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Shell beads have long had cultural significance to the Native Americans of southern New England; shell beads in the Northeast have been found which are 4500 years old. These shell beads were larger and relatively uncommon because drilling the material was difficult with stone drill bits. This earlier bead, proto-wampum, was traded within ceremonial contexts, in part for the connections of shell with water and its life giving properties.

Shell beads come in many traditional shapes and sizes, including small discs or hishi beads. Before contact with Europeans, shell beads were either disk shaped, or barrel shaped, usually made from the whelk's spiraling inner columnela. Other shapes of shell beads include tubes, and other forms resembling a ball, cone, diamond, square, or hourglass.

Central Fragments of the Columellas of Channel Whelk Wampum from Middle and Late Woodland periods (beginning around AD 200) had a robust shape, about 8mm in length and 5mm in diameter, with larger stone­bored holes of more than 2mm. Wampum beads of the mid-1600's average 5mm length and 4mm diameter with tiny holes were bored with European metal awls average 1mm. Seneca's in New York after European contact during the late 1600's had increasing numbers of shell beads which measured approximately 7mm length and 5mm diameter, having metal­drilled holes with a diameter of just under 2mm.

The word "Wampum" comes from the Narragansett word for 'white shell beads'. Wampum beads are made in two colors: white ("Wòmpi") beads ("Wompam") from the Whelk shell ("Meteaûhock"), and purple-black ("Súki") beads ("Suckáuhock") from the growth rings of the Quahog shell ("Suckauanaûsuck").

Quahog Shells Channel Whelk Shells & Egg Case The quahog shell used to produce purple wampum and other shell pendants is exclusively the species with the Latin name 'Mercinaria mercinaria'

There are several types of Whelk used to make the white beads and pendants with the Latin name 'Busycon'. In southern New England beads are often manufactured from two local species: Busycon canaliculatum (Channeled Whelk) and Busycon carica (Knobbed Whelk), which both inhabit the waters from Cape Cod southwards to Florida. Early historic Iroquois wampum also originates from the species Busycon sinistrum (Lightening Whelk) along the coast from New Jersy through Florida around through the Gulf, and also from the species Busycon Laeostomum (Snow Whelk) who's habitat ranges from New Jersy down to Virginia (Pendergast 1983: 97-112).

Some early historic documents contain innacurate references to the shells being of periwinkle or muscle shell, sometimes mistaking the beads themselves for porcelain or bone. The periwinkle shell was not even introduced to the New England coastline until the late 1800's (Krepcio 2001: personal communication).

European traders and politicians, using beads and trinkets, often exploited gift exchange to gain Native American favor or territory. With the scarcity of metal coins in New England, Wampum quickly evolved into a formal currency after European/Native contact, it's production greatly facilitated by slender European metal drill bits. Wampum was mass produced in coastal southern New England. The Narragansetts and Pequots monopolized the manufacture and exchange of wampum in this area.

Making Dutch Wampum
Tools for making "Dutch" wampum (Orhard 1975: 84).
Click for closer view.

The intense hardness and brittleness of the materials made it impossible to wear, grind, and bore the shell by machinery alone. First the thin portions were removed with a light sharp hammer, and the remainder was clamped in a scissure sawed in a slender stick, and was then ground into an octagonal figure, an inch in length and half and inch in diameter. This piece being ready for boring was inserted into another piece of wood, sawed like the first stick, which was firmly fastened to a bench, a weight being so adjusted that it caused the scissure to grip the shell and to hold it securely.

The drill was made from an untempered handsaw, ground into proper shape and tempered in the flame of a candle. Braced against a steel plate on the operator's chest and nicely adjusted to the center of the shell, the drill was rotated by means of the common hand-bow. To clean the aperture, the drill was dexterously withdrawn while in motion, and was cleared by the thumb and finger of the particles of shell. From a vessel hanging over the closely clamped shell drops of water fell on the drill to cool it, for particular care was exercised lest the shell break from the heat caused by friction (Jennings 1976: 93-94).

A fathom (six feet of strung beads) of white wampum was worth ten shillings and double that for purple beads. A coat and Buskins "set thick with these Beads in pleasant wild works and a broad Belt of the same (Josselyn 1988: 101)" belonging to King Philip (Wampanoag) was valued at Twenty pounds. Even in the 1600s there was noted distinctiveness of Native-made wampum and the inability of others to counterfeit it, although attempts at imitations included beads of stone and other materials.

King Philip

King Philip, Wampanoag [from a lithograph by T. Sinclair appeared in Events in Indian History, 1842].

"Strung money was known as wampumpeage, or merely peage. Customarily arranged in lengths of one fathom (6 feet), which contained anywhere from 240 to 360 individual beads, depending not only on the size of the beads but on their current worth, for "fathom" soon came to denote a specific monetary value. Individual strands were then worked into bands from one to five inches wide, to be worn on the wrist, waist, or over the shoulder, ... Occasionally the Indians fashioned great belts containing over ten thousand beads" (Vaughan 1979: 120 ­ 124).

With the increased manufacture after European contact, these beads were carried inland along indigenous trade routes as far as the Great Plains and as far south as Virginia. By the 1700's the Dutch Europeans began to fabricate vast quantities in factories such as the Campbell wampum factory New York.

"The use of wampum as money, even among the English, continued until the American Revolution. Important matters such as treaty agreements were likely to be marked by an exchange of Wampum belts, with designs in two colors, which thereafter served as visual reminders of the event itself, and to call to memory the arrangements agreed on" (Russel 1980: 185).

Bow Loom used in New England
to weave wampum belts.

Wampum belts consist of rows of beads woven together. Belts were made using the techniques of both hand-held and loom-woven beadwork, often on a simple loom made from a curved stick resembling an archer's bow. Weaving traditionally involves stringing the beads onto twisted plant fibers, and securing them to animal sinew or leather thong warp.

Weave a Virtual Wampum Belt
Try your hand at weaving a Virtual Wampum Belt

Inner fibers stripped from milkweed, dogbane (a close relative of milkweed), toad flax, velvet leaf, and nettle plants were twisted into fine threads. By the 1700's a multitude of Native American weaving techniques had developed for wampum belts, bracelets, necklaces and collars. By the 1700's in New England, tubular glass beads and small round pony beads were being woven into belts and bands.
Penobscot Collars and Belt

Penobscot Wampum Collars & Belt (Speck 1976)

Long, wide belts of wampum were not produced by Native Americans until after European contact. However, the methods and techniques used in making large wampum belts probably developed from the ancient Native American traditions of finger-weaving. Some of the earliest post-European contact wampum belts were worn as collars around the neck. These early wampum collars are made without the use of a loom, much like prehistoric finger-weaving, with one end of the belt anchored and the other end left free to weave the warp and weft elements on a bias (diagonal). The very first woven wampum most likely incorporated single beads strung onto twine while finger-weaving sashes, garters, burden-straps or other bands. The belt weaving technique known as 'double-strand square weave appears earlier (late 1500's and early 1600's) than the 'single-strand square weave' technique.

Although a loom is helpful, but not necessary, the double-strand square weave technique does not require the use of metal needles, as the beads can be strung one at a time onto the two wefts and then the wefts passed under and over the next warp string. The single-strand square weave, used by most bead-workers today, probably developed in the late 1600's and early 1700's with the florescence of the Native wampum industry.

Reproduction of the "Belt Carried by the Penobscot Delegate to Caughnawauga"
"The white ground color symbolizes its peaceful mission, the blue rectangle in the center represnets the four Wabanaki tribes grouped about their council fire, while the four small crosses ranged at the sides again denote the four tribes. Another soomewhat variant interpretation may be given in which the central rectangle represents the council fire of the confederacy at Caughnawaga, to which the four tribes indicated by the crosses owe their allegiance." (Leavitt & Francis 1990: 17).

Reproduction of the "Belt Representing the Union of the Four Eastern Tribes"
"…with a dark background denoting former or potential hostility among the tribes, lightened on the margins with white borders denoting the bonds of friendship that now surround them. The alternating panels of blue and white at the ends are evidently a convention imitated from the Iroquois. The four white triangles are tribal "wigwams," the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Malecite, and Micmac. In the center is the pipe which is the symbol of peace by which the allies re joined" (Leavitt & Francis 1990: 17-18).

reproduction bias-weave wampum collar

Reproduction Bias-weave wampum collar by Prindle 2003

Aside from beauty, wearing or presenting jewelry had many social, economic, political and religious implications for the Native Americans of the 1600's in southern New England. White wampum is the emblem of health, peace or purity. Purple and black wampum are color variants of the same bead, and were used for serious or civic affairs, sometimes indicating dis-ease , distress or hostility, at least in referring to the background colors in belt patterns. The meanings in the designs can become very complicated, for example a belt may have white designs on a purple background but be surrounded by a white border, indicating a relationship that was once hostile is now peaceful. A wampum belt painted red (with red ochre or vermilion) was sent as a summons for war.

Delaware family, 1653 wearing belts, bands, strings, & medallions (Trigger 1978:218).

Personal headbands and bracelets might combine shell with glass or metal beads. Many Native American headbands and bracelets in the 1600's in southern New England incorporated squares, triangles, diagonal lines, crosses, people, animals and other geometric shapes. Belt designs might show kinship or connection with a particular group. Belts and beads validated treaties and were used to remember oral tradition. Ceremonies of dance, curing, personal sacrifice incorporate religious and ritual aspects of beads. Jewelry was also used to display many physical or social "rites of passage", and shows that a person has gone through a certain transformation in their life, like maturity or marriage. Wampum could be presented by the family of a prospective husband to the family of a potential wife, and if accepted, granted approval for the marriage.

"The young man, when he had settled his mind upon marrying some special girl, would appoint an uncle, or some elderly man to be his go-between. Extra dignity was lent to the occasion by having two old men for negotiators. He would then procure some wampum, if he were rich enough a collar or necklace, if not, just a string. Next he would compose a message, the main points of which would be represented by the arrangement of white and purple beads. This message, accompanied by the mnemonic wampum, would be forthwith entrusted to the go-between's care, and he would go to the home of the girl's parents carrying the wampum in a rolled-up red handkerchief or other gaudy cloth. Here his message would be delivered, and the wampum left , to be debated upon by the girl's family. The negotiator would depart for a while to allow time for deliberation. Before long he would return for an answer. Now should the girl's family have decided negatively, the wampum would be returned to the old man, who would deliver it to the sender. And the matter was dropped. But should the suitor be favorably regarded, the wampum would be retained and upon the negotiator's next visit he would be answered in the affirmative or asked to defer a little longer. The retention of the wampum was considered a sign of consent. It often happened that the husband, after the wedding, would buy back the wampum" (Speck 1976: 254-255).

Some pictures adapted from published sources on wampum

Single-Strand Square Weave Technique

Double-Strand Square Weave Technique

Other Internet Links for Wampum and Woven Beadwork

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Reproduction wampum beads are available from Waaban Aki Crafting

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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.