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Quahog and whelk wampum made by Elizabeth James Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag/Eastern Band Cherokee), circa 2009
A representation of the original Two Row Wampum treaty belt.

Wampum is a traditional shell bead of the Eastern Woodlands tribes of American Indians. It includes the white shell beads fashioned from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell and the white and purple beads made from the quahog or Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam. It was used by the northeastern Indian tribes as a form of gift exchange, and the colonists adopted it as currency in trading with them. Eventually, the colonists developed more efficient methods of producing wampum, which caused inflation and ultimately the obsolescence of it as currency.

Wampum was often kept on strings like Chinese cash. 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. According to the Onondaga Nation, the wampum is a living record and has many uses. These can include inviting a person to a meeting, showing title, and showing that a speaker is truthful. At the Treaty of Niagara in 1764, at least 84 wampum belts were exchanged.


Description and manufactureEdit

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. Sewant or Zeewant was the term used for this currency by the New Netherland colonists.[2] Common terms for the dark and white beads are wampi (white and yellowish) and saki (dark).[3]

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

The clams and whelks used for making wampum are found only along Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay. The Lenape name for Long Island is Sewanacky, reflecting its connection to the dark wampum.

Wampum beads are typically tubular in shape, often a quarter of an inch long and an eighth 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 the shells of whelks, 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.[4]


The term wampum is a shortening of wampumpeag, which is derived from the Massachusett or Narragansett word meaning "white strings of shell beads."[4][5] The Proto-Algonquian reconstructed form is thought to be *wa·p-a·py-aki, "white strings."[6]

In New York, wampum beads have been discovered dating before 1510.[1] The founding constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy was codified in a series of wampum belts, now held by the Onondaga Nation. According to oral history of the Iroquois, the Great Peacemaker used wampum to record and relay messages.[7]

The introduction of European metal tools revolutionized the production of wampum; by the mid-seventeenth century, production numbered in the tens of millions of beads.[8] Dutch colonists discovered the importance of wampum as money for exchange between tribes, and they began mass-producing it in workshops. John Campbell established such a factory in Pascack, New Jersey which manufactured wampum into the early 20th century.[1]


Among the IroquoisEdit

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 it was used 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.[9]

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 to this day in the ceremony of raising up a new chief and in the Iroquois Thanksgiving ceremonies. True wampum is scarce today and only wampum strings are used.[10]


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 1637-61; 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.[11] 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.[12]

Robert Beverley, Jr. of Virginia Colony wrote about tribes in Virginia in 1705. He describes peak as referring to the white shell bead, valued at 9 pence a yard, and wampom peak as denoting specifically the more expensive dark purple shell bead, at the rate of 1 shilling and 6 pence (18 pence) per yard. He says that these polished shells with drilled holes are made from the cunk (conch), while another currency of lesser value called roenoke was fashioned from the cockleshell.[13]

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. Dutch colonists began to manufacture wampum and eventually the primary source of wampum was that manufactured by colonists, a market which the Dutch glutted.

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.


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

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.[14]

Wampum belts were used as a memory aid in oral tradition, where writing could be encoded in wampum strings. They were also sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices of indigenous culture, such as the Iroquois. They were traded widely to tribes in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the mid-Atlantic. Loose beads that were within a common size, shape, and color spectrum were usually not considered to be high in value, perhaps because of their origin as a memory aid. Conversely, large, ornate, storytelling belts were valued much more highly. Belts of wampum were not mass-produced until after European contact. A typically large belt of six feet (2 m) in length might contain 6,000 beads or more.

The 1820 New Monthly Magazine reports on a fiery speech given by chief Tecumseh, in which he vehemently gesticulated to a belt, pointing out treaties made 20 years earlier and battles fought since then.[15] Wampum was also used for storytelling. The symbols used told a story in the oral tradition or spoken word. There was no written language, so wampum was a very important means of keeping records and passing down stories to the next generation. It was durable and so could be carried over a long distance.

Wampum belts are read right-to-left, not the left-to-right direction common to most written European languages used in the early post-Columbian period.

Recent developmentsEdit

The National Museum of the American Indian repatriated eleven wampum belts to Iroquois chiefs at the Onondaga Longhouse Six Nations Reserve in New York. These belts dated to the late 18th century and are sacred to the Longhouse religion. They had been away from their tribes for over a century.[1] The Seneca Nation commissioned replicas of five historic wampum belts completed in 2008. Artists continue to weave belts of a historical nature, as well as designing new belts based on their own concepts.[4]

See alsoEdit


  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. ^ Jaap Jacobs. The Colony of New Netherland: A Dutch Settlement in Seventeenth-century America. Cornell University Press, 2009. pg. 14
  3. ^ Geary, Theresa Flores. The Illustrated Bead Bible. London: Kensington Publications, 2008: 305. ISBN 978-1-4027-2353 -7.
  4. ^ a b c Perry, Elizabeth James. About the Art of Wampum. Original Wampum Art: Elizabeth James Perry. 2008 (retrieved 14 March 2009)
  5. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Wampum". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2011-10-15. 
  6. ^ "Wampumpeag". Unabridged. Random House. Retrieved 2011-10-15. 
  7. ^ Gawyehnehshehgowa: Great Law of Peace. Archived 2009-02-09 at the Wayback Machine. Degiya'göh Resources. (retrieved 14 March 2009)
  8. ^ Otto, Paul [1] "Henry Hudson, the Munsees, and the Wampum Revolution" (retrieved 5 September 2011)
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Samuel Smith, The History of New Jersey p. 76
  12. ^ "Wampum: Introduction" author Louis Jordan
  13. ^ Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia
  14. ^ William James Sidis, The Tribes And The States: 100,000-Year History of North America
  15. ^ New Monthly Magazine Vol. 14 p.522

External linksEdit