M2185A | Glassbead lot

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Glassbead lot
Eastern Subartic
Aboriginal: Innu (Montagnais)
1580-1630, 16th century or 17th century
0.9 x 0.6 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Beads (37)
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Keys to History


In the early 16th century, Europeans were first attracted to the Gulf of St. Lawrence by codfish, needed to feed the large Catholic populations of Europe who were prohibited from eating meat one day a week. Breton, Norman, Portuguese and Basque fishermen brought glass beads, like these ones, to trade and to distribute as gifts to the Aboriginal people they encountered. By 1580 the emphasis of European commerce had shifted from cod to beaver, required for the developing fur-felt hat industry in France. The special felting properties of the beaver - ability to hold shape and resilience - made it particularly desirable for wide-brimmed hats, which were in style across Europe at the time.

Glass beads, which were mainly produced on the Island of Murano in Venice, Italy, were included in every ships cargo from the 16th century onwards. Although such materials were foreign to them, Aboriginal people accepted glass beads eagerly, probably because glass possesses the same light-reflective quality as the ornaments they had traditionally made of shell, copper and mica. Within Aboriginal beliefs, light, bright and white things are tangible metaphors for states of physical, social and spiritual wellbeing.

  • What

    These are glass beads made on the Island of Murano in Venice, Italy. These are among the earliest types of glass beads made for trade with Aboriginal people in what is now eastern Canada. The bead types include a frit-core bead, gooseberries, round indigo beads, striped dark blue oval varieties and chevrons.

  • Where

    These early glass beads were found in the region of Tadoussac, on the Moyenne Côte-Nord of Québec. In the 17th century, Tadoussac was a major centre of commerce between the French and Aboriginal people, primarily the Innu.

  • When

    The glass beads in this image all date from 1580 to 1600 C.E., a time period that archaeologists term "Glass Bead Period 1". The distinctive frit-core bead in this collection - the large bead made of fused silica (sand) covered by a thin veneer of indigo glass and decorated with raised white appliqued lines and dots - is one of only a few found on Quebec archaeological sites to-date.

  • Who

    These glass beads have a complex history. They were probably made by Italians in Venice, on the island of Murano. From there, they would have been shipped to a major port in Europe and purchased by Basque merchants, who carried them to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where they were given or traded to Innu.