More than just the Native cash cow

Wampum is made from Quahog Clam Shell, which lives in the coastal waters of Northeastern USA. Quahogs were used by the Native American Indians prior to the arrival of the colonizing Europeans for ornamentation, for use in marriage and in other ceremonies, and as a memory aid. Upon the arrival of the Dutch, English, and French, Wampum was made into tubular beads and served as one of the main sources of currency between the Native American and the newly arrived European traders and settlers. The beaus were made into purple and white ones. The purple beads (suckauhock) were worth twice as much as the white beads (wompampeage) in the most popular use of them: the trading of beads for beaver pelts in New York State, Western, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

The name, “quahog” is a variation of “poquauhock,” (po-qua-hock) the Native American name for clam. In 1758, Linneaus gave the quahog is the scientific name, which includes the word merceanaria, because he knew that beads of quahog shell were used for currency in the 17th century New England — and that “mercenary,” the latin word for money, seemed appropriate.

Quahogs that escape natural predators (and the chowder pot) can live 60 or more. At one time, you could pay your tuition at Harvard College with quahog shell beads, known as wampum. Times have changed, and Harvard now accepts personal checks and credit cards — but not wampum (even for courses in history or marine biology).

More About Wampum…

Wampum is typically a long, cylindrical bead, not a disk bead, and much of its value comes from the work that goes in to drilling the bead lengthwise, which is a lot harder than drilling a disk the short way, from top to bottom. Although undrilled pieces of shell are often sold as wampum, especially on eBay, they’re really pieces of shell, not wampum.

Only Northern Quahog, whose original habitat was primarily between New Jersey and Maine, was purple in its shell. And purple is what makes the most=desirable wampum. The purple is due partly to genetics, and partly to habitat. Today, the Northern Quahog has been introduced to other places in the US (and the world).

For the record, white wampum was also made from the central columns of whelk shells, which are also found in New England. Whelk (a snail) is softer and easier to drill, but it is never purple. Also, whelk columns are already cylinder-shaped (almost). The whelk might be the secret to how Rhode Island’s Narragansetts and other tribes produced as much wampum as they did. Much of the white wampum could have been whelk. However, the purple has to be from quahog.

Wampum’s Native Heritage

The Narragansetts, according to Roger Williams, were virtual minters of wampum. Not only did their tribal lands include a vast habitat for the quahog, they were an industrious people who harvested the shell in the summer and made wampum in the winter. Their long-distance runners traveled hundreds of miles to get the best prices for their beads. They worked hard to make quality beads and bargained shrewdly to get the best price in a trade. Nativ Americans wore single strands of wampum as ornament. They also worse belts on which purple and white beads were woven into proctorial messages (sophisticated icons). Because purple shell was harder to find, and harder to work, purple wampum was worth twice as much as white.

It’s easy to regard wampum as simply a form of money. However, this perspective is too narrow, because wampum had a much greater significance in Native American culture. Wampum involved social and spiritual values as well. This is another dimension to wampum that you can tune into, even today.

Native Americans made and used wampum before contact with Europeans. Apparently, it was the steel needle, which they obtained in trade, that let them drill the small, straight holes typical of wampum produced in the 17th century and later.

Compiled by Sea Wolf