Skip to main content

From Beads to Bounty: How Wampum Became America’s First Currency—And Lost Its Power

A story about the history of wampum.

When Prince Philip of the Pokanokets (later known as the Wampanoags) proudly wore his wampum—decorative beads made from whelk and clam shells—he was proudly declaring several things about himself: his station, his value (and obligation) to his people, as well as the spiritual message conveyed by the design of those shells. The Englishmen he encountered, however, could only see the commercial value of that wampum, and 20 pounds sterling meant Philip was wearing some very pricey bling.

How wampum changed from bling to money is a complicated story. The colonists back then did not have printed currency, so their trade economy was mostly based on the barter of commodities such as corn and pelts. When wampum became a prime commodity in the Northeast corner of North America in 1630, it forever altered the Native systems of reciprocity and balance in life, labor and trade.

Wampum had a short run, but a long tail. It was a coin of the realm for just 30 years but wampum was commonly used as slang for money well into the second half of 20th century, along with other colorful terms such as moolah, loot, lucre and—more relevant to this discussion—clams. Even today, wampum usually is the answer to this crossword puzzle clue: used as Indian money in the Northeast, even though Natives did not traditionally use wampum as money, in part because they did not use money at all.


RELATED: Wampanoag Historian on Surviving Almost 400 Years of Thanksgivings
RELATED: Native History: First Wampanoag-Pilgrim Treaty Signed on April Fools’

Purple Beads of Death
Wampum was white or purple beads and discs fashioned from two shells: the white beads from the whelk, a sea snail with a spiral shape, and the quahog, a clam with purple and white coloring.

Quahogs are found in the waters from Cape Cod south to New York, with a great abundance in Long Island Sound.

The clams were harvested in the summer, their meat consumed, and the shells were then worked into beads. Wampum beads were difficult to make back then. Drilling (with stones) could shatter the clam and the dust from the drilling contained silica that cut up lungs if inhaled. Water was used to limit the dust. The shells were ground and polished into small tubes with a stone drill called a puckwhegonnautick. They were placed on strings made of plant fiber or animal tendon and woven into belts, necklaces, headpieces, bracelets, earrings—a variety of adornments depending on the status of the wearer.

The color of the beads had meaning. For the Algonquians, white beads represented purity, light and brightness, and would be used as gifts to mark events that invoked those characteristics, such as the birth of a child. Purple beads represented solemn things like war, grieving and death. The combination of white and purple represented the duality of the world; light and dark, sun and moon, women and man, life and death. Wampum was given as a gift for many occasions: births, marriages, the signing of treaties, occasions for condolence and remembrance. In his book, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, David Graeber says the Iroquois believed wampum was so spiritually powerful it could bring back the spirit of dead loved ones. He includes a Jesuit account of the Huron practice of hanging wampum around a captive Native’s neck; if the captive accepted the necklace, he became the living embodiment of a deceased loved one.

Early English accounts of wampum in the coastal Native nations report that huge strings of wampum were hung from the rafters at days-long games that were similar to rugby and soccer. These games were watched and wagered on by hundreds and sometimes thousands of Natives, and the winning side received the wampum bounty. In Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber writes that “[wampum] was a representation of a value that could only be realized through its exchange.”

It took Europeans some time to realize how important wampum was to indigenous cultures. Fur pelts were the globally desired commodities in those early days. Beaver fur in particular was the prime choice for coats and hats—castor gras (greasy beaver) was especially prized. (In possibly history’s only instance of an item preworn by indigenous people being more valuable, castor gras was beaver fur that had been worn by Natives for 12 to 18 months, by which time the long hairs had been rubbed off through wear and tear so the fur was shiny and pliable.)

The white man’s indifference to wampum changed in 1622, when a Dutch West India Company trader named Jacques Elekens took a Pequot sachem hostage and threatened to behead him if he did not receive a large ransom. When more than 280 yards of wampum were handed over, the light bulb above Elekens’s head exploded. The Dutch had been using Venetian glass beads for centuries to trade with Indigenous Peoples in Africa, India and—more recently—North America. (Recall the well-known but probably fictional story of Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan Island for $24 worth of glass, multicolored beads.) Note, however that the long strings of wampum given to Elekens were not, strictly speaking, a “cash payment.” It represented the symbolic value or status of a sachem. As Graeber writes, “there’s no evidence that even the Indians living in the closest proximity to Europeans used wampum to buy and sell things to one another.” The Pequots had traded with the Dutch and knew they sometimes used glass beads and perhaps thought they would appreciate wampum.

The Dutch start trading furs acquired along the Hudson River for wampum from the coastal nations. They then used the wampum for their transactions with Native fur traders. This influx of wampum piqued the interest of the more northern Native fur-trading nations that normally conducted business with the French hunters and traders. (The French had no wampum, so they suddenly found it hard to compete with the Dutch for the furs.)


Now that they were using wampum as currency, the pragmatic and profit-minded Dutch knew it would be cheaper and easier to manufacture beads in the New World. Graeber says, “English and Dutch colonists apparently found it a relatively simple matter to force [the Narragansetts and Pequots] to mass-produce the wampum beads, stringing the them together in belts of pure white or pure purple and setting fixed rates of exchange with the Indians of the interior; so many fathoms of wampum for such and such a pelt.” The Narragansetts and Pequots and their tribute nations and tribes saw the advantage of becoming integral players in a lucrative trade market with a rare local commodity they could control. These powerful neighboring nations were the favored trade partners of the Dutch, and within a few years, wampum production became the primary occupation for both. The Pequots made an alliance through marriage with the Mohegans and their influence increased. The Dutch, meanwhile, expanded their operations up the coast into Narragansett Bay and set up a trading post in 1627 near present-day Warren, Rhode Island. This incursion prompted the Plymouth colonists to demand that the Dutch stop trading with their Native allies, and the Dutch and English soon reached an agreement to stay off each other’s trade turf.

Tribes boxed out of this trading loop—such as the Montauks and Shinnecocks—paid tribute to the larger nations with wampum. Neal Salisbury explains the consequences of that dynamic in his book, Manitou and Providence: “In order to trade, the disadvantaged bands paid tribute.… Thus, the ceremonial exchange of goods which had once reinforced equality among bands became a source of inequality.”

William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony, recorded that the Natives the English dealt with were initially hesitant to use wampum as currency, but Salisbury says, “After two years of trader persistence, wampum became an item of mass consumption, and Plymouth had effectively eliminated most of its small-scale competitors.… [Once] a symbol of prestige, wampum had become a medium of exchange and communication available to all, leading Indians through-out New England toward greater dependence on their ties with Europeans.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More

In 1630, great numbers of English Puritans landed in America, ready to acquire land and make a living. They brought fake wampum beads to present to the “squaw sachem” of the Massachuset tribe in exchange for land. Now there were two English colonies competing for economic success. Both were using wampum to trade.

As wampum production was ramped up in the south, hunting and trapping was ramped up in the north. The Abenaki were so focused on supplying large amounts of furs and pelts in order to acquire more wampum that mass depletions of fur-producing animals resulted. The beaver and marten populations were hardest hit.

A War Started by Hope
With Dutch traders and two English colonies vying for financial success, and two Native nations producing wampum, there was bound to be a violent collision. In fact, there were several.

Dutch traders decided to start a trading post along the Connecticut River at what is now Hartford, Connecticut. The post, known as The House of Hope, allowed the Dutch to beat out other European competitors trading with the northern nations along the Hudson River, and allowed the Dutch to trade with formerly disenfranchised smaller bands and tribes. The Hope was a place, the Dutch proclaimed, where “all tribes of Indians shall be permitted to come freely…to trade with us; and [where] the enemies of the one or the other nation shall not molest each other.”

This was a problem for the Pequot, who no longer controlled the river trade and were no longer the primary trading partners of the Dutch. So they start attacking other Natives trading at the Hope. The Dutch retaliated, killing the Pequot sachem Tatobem and his followers.

There was now a complicated and dangerous chess game going on between the two English settlements, the new English arrivals, the Dutch, the large Native nations and small tribes—all of them angling to gain access to the trade networks along the Connecticut River. After some bogus provocations about the murder of a British man, the Pequots skirmished with some English settlers. In a predawn attack of the Pequot’s Mystic River village, the English then slaughtered between 300 and 700 men, women and children. The English won this war decisively—in 1638, the Treaty of Hartford dissolved the Pequot nation. Stepping into the void, the Narragansetts became the primary producers of wampum.

Meanwhile, the Dutch abandoned southern New England and concentrated on trading with the Iroquois nations to the north that still had access to quality furs. Information as well as wampum flowed north and the Iroquois recognized the need for a strong unified front of Native nations to meet the threat of the white traders and their guns. They knew they needed an empire to deal with empires.

The Iroquois forged alliances and their access to the Dutch wampum increased their power. Graeber writes that “wampum…came to play a central role in their political life, even, one might argue, in the constitution of Iroquois society itself.… Wampum was the essential medium of all peacemaking. Every act of diplomacy, both within the League and outside it, had to be carried out through the giving and receiving of wampum. If a message had to be sent, it would be spoken into belts or strings of wampum, which the messenger would present to the recipient. Such belts were referred to as words; beads were woven into mnemonic patterns bearing on the import of the message. Without them, no message stood a chance of being taken seriously by its recipient.”


The Iroquois nations continued to use wampum to convey important messages during turbulent times, such as the French and Indian War—a string of white brought by messenger meant the sender spoke words of peace, a string of dark purple meant words of war. If the receivers agreed with the message, they kept the belt; if not, the belt was cut up.

Bead of the Realm
The value of wampum was volatile in English hands. Just 10 months before the Pequots were officially “dissolved” as a sovereign nation, the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s General Court declared that white wampum beads would pass at six to a penny as lawful payment. No mention is made of the purple beads, which were always worth more than the white ones.

Wampum was officially recognized as a currency by Massachusetts Bay Colony on October 18, 1650, and rates of exchange were formalized. Strings of eight, 24, 96 and 480 beads were valued, respectively, at one, three and 12 pence and five shillings. Purple beads were worth twice as much as the white ones. For the next 10 years the standard exchange rates for wampum was very stable.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Trade with the West Indies grew to be more lucrative than the fur trade and European coins were being used as currency in the islands. Many of those coins eventually found their way north and into New England purses. In 1652, the Bay Colony opened the Boston Mint and in 1661 the wampum valuation law was repealed; wampum was designated as random species (value would be arbitrary dependent on individual agreement). The “triangle trade”—slaves from Africa; sugar cane, tobacco and indigo in the West Indies; cloth and other goods from Europe—became the dominant profit dynamic. The English colonial merchants shifted from the fur trade to timber and shipbuilding. The colonies manufactured molasses and rum from imported cane sugar and ironworks. Native nations, like the Pequots and Narragansetts, which were now reliant on the wampum business, had no trade good on which to fall back. The fur market was depleted and wampum lost most of its trade value.

Mass Production, After the Fact
There is scant information on who was producing wampum for the next 150 years. There is mention of an outfit in Albany, New York but no description of who was making the wampum or of how long the group was in business.

The next blip of mass production happened in 1812. John W. Campbell, son of an Irish immigrant, started the Campbell Brothers Wampum Mill in New Jersey, around 1775. His two sons and four grandsons inherited the business. Initially the family farmed during the summer and produced wampum during the winter. They purchased shells from the fish market in New York City and used West Indian conches brought in on ships as ballast. The Campbell mill sponsored quahog-shucking contests in Rockaway on Long Island in which the contestants got to keep the meat and the Campbells kept the shells. One grandson invented a drill in 1812 that quickly and precisely drilled a hole in the wampum, then used a grindstone to fashion the shape. This made production quicker than traditional hand-drilling and the mill was operating full-time and became the largest employer in the area. The mill sold strings of 50 beads, 20 strings carried 1,000 beads; 20 strings of purple equaled $5 and 20 strings of white were $2.50. The mill specialized in crafting wampum “hair pipes” that could be strung together to form breastplates and necklaces; Comanches favored the breastplates.

Fur magnate John Jacob Astor purchased wampum from the Campbell mill to use in trade with Natives around Montreal, where his American Fur Company acquired most of its lush furs. Other clients were federal Indian Agents. Between 1835 and 1866, the Campbell mill produced a million purple beads a year. Production dropped during the Civil War. By 1890 most Native nations had been placed on reservations, and the wampum boom was over.

In an ironic evolution of contemporary globalized economics, wampum beads are now being mass-produced in China. Acrylic reproduction beads sell the most—one website on Native beading explains that real wampum beads are too expensive at $5 per bead. However, indigenous artists in the Northeast are still crafting wampum jewelry from the quahog and abalone on a small scale. It’s hard not to marvel at the incredible journey of a bead made from the shell of a stationary bivalve—from sacred object to commodity to cultural icon, crossing the continent and the world, and finally returning to its starting point.

This story was originally published on January 14, 2013.