Wampum, which were small beads made from white and purple seashells found on the beaches of Long Island, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Associated with spiritual power, wampum served several key functions in indigenous communities throughout eastern North America long before European contact.
Wampum was widely used to pay ransom, tribute, and reparation among the indigenous peoples of the area.
For the Iroquoian-speaking Five Nations of upstate New York, who lived far away from coastal New England, wampum also became an essential symbolic good that was used in many rituals. Additionally, wampum woven on belts and strings served as mnemonic devices in diplomatic meetings.1
Prior to 1637, the native peoples of eastern Long Island had little contact with the English colonists. For the most part, contact with the outside world was mediated through the Pequot tribe of Connecticut.
The indigenous people who lived among the shores of the Long Island Sound and the shores of Long Island manufactured wampum.
During this time, their use was controlled largely by local sachems and symbolized power and status of the wearer. They symbolized ceremony and ritual exchange.
During the 1620s, wampum became used as a good and currency during the fur trade between native and colonial communities.
John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts Colony, considers Long Island the best place for obtaining wampum for trade.3
The strong association of wampum and European trade goods in archaeological sites suggests some important economic function during the early historic period. This function was made explicit in the 1660 letter from Governor Stuyvesant to the directors of the Dutch West India Company.
“Wampum,” he explained, “is the source and the mother of the beaver trade, and for goods only, without wampum, we cannot obtain beavers from the savages.“4
Thus, aside from the well-known decorative and social uses of wampum by Indians, wampum served as an important if not critical exchange commodity for Europeans engaged in the fur trade.5
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