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This shell has always generated interest: History of wampum

History wampum

Wampum beads. Photo by Paige Biviano

A brief history of wampum and how it’s been used over the years

One of the first things you notice upon meeting Mary Beth Ellis is her iridescent, teardrop-shaped earring. That’s earring, singular. “I always lose one,” says Ellis, site manager of the Aptucxet Trading Post Museum in Bourne. Ellis’ purple- and white-banded shell jewelry is the modern evolution of wampum, which served as the first monetary currency used in North America between the colonists and native peoples. Aptucxet is a replica of the first permanent trading post in the Colonies, first built in 1627. The museum tells of the beginning of trade between the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, the Dutch of New Amsterdam (New York), and the Wampanoag people—and the role wampum played in these transactions.

Wampum is the Native American term for the purple or white cylindrical beads made from the shell of the quahog, or inner cylinder shell of the conch. The purple beads are the most valued due to their rarity, as they are made only from quahogs found in New England and Long Island, New York. Wampum’s true value comes from its regional rarity, its beauty, and the hours of craftsmanship required to shape the cylinder and bore a tiny hole through the length of the tube.

At Aptucxet, Ellis and volunteer Wendy Pratt-Bagley explain that Isaac de Rasiere, secretary to the Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Minuit, established wampum as a currency in 1627, the year Aptucxet was opened. The native people had no use for European coins, but had uses for the colonists’ metal tools. Metal pots, however, were cumbersome to carry, and de Rasiere sought something small that all trade partners prized. He realized that the native people valued wampum, but it took some time to convince the tribes to use it as money—a concept foreign to their culture. In his writings, Plimoth Governor William Bradford confirmed that the Dutch introduced wampum into the Colony. The monetary value de Rasiere established was as follows: a string of 120 beads, measuring a fathom, or the arms’ stretch of a man, was worth at least two raw beaver pelts. In Wampum and the Origins of American Money (2013), Harvard Professor Mark Shell writes that “in 17th-century Massachusetts, wampum was widespread as the official legal tender; for transactions under ten pounds, it was legally mandated.” Shell adds that in 1640, wampum beads were exchanged at a rate between two to four pence per bead, equal to two to four pennies.

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