The story of American money began when the early settlers in New England carried on their fur trade with the Indians through the use of wampum......R. S. Yeoman

Ah, R., how can I put this? You’re full of it?

As, someone who not only reads about the history which surrounds the coins we collect, but as someone who also tries to recreate those items, historical inaccuracies really trouble me. Everyone knows that the defenders of the Alamo fought to the last man, that Lexington and Concord started the Revolutionary War, that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Well, everyone is wrong. Historians know that seven men survived the Alamo battle and were later executed, the first shots of the Revolution were fired in the Conococheague Valley of Pennsylvania almost ten years before Lexington, and the Declaration took years to get signed. Popular accounts start many misconceptions, and unfortunately facts spread poorly. Many learned gentlemen struggle for many years to correct our understanding, only to fail. It is too easy for an author simply to repeat what "everyone knows" rather that to convince the general public of the truth. Such is the case with wampum. Scholars know it isn’t money; never was. But nowhere in print have I been able to find the truth. So I beg your pardon while I try to set the record straight.

The first problem is the word "wampum" itself. Most people use it to indicate a bead, group of beads, woven group of beads, and everything in between. This is referred to in scientific parlance as "starting off on the wrong foot." Wampum, among those tribes that even use the word, refers to the finished product, made of any substance suitable. Wampum is really a form of communication or record keeping more closely attune to Egyptian hieroglyphics than any monetary system. Wampum usually appeared in the form of "Belts" which could range in size from one by one and a half inches for a simple safe conduct pass to many feet and several pounds for great belts such as that of the Iroquois Confederation. At times, simple strands arranged in specific patterns would serve much like our modern greeting cards. A strand following the pattern of four gray, one black, with a blue every third set was the Mohigan way of saying "in deepest sympathy." Substitute a red for the blue and you expressed grief for someone’s loss of a loved one in battle. So, where do we get the wampum = money theory? Most of the fault can be placed at language differences and cultural differences.

Indian languages are very complex compared to English and other European languages. We tended to have many things with a name or two each. Indians had several names for everything telling not only what it is but what it is doing and what its place is in the world. A bow (as in bow and arrow) would have one name if it was for hunting, another if for war, another if strung or unstrung, another if a honored trophy. If we use the word "man", we know what we mean. An Indian would have a separate word for one of our men, one of those men, a running man, an important man, a strange man, and any other form of a man he could imagine. The early pioneers who went among the Indians were not linguists, but were businessmen of sorts. They were only interested in the rudiments of language necessary for conducting trade and staying alive in the process. Once they had one term they tended to generalize it. Unless it got them killed. One word that did the latter was the word "squaw." We all know that a squaw is an Indian woman. Well, it isn’t. It is an Algonquin word only used in rude context to refer to the vagina. It was applied in an insulting manner to refer to female slaves taken from other tribes. These slaves were the only women these Indians allowed White Men to be around in any context. But when an early trader pointed to a warrior’s wife and used the term "squaw", the ignorant fool was promptly killed, leading to some fierce fighting in New York in the early 1700’s. It became known as the Squaw’s War. So, you may ask, why didn’t the Lakota and other tribes scalp us silly as we ran all over the continent pointing and saying "squaw?" Easy, wasn’t their word. The Lakota (we say Sioux because that’s an insulting name that their enemies told us to call them (isn’t language fun?). for one, thought that squaw was a European word as the only people they heard use it were Whites.

When it comes to cultural differences, it is hard to imagine two groups as different as the American Indian and the standard European. Their ways of looking at things shared little common ground. Whites value the things which benefit an individual, Indians that which benefits the group. Food, humor, land, animals, and all were, to the Indian, provided to the whole race to be cared for and shared. Unlike European wars, a few Indian wars were caused by greed; most times hostilities were brought by a perceived lack of manners. Someone hunting in your traditional range was allowed as long as it was done with the appropriate decorum. It was when others intruded on your territory rudely that you were forced to paint for battle. Killing an enemy was not all that important, insulting him in a brave manner was more important. Equal with the hurling of spears was the throwing of jibes and shooting of moons. "Mooning", especially in the English tribes, was a long a long standing military tradition.

One good example of the culture clash which existed between Indians and Whites is the "big purchase" of Simon Kenton (a.k.a. Simon Butler) and Tecumseh of the Shawnee. Kenton was a great enemy of the Shawnee and had been responsible for many deaths and myriad problems among them. But, great enemies being as hard to find as great friends, when Kenton came among Tecumseh’s camp in 1802, they didn’t kill him, but sat down to talk with him. Kenton proposed to purchase a tract of land from Tecumseh which amounted to our present state of Indiana. Tecumseh was aware of several points. One was that the United States Government didn’t allow such purchases at that time.

Second was that the Shawnee didn’t allow such purchases at that time. Third, neither Tecumseh not the Shawnee had any claim to that land themselves. But to welcome someone into your camp and then tell them their plan was nuts would be very rude. Tecumseh stalled the parlay hoping Kenton would drop the scheme. When he didn’t, Tecumseh agreed to the sale. For about $100,000 which was a great fortune at the time. This act by Tecumseh had Indians as far away as North Carolina giggling hysterically. To sell something which you didn’t own and to someone who was not allowed to buy it, was considered by the Indians to be a really big hoot. By and by, even Kenton came to "get the joke." At a later time, Tecumseh and Kenton happened to meet at a treaty conference both were attending. Tecumseh asked the crowd if they knew of anyone who would be interested in purchasing Indiana. Kenton, with a laugh, offered that if there was anybody so interested, they needed to speak with him as he already "owned" that tract.

Wampum made before the arrival of the White Man was made of different things depending on the tribe’s customs and the materials that they found at hand. Coastal tribes used various shells found along the beach. River centered tribes liked to use fresh water shells. Woodland tribes seem to have preferred porcupine quills. Many tribes used polished animal bones and rocks. What the material was only important insofar as that when arranged it spoke well of the tribe in whatever sentiment they were trying to convey. A tribe that offered a treaty belt poorly constructed of shoddy materials would not have its message warmly received or seriously considered. Sometimes that was the plan. In the 1890’s, when western tribes presented wampum of bone and bits of shell to the Whites, they meant it as an insult. As if to say, "Why waste good paper on a contract that’s going to end up in court anyway?" We were just too ignorant of their language to know we were being laughed t. This is why so many of the belts from the 1700’s survive and so few of the belts of the 1800’s do.

When the Europeans came to this continent, they bought with them a supply of glass beads, which they had found of good use in their earlier trade wit the natives of Africa. However, unlike he Africans, the Indians didn’t see the beads as an item of personal adornment so much as a wonderful material from which to construct belts, he Whites found the desire for these beads among Indians to be fairly universal. This universal acceptance helped lead tot e wampum = money confusion, as the whites felt a need to find some form of "common currency" in their dealings with the Indians.

The desire for steel and metal implements, woven cloth, and firearms was also universal. So why didn’t we claim one of these to be "money" among the Indians? It is my contention that this was because cloth didn’t fit our idea of money, while beads did. It isn’t a far step from using bits of metal as a form of exchange and accounting to accepting bits of glass for filling the same purpose. That the Indians were not using them in this manner was of little account. We were the ones writing the books. We could put things in whatever terms made sense to us, And, as we were far superior to he Indians, wouldn’t they want to adopt our ways? That the Indians had no intention of going along with our plans was of no accord. To us, because of our superiority; to the Indian because of a long standing custom of never arguing with crazy people.

That was the one common denominator of most of our dealings with Indians. Every tribe Whites came in contact with thought we were insane as our actions didn’t make any sense. To trade copper pots, which no-one had ever seen, for furs which even the lowliest person had, was not the mark of a sane people. Later, as he came to see just how deep-seated our insanity was, we came no only to be insane, but evil. So why should they bother to correct us when we wee wrong; it would be pointless. It made more sense for them to let us alone in our misconceptions than to argue the point with us.

And they still feel this way. When I first broached the subject of this presentation with a Cherokee friend, he first went along with the standard money = wampum line. Only after several hours of conversation did he begin to give me sources that would help me find the truth. Even with a White he knew, he wouldn’t invest any time until he was sure that I had, in his words, "a sane purpose."

So, could it be that while wampum belts were not money, that the beads used to make up the belts were used as money? Nice try, but, in a word, no. The problem is the transaction for the beads and what was done with them afterwards. While almost any Indian would trade for beads, almost never were beads then traded by the Indians for other things. The few times when a bead was given up in gambling or through the tradition of "potlatch" (the tradition where a man would show his wealth by giving everything down to the shirt on his back away to his friends) it was only to another member of his specific sub-tribe or a leader of his tribe. In every case that beads passed from one tribe to another it was as a gift, if as wampum or as "raw" beads. Something which ends in one generation of trade is not money, but simple barter.

The beads fall more into the classification of a national or personal treasure. Other examples would be white buffalo skins or great battle trophies. They were something you did not want to give up. And when you did, it was to a person or group that you hoped would value it as greatly as you did. And only in the hope, not certainty, of benefit.

When an item is only passed one way and not used (or accepted) by the group that is placing it in circulation, it cannot be called money. The closest phrase that fits is barter.

Now, I can hear some of you screaming already. I know your arguments.

Argument 1: What about the numismatic sources? They like the Red Book, all say that wampum was a form of money. How can they all be wrong?

Answer 1: Because they are. They all base their theory on the same incorrect information. Like the fallacies about the Granby Coppers and the incorrect mintage figures for the 1836 (Russian) family ruble. The wrong information got into print and the best efforts of several scholars have failed to correct it.

Numismatics is no different from any other field of study; once something is accepted as fact, changing the record is almost impossible. From the time of Jamestown on, in reports back to Europe, wampum was described by the Whites as a form of money. Not because it was, but because it was the closest thing to the concept of money as it was in the minds of the Whites. Europeans coming here later, based on what they had been told by earlier settlers, continued that train of thought. By the time that some would have known better, the concept was so ingrained in their thinking that the correction could not be made.

Because we cane here for trade reasons, everything was thought of in terms of commerce. To cross the "T", we needed to find a form of money. Wampum was handy.

Argument 2: What about he laws passed in the colonies regulating wampum and giving an "exchange chart" to the different colors? If it is passed as legislation it must have been needed and it must have been done.

Answer 2: Got any mils in your change jar? We pass a lot of laws anticipating a need that never arises. We can do that; we’re White and don’t have to make sense. Wampum, I think, falls into that category. There was a time when it was thought it would be needed as a necessity coinage (the alternate theory is that it was used as a threat to force circulation of specie) and several states and localities passed acts regulating its use. The problem is that no record can be found of any White accepting wampum for payment of any kind. The one kind of records that survive are accounts (in the monetary sense) and none of those that I have been able to find show wampum being used:

A. By a White to pay his taxes

B. Accepted by a White in exchange for goods or services

C. By any of the colonial governments to pay its employees or to buy things for the common good.

No matter how much you say that it is money, it isn’t so until it is used as money.

If wampum wasn’t money, then what was money to the American Indians?

This is the part where I am on very solid ground. However, I am going to have to ask you to use your brains. While the solution is obvious, it is not simple.

Why do we accept bits of metal to be money? Because we are an industrial society. Metal is the common denominator in industrial activity. We have even named our ages by the metal prevalent in the time, such as the "bronze age." When metal plays a central role in our daily lives, why should it be any surprise that it is our form of money. Right now we are seeing a minor shift. As we enter the "information age", information has become a secondary form of currency. Hence the rise of debit cards in their forms. It is possible now t conduct all of one’s business simply by exchanging information. But, back to the subject at hand.

What could be the common denominator in a stone age economy? What else but stone; or, to be more specific, the rock that allows a stone age culture to flourish--flint. We have a lot of evidence to support that claim. In the physical sense we have the archaeological record of tracing trade and movement of various tribes by the flint left behind. When we find southern flint in the north we know that trade or movement occurred. When we find flint of Maine crossing the continent in patterns that suggest circulation, cannot the case be made for a flint = money standard? If you compare the distribution of colonial coins moving west, the breakdown of that distribution mimics the flow of the better Eastern flint moving west to be almost identical.

Another part of the case can be made by the protections that were placed on the flint procedures. A case in point is the history of a tribe we know now only as the Neutral Nation. The Neutrals were a small tribe situated between the Hurons and the Iroquois. Their only standing came from the fact that they lived for generations on top of a quantity of high grade flint. Because of long generations of working the flint, they became highly skilled; not at making finished products out of that flint, but in mining the stone and separating the good stuff into manageable sizes. Like a minting operation, they did their job under strict internal control so that the finding of quantities of bad flint wouldn’t drive out their good. And like mint masters throughout Europe, they were left out of the politics that surround them. They were surrounded by war between large groups of people who hated each other, yet they were left alone despite the fact that they supplied flint to all sides. All left them alone because the circulation of the Neutral’s flint was necessary to the common economy of all the nations just as in our history, mints were protected in war to maintain what we called money circulating; even when that money was of benefit to the enemy such as in the case of the Swedes using a Russian mint and personal to produce kopeks even though it benefited the Russians they were still fighting.

Excuse me for ending this suddenly; but this is a work in progress that I have had to rush on to meet a deadline. I would ask one favor of you. Sit down and make your best arguments against me in writing and pass them on to me. I hope to be able, in the exchange of ideas, to overcome your arguments. The only way to prove a negative is to defeat the positive. But the positive must speak up.

Suggestions for further reading:

Kroeber, A.L. Handbook of the Indians of California Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1925,

Bulletin 78, Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute

Hunt, George T. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study in Intertribal Trade Relations University of Wisconsin Press, 1960

anything by Allan W. Eckert, but especially A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh Konecky & Konecky, 1992 (and all 30 pages of his bibliography)