use of wampum as currency spans back to 1622, when the Dutch implemented it into their trade. After the introduction of wampum into European currency, the European colonists quickly began trying to amass large quantities of this currency, and shifting control of this currency determined which power would have control of the European-Indigenous trade. The wampum’s significance to the tribes that collected it meant that no one individual wanted to amass too much of it, however, European colonists did not care about its cultural significance, but it would always hold value to the indigenous populations. In this way, colonists could trade wampum for goods and sell those goods to Europeans for European currencies, therefore amassing wealth. This is one of the few examples of settler adaptation of indigenous practices for trade with indigenous people and also amongst themselves. However, the conversion of wampum to European currencies and the introduction of a monetary system was not something that the indigenous people had a desire to take part in, thus increasing tensions as trades held different economic value to each contributing party. However, when wampum was legal tender, it was one of the most important forms of currency in the region amongst settlers as well as between settlers and indigenous groups.[23]

Recent developments

  • The Seneca Nation commissioned replicas of five historic wampum belts completed in 2008. The belts were made by Lydia Chavez (Unkechaug/Blood) and made with beads manufactured on the Unkechaug Indian Nation Territory on Long Island, New York.
  • In 2017, a wampum belt purchased by Frank Speck in 1913 was returned to Kanesatake, where it is used in cultural and political events.[25]
  • The Shinnecock Indian Nation has sought to preserve a traditional wampum manufacturing site called Ayeuonganit Wampum Ayimꝏup (Here, Wampum Was Made).[26] A portion of the original site, Lot 24 in today's Parrish Pond subdivision in Southampton, Long Island, has been reserved for parkland.[27]
  • The Unkechaug Nation on Long Island, New York, has built a wampum factory which manufactures traditional as well as contemporary beads for use by Native artists such as Ken Maracle, Elizabeth Perry, and Lydia Chavez in their designs of traditional belts and contemporary jewelry. The factory has been in existence since 1998 and has been instrumental in the resurrection of the use of wampum in contemporary native life.
  • Traditional wampum makers in modern times include Julius Cook (Sakaronkiokeweh) (1927–1999)[28] and Ken Maracle (Haohyoh), a faith keeper of the Lower Cayuga Longhouse.[29]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d e Dubin, Lois Sherr. North American Indian Jewelry and Adornment: From Prehistory to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999: 170–171. ISBN 0-8109-3689-5.
  2. ^ Bonaparte, Darren (2005). "The Two Row Wampum Belt: An Akwesasne Tradition". The Wampum Chronicles. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  3. ^ Bonaparte, Darren (August 9, 2013). "The Disputed Myth, Metaphor and Reality of the Two Row Wampum". The Wampum Chronicles. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  4. ^ Nick Szabo (2002). "Shelling Out: The Origins of Money". nakamotoinstitute.org.
  5. ^ Saifedean Ammous. The Bitcoin Standard The Decentralized Alternative To Central Banking.
  6. ^ a b c Perry, Elizabeth James. About the Art of Wampum. Original Wampum Art: Elizabeth James Perry. 2008 (retrieved 14 March 2009)
  7. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Wampum". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  8. ^ "Wampumpeag". Dictionary.com Unabridged (Online). n.d. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  9. ^ Wright, Otis Olney, ed. (1917). History of Swansea, Massachusetts, 1667–1917. Town of Swansea. p. 20. OCLC 1018149266. Retrieved June 11, 2018.
  10. ^ Jaap Jacobs. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-century America. Cornell University Press, 2009. pg. 14
  11. ^ Geary, Theresa Flores. The Illustrated Bead Bible. London: Kensington Publications, 2008: 305. ISBN 978-1-4027-2353 -7.
  12. ^ Otto, Paul [1] "Henry Hudson, the Munsees, and the Wampum Revolution" (retrieved 5 September 2011)
  13. ^ "The Tribes and the States". www.sidis.net.
  14. ^ The New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register. H. Colburn. 1820.
  15. ^ "The George Washington Belt". Ganondagan.
  16. ^ "Wampum Belt". Archaeologymuseum. January 23, 2015.
  17. ^ Graeber, David (2011). Debt: the first 5,000 years. Brooklyn (N.Y.): Melville house. ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2.
  18. ^ a b "Haudenosaunee Confederacy". www.haudenosauneeconfederacy.com. Retrieved April 6, 2018.
  19. ^ a b c Graeber, David (2001). Toward an anthropological theory of value: the false coin of our own dreams. New York: Palgrave. ISBN 978-0-312-24044-8.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  20. ^ Samuel Smith, The History of New Jersey p. 76
  21. ^ "Wampum: Introduction". www.coins.nd.edu. Retrieved April 6, 2018.
  22. ^ Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia
  23. ^ Park, K-Sue (2016). "Money, Mortgages, and the Conquest of America". Law & Social Inquiry. 41 (4): 1006–1035. doi:10.1111/lsi.12222. ISSN 0897-6546. S2CID 157705999.
  24. ^ "Wampum". Onondaga Nation. February 18, 2014. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  25. ^ Bruchac, Margaret (2018). "Broken Chains of Custody: Possessing, Dispossessing, and Repossessing Lost Wampum Belts". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 162 (1): 97–98.
  26. ^ "Ayeuonganit Wampum Ayimꝏup". On This Site, Indigenous Long Island. October 5, 2019. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  27. ^ Young, Beth (September 13, 2014). "Shinnecock Wampum Factory Site Preserved by Southampton Town". East End Beacon. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  28. ^ Bonaparte, Darren. "Sakaronhiokeweh: A Tribute to a Mohawk Wampum Belt Maker". The Wampum Chronicles. Retrieved December 12, 2019.
  29. ^ "Ken Maracle (Haohyoh)". The Wampum Shop. Retrieved December 12, 2019.