Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/February 1897/Indian Wampum Records

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IT is a notable fact that the Indian tribes of northeastern America, belonging to the Iroquoian and Algonquian families, who at the first coming of the white colonists occupied the eastern portions of what are now the United States and Canada, and who are often styled savages, had two inventions or usages which are ordinarily deemed the special concomitants of an advanced civilization. These were a monetary currency and the use of a form of script for conveying intelligence and recording facts. These customs or inventions were connected with one medium, but it is probable that the inventions themselves belong to widely different periods.

In a paper which was read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Montreal in August, 1884, and was published in the Popular Science Monthly for January, 1886, I produced the evidence which seemed to me to show that the shell money of North America was derived from the ancient tortoiseshell money of China. This shell money preceded the metallic coins, commonly known as cash, which are circular disks of copper perforated in the center, and usually strung on a string. These came into use more than two thousand years before the Christian era. The shell money which preceded the copper cash has been traced eastwardly, through the Pelew Islands and the Micronesian groups of the North Pacific, to the coasts of California and Oregon, where it is in use among the Indians to this day, and whence it has apparently made its way across the continent to the eastern coast. As was then remarked, "The fact that the Indians of the west coast of America received their monetary system from eastern Asia or from the Pacific islands could not in itself be regarded as affording evidence that America was first peopled from that direction, just as the fact that the coinage of Bactria was derived from Greece would not indicate that the Bactrian population was of Grecian origin. All that we could infer would be some early intercourse, such as recent experience warrants us in supposing. A Chinese junk or a large Micronesian prao, drifting to the Californian coast some three or four thousand years ago, would sufficiently explain the introduction of an art so easily learned as that of making and using perforated shell disks for money."

There is good evidence, from the disclosures of the ancient mounds, to show that shell beads were largely used by the Indians of former ages as ornaments, and perhaps as valued treasures. But there seems no clear proof that they were employed for mnemonic purposes until a comparatively recent date. My late distinguished friend Sir Daniel Wilson had indeed inferred this use of them in former times. In his Prehistoric Man (page 77 of the third edition) he tells us that "in the Grave Creek Mound, shell beads, such as constitute the wampum of forest tribes, amounted to between three and four thousand; and it seems singularly consistent with the partial civilization of the ancient mound builders to assume that in such deposits we have the relics of sepulchral records which constituted the scroll of fame of the illustrious dead, or copies of the national archives deposited with the great sachem to whose wisdom or prowess the safety of his people had been due." This inference seemed to me natural and reasonable; but more recent studies have induced me to question it. Many fragments of ancient cloth have been found in the mounds. The wampum belt was a woven structure of peculiar firmness, having a strong warp, with a duplicate woof, on which the beads were strongly attached. That no fragment of such a record has been found in our ancient mounds is surprising, if such numbers of them were buried as this presumption would lead us to suppose. Moreover, it is doubtful if the true wampum bead of the modern belt was in general use in prehistoric times. The shell beads of those times, if small, are of oval or ovoid shape, and, if large, are thick circular disks, resembling modern button molds, or still larger. The beads in modern belts are, as is well known, oblong tubes, about the fourth of an inch in length, shaped like pieces of a tobacco pipe cut off square at the ends. They are well suited to be woven together in a belt, but are otherwise not adapted either for ornament or for use as money. Mr. Holmes, in his valuable paper on Art in Shell of the Ancient Americans, published in the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, remarks that "it is not known positively that beads of this particular shape were employed in pre-Columbian times; but it is certainly one of the earliest historical forms, and one which has been manufactured extensively by the Indians as well as by the whites. They may be found both in very old and in very recent graves, and have always formed an important part of the stock of the Indian trader."

The conclusion to which. I have been led by these and other evidences is that the use of wampum for conveying messages and preserving records was one of the improvements which accompanied the formation of the Iroquois confederation, and was most probably due to the genius of Hiawatha. Like all his other reforms, it merely brought into clear and useful shape a tendency toward which his people had been advancing. We can not doubt that in dealings between different native tribes there would have been frequent interchange of presents; and no presents would be more likely or more acceptable than strings of the valued wampum. To weave a number of these strings together in a belt, inscribed with a mark indicative of its purpose, would be a natural idea. But the custom resulting from this idea had in it, as Mr. Holmes well observes, "a germ of great promise, one which must in time have become a powerful agent in the evolution of art and learning. It was a nucleus about which all the elements of culture could arrange themselves." Unfortunately, the advent of the white settlers, bringing with them the seeds of inevitable war and disease, blighted these prospects. It is interesting to consider what might have been the fruits of the principles of peace and progress planted by the Iroquois reformer and his coadjutors if time had been allowed for their display. There is no good reason for doubting that the figures on the wampum records, which had already, when the whites arrived, passed beyond the stage of mere picture writing, might have developed into a phonetic system, as we know had been the case with the Mexican script at the time of the conquest; and we have reason to believe that the Mayan script was undergoing the same evolution. The Mexican civilization, such as it was, had shocking features, which do not allow us to regret its destruction. The Mayan, however, was much less offensive; and as for the Kechuas, or Peruvians, the striking facts set forth by Sir Clement Markham in his recent history of Peru, showing that the oppressive exactions of the Spanish conquerors had in a little over three centuries reduced the native population from eleven millions to less than one million, would seem to establish the truth of the assertion which has been made by Carli, Draper, and other writers, that the Spanish conquest destroyed a superior civilization, to replace it by a form decidedly inferior.

It is a well-known fact that the tradition of the Iroquois people ascribes the invention, not of wampum itself, but of the wampum "belt" or record, to Hiawatha. His name, Hayunwatha, means "The Maker of the Wampum Belt," being derived from ayunwa (wampum belt) and an old verb, katha—now, according to Father Cuoq, rarely used—signifying "to make." When I first heard the tradition—being then of opinion that the wampum belt was an ancient Indian construction, dating back to the times of the mound builders—I formed and expressed the conclusion that the tradition had, like many such legends, grown out of the name. Later inquiries, however, have led me to believe that this conclusion was too hastily formed, and that the name, which may be briefly rendered "the wampum-belt maker," was one of those titles which were not infrequently given by the Iroquois to a member of the tribe to commemorate some notable achievement which he had effected. Its date would then, as has been said, be that of the formation of the Iroquois confederacy. This date was fixed by the estimates severally made at different times by my friend the Hon. L. H. Morgan and myself, in accordance with the testimony of the leading Iroquois chiefs, at about the middle of the fifteenth century, or, more precisely, about the year 1459. Other investigators, whose views are entitled to respectful consideration, including the Rev. Dr. Beauchamp and Mr. J. N. B. Hewitt, have been inclined to place the formation of the league at a later time. But their conclusions differ considerably, and fail to account for many important facts. I am therefore compelled to adhere to my original estimate. I fully accept Mr. Hewitt's identification of the "Trudamani" or "Toudamani," of whom Jacques Cartier heard from the Hurons in 1535, with the well-known "Tsonnontowanen" of later writers. These "great mountain people," or Senecas, were the most powerful of the Iroquois nations, and their name was commonly used by the Hurons or Wyandots from ancient times as the general name of all the Iroquois confederates. This we learn from the little book entitled Origin and Traditional History of the Wyandots, published at Toronto in 1870 by Peter Dooyentate Clarke, a half-breed Wyandot, and giving much important information concerning the traditions of his people. He speaks particularly of the war which occurred "in the first quarter of the sixteenth century," between the Hurons and the Senecas (or Iroquois), who had previously lived on friendly terms, though in separate villages, on the St. Lawrence River, near what is now Montreal, but was then the site of the Huron capital town of Hochelaga. The result was that the Hurons, later in the same century, broke up their villages near Montreal, and journeyed westward, and afterward northward, until they reached Lake Huron. Meanwhile the warfare between the two leading branches of the Huron-Iroquois stock continued through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All this is simply historical, and accords in the main with the narratives of the French explorers, from Cartier to Champlain and Charlevoix, and with the traditions of both branches of the Huron-Iroquois family.

Between the year 1459 and that of Cartier's arrival at Hochelaga, in 1535, there was ample time for the Hurons to become familiar with the new art of making wampum belts. In fact, we learn from Cartier's narrative that they were then proficient in it. When he kidnapped Donnaconna, the chief of Stadaconé (now Quebec), to carry him to France, the terrified people, in the hope of redeeming him, presented to the captain no less than twenty-four "collars of porcelain," or wampum belts, which, the writer tells us, "is the greatest treasure they have in the world, for they prize it above gold and silver."

Another inquiry of interest relates to the time when wampum ceased to be made by the Indians. That the records are retained to this day among certain tribes is well known, though their use is slowly dying out. But the beads themselves are no longer made by the Indians. As regards the time when their manufacture ceased, very vague and some very erroneous ideas have prevailed. It is well known that for more than a century—in fact, for the greater part of two centuries—the wampum beads have been made by the whites for use in commerce with the Indians; and an opinion has grown up that this has been the case ever since the first arrival of the white colonists, and that most of the wampum records held by the Indian tribes have been woven from these modern machine-made beads. Mr. Holmes, however, gives the historical evidence which shows that this opinion has originated in error. He quotes Thomas Morton, of Massachusetts, who in 1630, writing of the New England Indians, tells us that "they have a kind of beads instead of money, to buy withal such things as they do want, which they call wampumpeak; and it is of two sorts; the one is white and the other is a violet color. These are made with the shells of fish. The white with them is as silver is with us, the other as our gold; and for these they buy and sell, not only among themselves, but even with us. These beads are current in all parts of New England, from one end of the coast to the other; and although some have endeavored by example to have the like made of the same kind of shells, yet none has ever as yet attained to any perfection in the composure of them, but the salvages have found a great difference to be in the one and the other, and have known the counterfeit beads from those of their own making, and do slight them." Nearly a century later the Carolina surveyor, Lawson, writing in 1714 of the same money, speaks of it as "all made of shells which are found on the coast of Carolina, which are very large and hard, so that they are very difficult to cut. Some English smiths," he adds, "have tried to drill this sort of shell money, and thereby thought to get an advantage, but it proved so hard that nothing could be gained." The introduction of the machine drill could not, in fact, have made much difference in this respect, as each bead must still be fashioned separately by a white workman, whose time was much more valuable than that of an Indian. That which finally gave the English beads an advantage was not the superiority or the cheapness of their workmanship, but the destruction of the Indian workmen. The quarter of a century which followed the publication of Lawson's book, from 1714 to 1740, saw the extermination of most of the Carolina tribes, and a great decline in the numbers of the Northern Indians from the effects of war and pestilence. It was during this period that the wampum-making industry seems to have ceased among them, and the use of machine-made beads to have become universal. The wampum belts continued for a century longer to be made from these beads by the Indian women, but the difference between the belts of the two periods is apparent at a glance. The hand-made beads in the earlier belts are of various sizes, some being twice as large as others, while the machine-made beads, of which the more recent belts are composed, are all of uniform size. Such belts can still be procured from the civilized and mostly half-breed Iroquois of the province of Quebec, with any devices that may be desired. They differ from the genuine Indian belts precisely as a counterfeit denarius differs from a genuine Roman coin.