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If you vacation in Cape Cod, you’ll see inexpensive jewelry with white and purple mother-of-pearl set in silver. It is made from the shell of the quahog clam which has white and purple colors lining the inside of the shell. It’s called wampum jewelry. Wampum sound familiar? It’s that redskin to paleface word for money in old movies.
Wampum, Indian ceremonial beads later used as money was originally woven into belts presented to commemorate important occasions and rites of passage such as engagement and marriage.
The Hiawatha belt of 6574 beads commemorates the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, the union of 5 (later 6) tribes in New York and Canada sometime between 1450 and 1600. A wampum belt commemorates a treaty between a Catholic convert chief of the Mi’kmaq and the Vatican in 1610.
Wampum was made from two types of shell. White beads were made from whelk shells and purple from the shell of the quahog clam. The beads were cylinders about 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch in diameter. Wampum was strung and sold by the hand length and the fathom, 6 feet, approximately 360 beads. The purple quahog beads were worth twice the white beads.
With European contact came metal tools that helped the Indians make more and better wampum beads. In 1622, a Dutch trader named Jacques Elekens seized a Pequot Indian chief named Tatobem in retaliation for Pequot raids and threatened to kill him unless he received a “heavy ransom.” 140 fathoms of wampum, 50,000 beads, were given by the Pequots but Tatobem was killed anyway and his body given back to the tribe. A horrified Dutch West India Company recalled Elekens.
But this incident caused the Dutch to realize the value of wampum to the Indians. They obtained wampum from the coastal tribes who produced it in exchange for trade goods: blankets. cloth, tools, guns and gunpowder. They then used the wampum to buy beaver pelts from inland tribes which were much valued in Europe for hats. The British followed suit and wampum became New World currency. In 1637, wampum became legal tender in Massachusetts.
There were problems with quality early. In 1641, only 17 years after its founding, the New Netherland colony, Dutch settlements from New Amsterdam (Manhattan), up the Hudson to Fort Orange (Albany), found it necessary to pass an ordinance devaluing poorly made wampum. There were counterfeiting problems, too. White wampum would be dyed with huckleberry juice to pass it off as the higher priced purple wampum. This was easily detected by spitting on it to see if the color would rub off.
During the 1650’s wampum drastically declined in value relative to beaver due to oversupply in New Netherland, dropping 25% by 1657.
By the 1660’s wampum was demonetized in favor of coin in the British colonies but still used in the Dutch colonies which were dependent on the beaver trade and this was the only payment the Indians would accept. Wampum was used in the fur trade into the 19th century.
Conrad Weiser, Indian Interpreter and negotiator for the Pennsylvania Colony (see Passing the Buck on p. 100), mentions wampum many times in his journal of 1748:
Hired a Canoe; paid 1,000 Black Wampum [purple] for the loan of it...
...I desired of them to send a Couple of Canoes to fetch down the Goods from Chartier's old Town...I gave them a String of Wampum to enforce my Request
In 1789 the Campbell family set up a factory to manufacture wampum in what is now Park Ridge, N.J. By 1830, wampum had declined as currency for the fur trade. The Campbells made hair pipes, long shell tapered beads made into breastplates and other ornaments for the plains Indians into the 1890’s.
Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) the Swedish scientist who invented the system of classifying plants and animals was aware of wampum being used as money. In 1758, he named the quahog clam mercenaria mercenaria, Latin for wages.
A quahog clam dredged up off Iceland recently claims the record as the oldest animal with 405 annual growth rings.
Copyright © Joseph Mirsky 2015