What is Wampum?

We know wampum shells are pretty, but where do they come from? Wampum are simply shell beads that are traditional to Native American Eastern Woodland tribes. The shells used to make wampum are traditionally very specific. White beads are created from the shells of the North Atlantic channeled whelk, a type of sea snail. Meanwhile, purple beads are fashioned from the shell of the Western North Atlantic hard-shelled clam, better known as the quahog.

In the languages of Rhode Island's Narragansett people and Massachusetts' Wampanoag people, "wampum" simply means "white shell beads." As you might have guessed, "wampum" used to refer exclusively to the white beads. The terms "sewant" and "suckauhock" described the darker-colored beads until the term "wampum" was adopted to describe both. Also used were the common terms "wampi" for white beads and "saki" for darker-colored beads.

The first known origin of wampum is when the Haudenosaunee first began practicing the Condolence Ceremony, a ritual in which the Haudenosaunee still partake today in which wampum were used as consolation for the loss of family. However, wampum dating as far back as 200 CE have been found. Since their inception, wampum have been used significantly to make woven belts. These belts were not traditionally worn, and were used more for communication than they were for adornment; the arrangement of different colored shells on the belt was used to create symbolic designs and convey information.

Other uses of wampum among Native people is the subject of debate. However, it is known that after arriving in the Americas, Europeans recognized the value of wampum to America's indigenous people and began to use them for trade both amongst themselves and with Native Americans. The Narragansett and Pequot tribes capitalized on this system, making wampum and trading them for goods with European colonists.

European settlers picked up on this trend of wampum bartering by the 18th century. In 1710, wampum even became legal tender in North Carolina for a brief period of time. At around the same time, Dutch settlers began to establish factories for the purpose of manufacturing wampum. This high level of production caused inflation that ultimately ousted the system of wampum as currency. The last wampum factory to stay open, the Campbell Wampum factory in New Jersey, closed its doors in 1880.

Wampum have undergone a variety of changes throughout their history. Early wampum were relatively large, measuring about eight millimeters in length and five millimeters in diameter and featuring large holes fashioned crudely with stones. Later wampum from the 17th century were slightly smaller, measuring between five and seven millimeters in length and four and five millimeters in diameter, depending on their place of origin. The holes created in these later wampum varied in size, but were consistently fashioned using European tools.

Today, wampum are a cultural artifact with a rich history, and some genuine wampum as well as wampum replicas can be found in museums. Wampum are also gaining popularity in accessories such as beautiful wampum-inspired shell jewelry.

About Author: DejaVu Designs' collection of sea glass jewelry and accessories feature sea glass collected from Boston's scenic Harbor Islands and the rocky shores of Maine's Casco Bay. The pieces are understated and elegant, yet call to mind the whimsicality of a summer's day on the beach.