Wampum



The Hiawatha Belt. The most well known of the wampum belts. Symbol ...

Wampum was a kind of ceremonial money used by peoples native to the east and northeast of what is now the United States. It was made by stringing cylindrical beads made from the shells of several kinds of shellfish. 

White beads were made from the shell of the Channeled whelk and purple beads from the Quahog. The beads could be strung together in many combinations, and were apparently sometimes used as ways to remember the past, not writing but still a way to record some events. The process of making the beads involved drilling and grinding the shells, a laborious process when produced without metal tools.

Wampum had great ceremonial value, and was used in ritual gift giving. It was sometimes used as a badge of office by tribal leaders. It was also sometimes used to authenticate messengers and their messages. It is not known how far back in the past wampum was used, but it is thought to date back to at least the 1500s.

Dutch and English colonists in North America used it as currency for a time.  Around 1650, the Massachusetts Bay Colony recognized wampum as real money; a string of 96 beads was worth 12 pence. Dutch colonists started to mass produce wampum, resulting in inflation and a crash as wampum became valueless.

Its ceremonial value remained, and wampum was used as a way to remember events, perhaps something like the knotted strings used by the Incas to record events.

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