M11085 | Wampum string

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Wampum string
Anonyme - Anonymous
Eastern Woodlands
Aboriginal: Huron-Wendat
1791, 18th century
Shell beads, plant fibre
52 cm
Gift of Mrs. David Denne in memory of her husband, the late David Denne, Esq.
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Wampum string (5)
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Keys to History

Wampum beads - loose, in strands and woven into wide "belts" - hold great significance for Aboriginal peoples across the Northeast. The term "wampum" is a shortened form of wampumpeague, an Algonquian word from southern New England meaning "a string of white shell beads". The white beads were made from the central spiralled columella of the periwinkle (Littorina littorea), the knobbed whelk (Busycon carica), or the channeled whelk (Busycon canaliculatum). Purple beads were manufactured solely from the dark purple spot on the shell of the hard clam or northern quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria).

For Aboriginal people, wampum belts are highly significant as they symbolize the messages delivered at important events and meetings. In 18th-century diplomacy, wampum belts served as invitations to enter into discussions, either between Aboriginal communities or with Europeans. Wampum was also presented to confirm and record the different proposals made during treaty negotiations. The use of wampum and the language of Aboriginal oratory were initially foreign to Europeans. Nevertheless, French, English and Dutch officials quickly learned to follow Aboriginal protocol, including the exchange of wampum.

  • What

    These are white wampum beads. Wampum denotes white and purple shell beads that are highly significant to Aboriginal groups in the Eastern Woodlands, especially the Iroquois. Although also used for personal adornment, wampum beads were mainly woven into belts that record events and confirm agreements.

  • Where

    Wampum beads were originally made by a number of Aboriginal groups living close to the seashore in New England, where the necessary shells could be readily obtained. From there, wampum was traded across the Eastern Woodlands and beyond.

  • When

    For thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people ornamented their bodies and embellished garments with beads made from natural materials, especially shell. The production of wampum increased dramatically after Europeans introduced metal tools, which facilitated bead production.

  • Who

    Aboriginal people from across eastern North America used and traded wampum: among some groups, wampum was particularly significant. For example, according to Iroquois tradition, the origin of wampum is linked to the foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy.