The Importance of Wampum in Rhode Island

Growing up, I was told that wampum was “Indian money”. It was a less enlightened age, and in a part of the world where we never heard of quahogs. But now I know that wampum were shell beads used for trading. They weren’t money, any more than rum or nails or beaver pelts were money, but they had value because they had a specific use.

These beads made from quahog and welk shells were woven into belts using sinew or thongs using patterns that helped people remember the details of stories. Family histories, treaties, wars, agreements were recorded and commemorated.

Usually, the patterns would have some easily-recognized figures, like one of a stick figure holding a bow. This served like the title of a book, to make it easy to identify the belt the storyteller wants. Then, small details in the weave and order of the beads reminds the storyteller of the points of the story that are not easy to remember.

There was no common language of wampum. Three black beads in one wampum belt could represent the three bears a hunter brought home, or in another belt it might represent an unusually cold winter. The details in the belts are reminders to someone who already knows the story.

The term “wampum” initially referred to only the white beads, which are made of the inner spiral of the Channeled whelk shell. “Sewant” or “suckauhock” beads are the black or purple shell beads made from the quahog, sometimes called “saki”. Wampum is of special interst to Rhode Islanders because the clams and whelks used for making wampum are found only in Narragansett Bay and nearby Long Island Sound.

Typically wampum beads are tubular in shape, often a quarter of an inch long and an eighth inch wide, but one 17th century Seneca wampum belt featured beads almost
2.5 inches long. Wampum beads are traditionally made 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.

Wampum was a convenient tool for writing. A person could sit for a few hours with the contents of a single bag of beads and string and record the memories of a year into a belt.

Perhaps because of its origin as a memory aid, loose beads were not considered to be high in value; rather it is the belts themselves that were valuable. A typical
large belt of six feet in length might contain 6000 beads or more. More importantly, such a belt would be a great sanctity, because it contained so many memories.

Belts were also sometimes used as badges of office or as ceremonial devices of an indigenous culture such as the Iroquois. They were traded widely to tribes in Canada, the Great Lakes region, and the mid-Atlantic.

The belts came into broad use after the Europeans came to North America. In New York, wampum beads have been discovered that date from before 1510. Tradition, however, says that
the founding constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy, was codified in a series of wampum belts dating back to 1142.

With stone tools the process is labor intensive, and the shells were available only to coastal nations. These factors increased its scarcity and consequent value.
Dutch colonists, upon discovering the importance of wampum as a trade good between tribes, mass-produced wampum in workshops. A factory established by John Campbell of Passaic,
New Jersey manufactured wampum into the early 20th century. Soon, they were trading with the native peoples of New England and New York using wampum. Eventually the primary source of wampum was that manufactured by colonists to the point that the market for wampum was glutted and effectively destroyed.

Shinnecock, Wampanoag, and other eastern tribes still make wampum today. Wampanoag and Eastern Cherokee artist, Elizabeth James Perry of Massachusetts creates wampum jewelry and belts, including replicas of significant historical designs.

Wampum still serves some ceremonial purposes among traditional Native Americans, but is now primarily decorative, serving mostly as a reminder of an earlier age.

Allen Hazard of the Narragansett Tribe will be demonstrating the art of Wampum making at the Richmond Farmers’ Market, bringing both a look at the historical craft and also giving farmer’s market patrons a chance to own a piece of native American art. Mr. Hazard’s his hand crafted Wampum and inlaid artwork has been displayed the Pequot Museum.

You can find the Richmond Farmers’ Market at the Richmond Town Hall at the corner of Route 138 and Route 112 in Richmond, RI on Saturdays from 9am to 12:30pm

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