A Curious Kind of Money: The Story of Wampum

By Gerald Tebben

Commemorative half dollars were struck in 1920 and 1921 to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

Decades—maybe centuries—before the Pilgrims landed at New Plimoth in 1620, temporary “mints” lined the shores of Long Island Sound each winter producing a curious currency that circulated as far as the great prairies of the Dakotas.

Using stone tools, the men of the Narragansett, Montauk, Niantic and Quinnepiac tribes created North America’s first “coins” by cutting quarter-inch long cylinders from periwinkle and clam shells and drilling holes through the beads to produce “wampum.”

The white and purple-black beads functioned not only as a method of exchange but also as a way of recording important events, as badges of honor and as symbols of status.

The versatile currency even conveyed emotion. White wampum, cut from the inner swirls of the periwinkle, conveyed happiness, light and brightness. The dark beads, cut from the purple parts of the quahog shell, conveyed sadness, grieving, solemnity and war.

The sad dark beads, more difficult to produce, were worth twice as much as the happy white ones.

Intricate patterns of light and dark beads, woven into belts, sashes and even breeches, served as memory devices, used by succeeding generations of native Americans to recall events and agreements.

No one knows when the first wampum was made, though historians have theorized various dates ranging from A.D. 200 to 1600. Iroquois tradition sets the date between 1400 and 1600, when the Five Nations confederation was formed.

European settlers did not realize the value and utility of wampum until 1622 when Pequot Indians gave an estimated 35,000 beads to Dutch trader Jacques Elekens as ransom for a sachem. Elekens killed the man, but returned his body to the Indians.

From then on, the Dutch used wampum to buy pelts, especially beaver, from the Indians.

Shell currency was more highly valued than the manufactured trade goods that the Dutch had used before.

Shore tribes changed their annual patterns, staying longer by the shore each year, to meet the increased demand for wampum.

This superb example graded Mint State 67 realized $5,750 at an Oct. 29, 2010, auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

In 1634, the patrons of New Netherland (now New York) described wampum as “being in a manner the currency of the country with which the produce (furs) of the country is paid” in a letter to the Staten-Generaal or parliament of the home country. In Plymouth’s first years, furs, grain and fish—country pay—were used as a means of exchange and to settle debts. The colony’s General Court set exchange rates for the various items to standardize the units of “currency.”

Wampum arrived at Plymouth in 1627 with Dutch trader Isaac De Razier, who used it to buy corn from the Pilgrims. The colonists quickly discovered that the shell beads were accepted by the Indians in payment for furs, and unlike country pay, did not spoil, mold or get eaten by vermin.

In 1637, Massachusetts’ General Court codified the value of the bivalve and gastropod money. “It was ordered that Wampampege should passe at 6 a penny for any sume under 12d,” according to the colony’s records.

Fluctuating values were recorded in 1640 as white wampum at four to the penny and “blewe” at two; in 1641, unspecified color at six to a penny up to 10 shillings; in 1648, eight white or two dark to the penny; in 1650, eight white or “fower” dark to the penny.

The decline of the beaver trade, increased wampum production, metal drills and counterfeiting all contributed to the demise of wampum a decade or so later.

In 1641, phony wampum began circulating in New England. Counterfeiters used stone, bone, glass, mussel shells and even wood to fashion fake money, and dyed less-valuable white wampum purple.

In 1649, the colony’s treasury ceased accepting wampum in payment of taxes and revoked its legal tender status altogether in 1661 because of “much Inconvenience.”

Norman Angell reports in his 1929 book, “The Story of Money“: “The decline of the beaver trade brought wampum into disrepute. When it ceased to be exchangeable in large sums for an article of international trade the basis of its value was gone.”

Roger Williams, co-founder of the colony of Rhode Island, noted, “The fall (of wampum in value) is occasioned by the fall of the Beaver in England: the Natives are very impatient, when for English commodities they pay so much more of their money and not understanding the cause of it; and many say the English cheat and deceive them, though I have laboured to make them understand the reason of it.”

Wampum continued to function as money, at least in isolated incidences, as late as 1701.

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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