Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 28.djvu/308

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296
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.
THE ORIGIN OF PRIMITIVE MONEY.

By HORATIO HALE.

THE European colonists who first became acquainted with the Indian tribes of the region now composing the United States and Canada were surprised and not a little interested when they found that these barbarous clans had, in one respect, a marked advantage over the great semi-civilized communities of Central and South America. The Mexicans and Peruvians were much addicted to traffic; but, like the Egyptians and Assyrians of early ages, they carried on their commerce without the use of money. The wampum of the Northern tribes was a real money, and as such it was destined to play an important part, for more than two centuries, in the intercourse between them and their white neighbors. Lawson, the historian of Carolina, writing nearly two hundred years ago, described in quaint but expressive terms, and with a satiric touch aimed at his own people, the place which this remarkable invention held in the social policy of the red-men. "This," he says, "is the money with which you may buy skins, furs, slaves, or anything the Indians have; it being the Mammon (as our money is to us) that entices and persuades them to do anything, and part with everything they possess, except," he adds significantly, "their children for slaves. . . . With this they buy off murders; and whatsoever a man may do that is ill, their wampum will quit him of, and make him, in their opinion, good and virtuous, though never so black before."

So common and wide-spread was the use of this money among the Indians, that the white colonists were fain to adopt it from them, and their laws for a time gave it an established value and circulation throughout New England and New York. In Massachusetts, as Dr. Ashbel Woodward tells us in his valuable monograph on "Wampum," it was made by statute, as early as 1637, a legal tender for any sum under twelvepence, at the rate of six beads for a penny; and in Connecticut it actually became a legal tender for any amount, being receivable for taxes at four beads for a penny. In Massachusetts the same valuation was adopted in 1640, four white beads or two blue beads being rated at a penny. In New York, for nearly half a century, owing to the scarcity of silver money, wampum was almost the only currency in use; and, though its circulation in ordinary traffic gradually ceased, it was still employed in the Indian trade down nearly to the middle of the present century.

The material of this aboriginal currency may be described briefly as "shell-beads." It must not, however, be confounded with the cowries, or small shells, which are in use for a similar purpose in some