By Alex Scott

purple shells on beach near chesapeake bay

The channeled whelk and the hard clam, also known as the quahog, are rightfully adored by beachcombers for their beautiful white and purple shells, respectively. Found only on the east coast of North America, their relative rarity also makes them an attractive find. But for the indigenous peoples of the Northeast, the shells of these mollusks hold immensely more value. For over 500 years, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which French colonists named the Iroquois Confederacy, and other Native nations have used these shells to create beads called wampum that serve as a critical part of their culture. The history of wampum and its role in American society makes it one of the most interesting shells in the world.

wampum shell belt strap collection

Native artisans used drills bits, grinding stones, and water to create wampum beads and fibers and sinew as string to connect them. A keystone moment in history was the Mohawk leader Hiawatha and the Haudenosaunee leader known as the Great Peacemaker being the first to use wampum beads to create wampum belts in the 1500s to bring together the five tribes of the Confederacy. Archaeological studies have since confirmed that wampum beads were used before the Confederacy, but “Hiawatha belts,” as these specific wampum belts are called, are still held in immensely high regard as an important piece of history.

The wampum belt is only one of many ways in which the Native people of the northeast used wampum. Beads were given as gifts during births, marriages, and other important occasions, as rewards during sporting events, and as markers that could be worn as credentials. For the Haudenosaunee, every Chief of the Confederacy and Clan Mother had a string of wampum beads that was passed down with the title and responsibilities of leadership. And people also continued to create and wear wampum belts that told the history, traditions, and laws of the nations through their patterns. The Two Row Wampum Treaty, signed by the Haudenosaunee and Dutch colonists in 1613, was signified by the exchange of wampum belts.

wampum shells and jewelry

A common misconception is that Native people used wampum as currency. The first use of the beads as money was by Dutch colonists in the early 1600s, and then later by French and English colonists. Realizing that the beads held great value to the Native people, the colonists began paying for fur, food, and other commodities with the wampum. For the next two hundred years, wampum was a popular currency in New England, even becoming legal tender for some years in certain regions. However, this economic system was ruined when the colonists began to breed whelks and quahogs themselves in order to manufacture wampum, leading to its oversaturation in the market and losing all monetary value. By the Civil War (1860s), production of wampum and its use as currency had virtually disappeared.

Although the Europeans constantly threatened the importance of wampum to the Native people, it has regained its significance as a cultural item thanks to the efforts of Indian nations, who have fought for wampum belts and other wampum items to be returned from museums or private collectors to the nations to which they rightfully belong. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy still uses wampum in many of their ceremonies, and artisans continue to create wampum strings, belts, and jewelry. In short, the shells of the channeled whelk and the quahog are special not only because of their beautiful colors and texture, but also their rich history and vast cultural importance.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2020 issue.

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