Chief Black Hawk wearing Wampum Earrings and Necklace

Facts, definition and information about the History of Clothing and regalia of Native American Indians and their Wampum. Wampum are the small cylindrical beads made from quahog or whelk shells. Both shells produce white beads, but only parts of the quahog produce purple beads.

Wampum was used as Native American jewelry, for recording special events or as a form of currency by the Northeast Woodland tribes and the tribes of the Great Lakes. This type of Native Indian Jewelry was fashioned into strings and worn as necklaces, bracelets and earrings. The sacred Wampum belt was for ceremonies, rituals and spiritual purposes and is particularly associated with the Iroquois Confederacy.

Wampum Fact Sheet

  • The picture of Black Hawk, Chief of the Sauk and Fox tribe, was painted by the famous artist George Catlin (1796-1872). This famous chief is pictured with a string of wampum in his ears and on his neck
  • Wampum Fact 1: Definition: Wampum are the traditional, sacred shell beads of Woodland tribes used for currency, recording special events, trade agreements and marking exchanges for engagement, marriage, and betrothal agreements.
  • Wampum Fact 2: The name derives from the word 'wampumpeag' and is used to describe the beads, made from shells, that were polished, strung or woven together to make jewelry and belts
  • Wampum Fact 3: One of the most valued mollusks for wampum beads is the quahog clam (Mercenaria mercenaria). The quahog clam, found in the coastal waters of the northeastern United States, has a distinctive shell that yields the purple beads. The purple beads, also known as known as "Suckauhock"  were double the value of the white beads
  • Wampum Fact 4: The white beads were made from various species of whelks including the Channeled Whelk, Knobbed Whelk, Lightening Whelk and the Snow Whelk
  • Wampum Fact 5: Making the beads was a difficult and time consuming process due to the hardness and brittleness of the natural shell materials that were used
  • Wampum Fact 6: The beads were strung on leather strings to form necklaces, belts and lengths of shells called wampum
  • Wampum Fact 7: Jewelry represented wealth and status. The number of strings worn marked the wealth and social position of the wearer
  • Wampum Fact 8: Round shell discs, from 1 to 3 inches in diameter were used to make pendants called "moons" and were a highly valued item of jewelry
  • Wampum Fact 9: It was the custom to bury strings of wampum with dead warriors
  • Wampum Fact 10: The chiefs and sachems of the Woodland tribes wore prestigious wampum belts around their waists or over their shoulders during important ceremonies and negotiations
  • Fact 11: Wampum Belts had three distinct uses amongst the Woodlands tribes - as a form of currency, to record important history and as a form of communication
  • Fact 12: Dutch traders encountered wampum used by the Native Americans and adopted it as a money substitute. It was quickly adopted as a money substitute by other traders as it was easily transported and less susceptible to spoilage
  • Fact 13: In 1633 the Massachusetts Bay Colony began to manufacture wampum, the shell beads that Eastern Woodlands tribes used for currency. Wampum had previously been controlled by the Pequot and this action triggered the vicious Pequot war in 1634-1638
  • Fact 14: Currency: Wampum was used as a form of currency by Native Americans. It became America's first form of currency when it was adopted for general trade by early Dutch, French and British colonists due to the scarcity of metal coins. The Dutch named it "Seawant" or "Zewant", the French called it "Porcelaine" and Wampum was used as the British term. As conventional coins became more plentiful in the 1830's the acceptance of wampum waned.
  • Fact 15: Suckauhock (purple beads) served the purpose for which gold coin is used, and the white beads served in the place of silver coin
  • Fact 16: Communication: Belts were used as a communication device to declare war on another tribe or to make personal declarations as marriage proposals
  • Fact 17: History: The Iroquois Confederacy constitution and history was recorded with the help of a wampum memory device - referred to as the Hiawatha Wampum Belt. The belt contained symbols for each of the original five tribes in their geographic order, linked by a line running between them which symbolised peace in the Confederacy
  • Fact 18: History: The belts were used to record important historical events and marked exchanges for marriage, and betrothal agreements
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