Iroquois Beadwork, Niagara Falls, and the Erie Canal

About half of Tuscarora souvenir pincushions display the words NIAGARA FALLS. They average about six inches across.

Niagara Falls is widely recognized as one of the great natural wonders of the world. People travel there to hear the roar of the falling water and feel the mist filling the air. It was first seen by Europeans in the 17th century, and others soon made their way there to enjoy this beautiful sight.

Niagara Falls became known as a honeymoon destination after Theodosia Burr, 18 year-old daughter of Aaron Burr, spent her honeymoon there in 1801 while traveling with her new husband by packhorse across New York State from Albany. In 1804, Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, traveled by stagecoach from New Orleans to honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Thousands followed and Niagara Falls became known as the “Honeymoon Capital of the World.”

In 1822, a traveler who went there by coach from New York City wrote that Niagara Falls was the “grand point of attraction for all travelers to the western parts of the State of New York.” He visited Goat Island at the Falls, and didn’t report seeing anyone selling souvenirs there.

The 363 mile Erie Canal opened in 1825. It connected Albany with Buffalo, and thus created a waterway from New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Ontario and the other Great Lakes. The Erie Canal also provided a means for thousands of visitors to travel to Niagara Falls, which is located near the western terminus of the canal.

Two years later in 1827, the first museum opened at Niagara Falls. It advertised that it contained beadwork from the Six Nations Indians (Iroquois.) By 1838, the Falls saw 20,000 visitors, and by 1850 some 80,000 people visited.

In 1859, a photographer published a photo of five Seneca (one of the six members of the Iroquois Confederacy) women with their beadwork. This is the earliest known image of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) women. These women are dressed fashionably for the 1860 period, which may indicate that they made a good income from their beadwork sales. He wrote, “Goat Island during the summer season is much frequented by vendors of souvenirs of the Falls, for few can pay a visit here without carrying away some little article of curiosity as a remembrance thereof:  hence those who keep shop ‘under the shade of the greenwood tree,’ drive a considerable and profitable trade. Amongst them the Indian women are conspicuous, as seated on the sward they curiously contrive purses, pincushions, needle-books, slippers, caps, and other numerous articles in elegant bead work, which for beauty of design and neatness of execution is unsurpassed.”

This 11-inch pincushion features an elegant beaded design of clear beads on purple velvet, a favorite Iroquois beadwork color combination. It dates to around 1860.

Now, in the 21st century, nearly 200 years later, Tuscarora (another of the six members of the Iroquois Confederacy) beadworkers still display and sell their elegant beadwork to tourists at Niagara Falls.

It is my thesis that the Erie Canal was the stimulus for creating a market place at Niagara Falls that inspired the Iroquois to develop a beadwork industry. If the convenient market had not been established, the entire tradition of souvenir beadwork might not have developed.

Today, there are more Iroquois beadworkers than ever before, The beadwork styles have evolved from the 19th century, but contemporary beadwork is still elegant “which for beauty of design and neatness of execution is unsurpassed.”

A souvenir is defined as an impulse item intended to remind owners of a specific place or occasion. And something as important as a trip to Niagara Falls on a honeymoon, or merely a visit to one of the greatest wonders of the world, needs to be remembered with a souvenir. Many have the words NIAGARA FALLS, FROM NIAGARA FALLS or PRESENT FROM NIAGARA FALLS in beads sewn on the fabric surface of picture frames, pincushions, horseshoe wall hangings, and needle cases.

This 21st Century Tuscarora heart-shaped picture frame incorporates traditional designs in twenty-eight different kinds of beads. The Tuscarora artist, Dolly Printup Winden, is pictured in her creation.

Of the tens of thousands of pieces of souvenir beadwork created for sale at Niagara Falls, many are still in existence. These beaded souvenirs can be found in antique shops and in online auction sites. Because their identifications are not well known, their provenience is often not labeled by the sellers, or is stated incorrectly. But appreciation of Iroquois beadwork is increasing, and since 1999, several major exhibits have been mounted in over a dozen museums in the US and Canada. They have been visited by tens of thousands of people, and many have become admirers and collectors of the sparkling treasures.

Prices for early Iroquois beadwork vary widely. Prices have increased over the last quarter of a century. Size and condition are important variables in the value and pricing of these early beaded pieces. They usually range from $30 to $200. Their pricing has not changed much in the last thirty years; but, with their increasing popularity, their value may increase. There are more collectors and beadworkers than ever before. Leading contemporary beadwork artists receive thousands for their pieces, and many have been acquired by leading museums throughout England and North America.


Dolores Elliott is a retired archaeologist who has researched the art and artifacts of the indigenous people of the Northeast for the last 50 years. Since the 1970s, her research has concentrated on the beadwork created by the Iroquois. As a museum consultant she has mounted over a dozen exhibits. She has written fourteen publications about Iroquois beadwork, and she organizes an annual International Iroquois Beadwork Conference. For more information check out www.otsiningo.com. She can be contacted through email at Dolores@stny.rr.com.

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