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This shell has always generated interest: History of wampum

This Shell has Always Generated Interest: History of Wampum, September/October 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

At the Aptucxet Trading Post Museum in Bourne, visitors can learn about the history of wampum and its role as currency in the 17th century. Photo by Paige Biviano

Just about 15 miles to the southeast of Aptucxet, the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum presents the story of wampum from the perspective of the native people. The Wampanoag history and wampum beads have a spiritual and ancestral connection that is rooted in the Native Americans’ belief that the various colors of the beads held different meanings. Tribes throughout the Eastern regions wove bead strands into “story belts” that recorded tribal history. Belts were also used to send messages to other tribes and to record and seal important events such as treaties; they were also given as gifts or rewards. As personal adornment, wampum conveyed an individual’s role and status, and the pattern contained a spiritual message. As mentioned, the native people had no use for money; however, they did eventually use wampum as currency in trading with the Europeans.

As more Europeans arrived and settlements expanded, coupled with the complete absence of commerce institutions to distribute Western currency, the demand for wampum increased and threatened to exceed the supply of native beads. Professor Shell writes that the population of native people had been seriously reduced by disease and genocide, and this limited the number of craftsmen making wampum. To meet the demand, the Dutch and English established wampum “factories” using shell-drilling machines to mass-manufacture wampum beads. “The Indians easily told the difference,” Shell writes, “but they usually took the counterfeit shells near par.” Soon there was so much manufactured wampum in circulation that there became little distinction in value. According to Shell, wampum was the primary legal tender in the colonies until approximately 1700, when colonial banks started to issue paper script.

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