Courtesy Historic Northampton, Northampton, Massachusetts, Marge Bruchac photographer

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Wampum Strings

Wampum was far more than a useful medium of exchange for Native Americans. It signaled social and political standing and carried powerful spiritual significance. Before the Dutch in New Netherland began to use wampum in their trade and to assign it a monetary value, shell beads had long been worn as ceremonial jewelry, used in rituals of tribute by Indian leaders and offered as a form of exchange. The early acceptance of wampum as a kind of currency in New Netherland facilitated an extensive network of trade. By the 1630s it was legal tender in the New England colonies. To make wampum, beads laboriously made from sea shells were strung together in long strings and sometimes woven into patterns on belts or other ornaments. The wampum strings shown here are made of disk wampum, generally rougher in appearance and less clear in color than tubular shell wampum preferred for belts and collars.

Date: Contact Period 
Topic: Ceremonial 
Materials: Shell disks
Dimensions: String L: up to 70 in. (177.8 cm.) 
Accession #: 01.1156-58

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