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  • Writer's pictureLocal History Collection

What's Up With Wampum?

If you grew up in Long Island, there’s a good chance that you learned about “Indian wampum,” the traditional Native American beads that were fashioned from the shells of North Shore quahogs and whelks.

This whelk shell was painted in 1934 by Frances Bryant Godwin, a great-granddaughter of William Cullen Bryant

In gathering research from our collection for Native American Heritage Month, we have come across several sources that describe the use of wampum before and after the arrival of European settlers. Many of these archaic resources contain outdated information and express views that are not considered acceptable in the present day. However, the facts provided regarding wampum are generally accurate.

Though ornamentally beautiful, these cylindrical beads of deep purple and white were not primarily for decoration. With distinctions made between the value of white wampum and dark-colored “sewant” (of which variant spellings and designations exist) the beads served as currency for the Native tribes of this area. Presented as patterned belts that conveyed messages in their arrangement, wampum functioned as both missive and remittance for various commodities.

Stewart Donaldson, one of the early contributors to our collection, compiled typewritten pages copied from several publications, including Daniel Melancthon Tredwell’s 1912 Personal Reminiscences of Men. According to The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts finding aid on a collection of his papers, Tredwell was “an American businessman and bibliophile from Brooklyn, N.Y., who wrote about life and history on Long Island.” On the subject of wampum, he wrote the following:

Wampum was introduced into New England in 1641 and in 1673 it had become the circulating medium everywhere east of the Mississippi The superior quality of that manufactured on the south side of Long Island and between Rockaway and Patchogue was so marked as to be noted in Winthrop’s Journal The purple was twice the value of the white wampum.
In 1641, a city ordinance of the Director-General Keift deplores the depreciation of this primitive currency “A great deal of bad seawant nasty rough things imported from other places was in circulation while the good splendid seawant was out of sight or exported which must cause the ruin of the country.”
Wampum was made on Long Island for exportation as late as 1830. There were many inferior kinds. In later times the manufacture was taken up by speculators who made it by machinery. This soon occasioned its depreciation and it passed out of general use but will ever remain a curiosity and a memorial of the aborigines.”

As Tredwell observed, the machine-manufacture of wampum by colonists diluted its value as a currency, causing the erasure of an essential component of Long Island Native American culture.

In 1964, Doris Marcus, a local Roslyn journalist who is credited with naming Christopher Morley Park, wrote a short editorial that provides more of the same and some further information about wampum production in the area:

Though much can be said about the artisanal creation of traditional wampum, the resources in our collection focus on historical information from a colonial perspective. As we continue to learn about wampum today, it must be remembered that woven into the beauty of the shell-fashioned beads is a culturally complex economic system that was accepted and adopted by colonists before being totally replaced with European coinage.

From The Bryant Library Local History Collection, Happy Native American Heritage Month!


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