Object: Bead Necklace

Image Credits

Museum of the City of New York, Amsterdam-New Amsterdam Exhibit

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Object Type(s)

Beads, Seneca-Iroquois, 1600-1620
On loan from the Rochester Museum

Beads were used both as a means of exchange and as decoration.


Necklaces – Among the eastern woodland people, necklaces were worn for a variety of reasons most of them relating to ornamentation, spirituality and the show of status.  Prior to Europeans, necklaces were made using natural materials , beads were made not only of shell such as whelk, quahog, mussel but also soapstone, copper, bones particularly of birds and fish but also the teeth and claws of a variety of animals. Starting in the late 1500’s and predominantly throughout the early and middle 17th century European glass beads, namely Dutch beads, become extensively used, traded for, and intertwined in the lives and culture of Algonkian/Algonquin speaking peoples of Southern New Netherlands.  The photo that is presented here, is a reproduced approximation of what Dutch trade beads, traditional Native made beads/ ornamentation and combinations of the two may have looked like in Southern New Netherlands from 1640-1664. These types will be broken down into two categories 1. Native made beads, 2. Dutch beads and 3. Other forms of ornamentation.

Native made beads- Among the Algonkian people, one of the most used beads, that was needed for almost every form of spiritual and daily life as well as general ornamentation was Wampum. Wampum (a Narragansett word for “white shell bead”) known in the Munsee and Unami dialects of the Lenape language as Sewan, which is used exclusively in Dutch documents. Wampum ( also known as Sewan, Peak, Peg, Wampumpeak) was created during the winter months in numerous coastal locations but heavily recorded in Long Island and Long Island Sound, from the center columns of the whelk shell , which would be ground down into a cylindrical shape and a hole drilled using a chipped stone drill secured onto a long spindle that was then secured into a pump drill that used a stone or wood counter weight that moved the drill bit up and down through the drilling device via a leather or natural fiber cord or a bow drill that is a bent piece of wood with a taut leather or natural fiber cord that secures the spindle with a hand hold , the motion of the device going back and forth.

The other shell to be used for Wampum/ Sewan is the quahog clam, this clam not only was and still remains a traditional and vital food source for many coastal Algonkian / Algonquin people but the shells lip contains a beautiful dark blue to purple black color, this color, so incredibly rare in nature, was highly prized. These early beads were made by taking the lips of the clams , breaking them into squares and then chipping them using a round stone on a flat anvil stone into disks the size of a penny to a quarter. These beads were then carefully ground on abrasive flat stone, taking away the chalky calcium exterior and smoothing the sides , the beads then have a hole drilled in by a stone drill bit via bow drill or pump drill. For both beads water is needed as a lubricant to make the drilling go easier and to cool the shell so it doesn’t crack or break.

By the time the Dutch arrive in 1613- 1614, some of the earliest items given in trade from the Dutch ships were iron nails and square files.  The natives would take these objects and repurpose them into drill bits for the manufacture of wampum, this in turn creates a new style of bead called the tube bead, which with stone tools is incredibly difficult to create but with metal tools can almost be mass produced, the best wampum makers were said to make between 4-30 beads in a day. These tube beads were manufactured very similarly to their predecessors with the exception of the shells being broken into thick columns that would then be drilled at either end till they met in the middle and were then heavily ground and polished. The highest quality of these beads were said to be the texture of glass with the same luster and shine.

Uses and importance – Wampum/ Sewan became entrenched in the socio/spiritual life ways for the Algonkian people being used for everything from personal adornment to being woven into extravagant belts that told of peace treaties, oral histories, and spiritual teachings as well as loose beads and strands being used for gifting, pecuniary justice and condolence. Issack De Rasieres , a Dutch merchant, trader and explorer wrote of it in his letter to Samuel Blommaert in 1626 where he says “As an employment in winter they make sewan, which is an oblong bead that they make from cockle-shells [quahog clam] which they find on the sea-shore, and they consider it as valuable as we do money here, since one can buy with it everything they have. They string it and wear it around their necks and hands; they also make bands of it, which the women wear on the forehead under the hair, and the men around the body; and they are particular about the stringing and sorting as we can be here about pearls.” (Isaack De Rasieres , Complete Works of the Mayflower Pilgrims PDF, Pg3) .

What the Dutch did not understand is that the Algonkian people had no concept of European currency and wampum was valued for its need in everyday life and spiritual matters: no peace agreement could be made without wampum, no one could have justice until wampum was given, and no one could get married or grieve for a loss without the giving of wampum. This is why these beads were so highly prized and needed in great quantities for just about everything.

Dutch Beads- When the Dutch arrive into what would become New Netherlands colony, one of the first things they bring with them to truck with the Natives were beads.  These beads were made throughout Europe but typically in the glass centers of Verano in Italy, France and of course the Netherlands. These beads ranged a variety of shapes and colors, the more famous being the opalescent “moon beads”, red and black and multicolored “gooseberry” beads and dark blue round and tubes glass beads; The New Netherland Institute records the use of stone beads before the use of glass to trade with the Indians saying “Originally traders offered the Indians round turquoise beads.  By the mid-1640s, traders like Van Curler replaced them with dark blue tubes.  These sharp-edged sections were cut from the production tubes rounded into traditional beads.  They were cheaper to buy and ship and less prone to breakage.  Ten percent of the beads recovered from the Flatts were this style.” (Heart of the Fur Trade - Arent van Curler & the Flatts (newnetherlandinstitute.org))

The Natives highly prized these beads for a variety of reasons, one in particular was their color. In a world of bone, stone, wood and shell; colors were limited to what the land could provide; with beads being brought with bright hues of red, blue, white and black was something that the natives found very beautiful and were partially attracted to due to certain spiritual beliefs. Blue beads are often found in many 17th century native sites and it was believed that they were desired due to their connection to sky and water spirit beings. Another great reason for the trade in beads was also the Algonkian belief in animism. Animism is defined by Miriam Webster as “A doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit, 2.  attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects, 3 .belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies”( Animism Definition & Meaning - Merriam-Webster)

In this belief all things are alive and conscious from the ground to the stars and that they are related to all human beings.  In this world where all things are conscious and awake, is also a world inhabited by spirit people, good spirits want to help people, make crops and women fertile and hunting and fishing good as well as bring blessings and good things to people. But bad spirits; they want to cause harm to human beings, make them sick and make the land infertile and hunting bad. In order to scare away these bad spirits wearing things that shine and make noise was believed to help and thusly beads (the things that shine) were highly prized. We also know that Dutch beads were used in the same ways as wampum beads.

In Isaack De Rasieres letter to Samuel Blommaert in 1626 he says “ They have a marriage custom amongst them, namely, when there is one who resolves to take a particular person for his wife, he collects a fathom or two of sewan [1-2 fathom is around 6-12 feet, about 200 plus beads in a fathom , making it around 400 plus beads at most] and comes to the nearest of friends of the person whom he desires, to whom he declares his object in her presence, and if they are satisfied with him, he agrees how much sewan he shall give her as a bridal present. That being done, he then gives her all the Dutch beads he has, which they call Machampe, and also all sorts of trinkets.” ( Isaack De Rasieres , Complete Works of the Mayflower Pilgrims PDF, Pg3) .

Drew Shuptar- Rayvis; Northern Cultural Ambassador of the Pocomoke Indian Nation and Algonkian Living Historian of the 17th and 18th centur