WAMPUM, or WAMPUM-PEAGE (Amer. Ind. wampam, "white"; peag, "bead"), the shell-money of the North American Indians. It consisted of beads made from shells, and, unlike the cowry-money of India and Africa (which was the shell in its natural state), required a considerable measure of skill in its manufacture. Wampum was of two colours, dark purple and white, of cylindrical form, averaging a quarter of an inch in length, and about half that in diameter. Its colour determined its value. The term wampum or wampum-peage was apparently applied to the beads only when strung or woven together. They were ground as smooth as glass and were strung together by a hole drilled through the centre. Dark wampum, which was made from a " hard shell " clam (Venus mercenaria), popularly called quahang or quahog, a corruption of the Indian name, was the most valuable. White wampum was made from the shell of whelks, either from the common whelk (Buccinum unda(um), or from that of Pyrula canali culala and Pyrula carica. Wampum was employed most in New England, but it was common elsewhere. By the Dutch settlers of New York it was called seawan or zeewand, and roenoke in Virginia, and perhaps farther south, for shell-money was also known in the Carolinas, but whether the roenoke of the Virginian Indians was made from the same species of shell as wampum is not clear. Cylindrical shell-beads similar to the wampum of the Atlantic coast Indians were made to some extent by the Indians of the west coast. This was manufactured from the Mytilus calif ornianus, a mussel which abounds there.
In the trading between whites and Indians, wampum so completely took the place of ordinary coin that its value was fixed by legal enactment, three to a penny and five shillings a fathom. The fathom was the name for a count, and the number of shells varied according to the accepted standard of exchange. Thus where six wampum went to the penny the fathom consisted of 360 beads; but where four made a penny as under the Massachusetts standard of 1640, then the fathom counted 240. The beads were at first worth more than five shillings per fathom, the price at which they passed current in 1643. A few years before the fathom had been worth nine or ten shillings. Connecticut received wampum for taxes in 1637 at four a penny In 1640 Massachusetts adopted the Connecticut standard, " white to pass at four and bleuse at two a penny" There was no restriction on the manufacture of wampum, and it was made by the whites as well as the Indians. The market was soon flooded with carelessly made and inferior wampum, but it continued to be circulated in the remote districts of New England through the 17th century, and even into the beginning of the 18th. It was current with silver in Connecticut in 1704.
Wampum was also used for personal adornment, and belts were made by embroidering wampum upon strips of deerskin. These belts or scarves were symbols of authority and power and were surrendered on defeat in battle. Wampum also served a mnemonic use as a tribal history or record. " The belts that pass from one nation to another in all treaties, declarations and important transactions are very carefully preserved in the chiefs' cabins, and serve not only as a kind of record or history but as a public treasury. According to the Indian conception, these belts could tell by means of an interpreter the exact rule, provision or transaction talked into them at the time and of which they were the exclusive record. A strand of wampum, consisting of purple and white shell-beads or a belt woven with figures formed by beads of different colours, operated on the principle of associating a particular fact with a particular string or figure, thus giving a serial arrangement to the facts as well as fidelity to the memory. These strands and belts were the only visible records of the Iroquois, but they required the trained interpreters who could draw from their strings and figures the acts and intentions locked up in their remembrance" (Major Rogers, Account of North America, London, 1765).
See Holmes, " Art in Shell of the Ancient Americans " in Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, Washington, for 1880-1881 ; W. B. Weeden, Indian Money as a Factor in New England Civilization (Baltimore, 1884); E. Ingersoll, "Wampum and its History," in American Naturalist, vol. xvii. (1883); Horatio Hale, "On the Origin and Nature of Wampum," in American Naturalist, vol. xviii. (1884); C. L. Norton, "The Last Wampum Coinage," in American Magazine for March 1888.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)