Photographs (above): Goblin State Park, Utah

The Use of Shell Wampum Beads by the Seneca

Charles Wray

Unpublished Manuscript

To the very best of our knowledge, not a single true wampum bead has ever been found on a prehistoric Seneca site. Massive tubular and discoidal-shaped shell beads have been found, but not in large quantities. It seems quite evident that the Seneca had little contact with the eastern seaboard until some 50 years after the Columbian discovery of America .

Between 1535 and 1550, the first European trade goods (a few iron tools and a few brass and glass beads) found their way into Seneca hands. Along with these came the first wampum beads the Seneca had ever owned. These first wampum were not plentiful. They were used as components of ornamental necklaces and were mixed with both glass and rolled tubular brass beads. Within 15 or 20 years wampum was also being used as bracelets.

From the relative scarcity of both trade goods and wampum on the first historic Seneca villages (1535-1575), it would appear that the Seneca were receiving these items second hand from other Indian tribes located between the Seneca and the coast.

The first wampum reaching the Seneca is very distinctive in appearance. There are two varieties. The first and most abundant was a relatively long, flat-sided, thin-walled, white shell bead perforated with a wide bore, taper-shaped drilling from opposite ends of the bead. The second variety, at first in the minority, is shorter, thicker, round sided, barrel-shaped and also perforated by wide bore, taper-shaped drilling from opposite ends of the bead. It is also of white shell. This second variety gradually became dominant and the longer flat-sided variety disappeared by the early 1640's. The early flat sided variety lingered on long enough to be used in a very few early wampum belts. Two of these have been found by excavations on the Steele (1635-1650) and Power House (1645-1660) sites.

The first true "Dutch" wampum appears in quantities on Seneca Sites of the 1635-1660 period, apparently after the establishment of the Fort Orange trading post in present day Albany, New York in 1624. "Dutch" wampum was relatively short, fat, and taper drilled from opposite ends of the bead by iron drills of small bore. The beads are well finished and ground round in cross section. Purple wampum became available in large quantities for the first time with the Dutch grinding them out by the hundreds of thousands from their factories at their "mines" on Long Island.

The white wampum was almost invariably made from the tip end of the center whorl-of the common conch shell and many show the spiral groove around their outside surface. This portion of the conch shell was most closely shaped to the finished wampum bead. The bead was then drilled parallel to the grain of the shell, through the very center of this central whorl.

The purple wampum was made from the flat section of the purple spot on the edge of the common clamshell (Venus [Mercenaria] mercenaria). These almost invariably are perforated horizontally (parallel to the layers of the shell). The size of the "Dutch" wampum varied from tiny to quite large, but characteristically remained thick and short. It is interesting to note that when found in belts or necklaces these wampum-beads have been sorted and strung by fairly uniform sizes.

The "Dutch" style of wampum remained dominant into the early 1700’s. By the mid 1700's wampum size and shape changed for the last time. This late style wampum was noticeably longer and thinner than the earlier "Dutch" wampum. This colonial American wampum lasted through the 1700's into the early 1800's when wampum gradually fell into disuse and its manufacture gradually ceased.

Wampum thus went through a cycle of 4 distinctive types on Seneca sites. Type one - the earliest being the native made long, flat sided, thin walled, large bore, taper drilled, white bead. Type one lasted on Seneca sites from 1535 to 1640. Type two - equally as early as type one, was the native made shorter, barrel shaped, thick, often flat sided, large bore and taper drilled white bead. Type two lasted on Seneca sites from approximately 1550 to 1650.

Type three was the "Dutch" wampum. This type is characteristically short, fat, round sided and with a small bore taper drilled from opposite ends of the bead. These were obviously perforated by iron drills. Type three persisted in large quantities on Seneca sites from the late 1620's through the early 1700's.

The fourth and last wampum type was the Colonial American variety. It is distinctively longer and thinner than the earlier "Dutch" variety. This Colonial American wampum lasted on Seneca sites from the middle 1700's into the early 1800's. This last type of wampum is the style of bead nearly all the existing ethnological wampum belts in our Museum collections are primarily made of and therefore date after the middle 1700's.

It is interesting to note that a belt made with "Dutch" wampum would be distinctively narrower but much longer than an identical belt made with the later Colonial American wampum.

We have already mentioned that the very first Seneca wampum was used as a component of necklaces with mixed glass and brass beads. Next, its use was extended to bracelets. By the 1640's wampum was being used for massive multiple strand necklaces of from one to four thousand beads. After 1700 wampum was also used as cuff ornaments.

Wampum belts are first found on Seneca sites that date from the 1630's. The use of belts rapidly grew and by 1675 they were plentiful and were in constant demand and use. They were so plentiful, at least among the Seneca, that many were placed in the graves of the dead. The custom of burying wampum belts with the dead reached its height from 1650 to l680. After 1700, they were seldom disposed of in this manner.

The single largest mass destruction of wampum belts - one of the darkest times in Seneca history - occurred in August of 1687. The French army of General Denonville with its several thousand Indian allies composed of the remnants of former Seneca conquests marched into the Seneca homeland. Their main purpose was to humiliate the Seneca and burn their villages and food crops. This they did with abandon.

The Indian allies of the French were bent on revenge and financial gain by plundering and looting the rich Seneca. Without apparent opposition, after the short fight at Victor, New York, these Indian allies and perhaps some of the French soldiers too, systematically ransacked the cemeteries of the Seneca. More than 90% of the apparently obvious and perhaps even marked burials on the four villages burned by this expedition were carefully plundered. The beads, especially the wampum, were removed by the kettleful, the "worthless" native made art objects - the combs, pipes, and carved wooden ladles being discarded on the ground or left in the grave fill scattered among the mutilated skeletons. Proof of what the looters were after is seen in the scattering of loose beads missed in this macabre event, the fragments of belts left behind, the contents of brass kettles dumped back in the grave as looters took useful kettles to carry their loot with, and the beaten flat kettles obviously used by these looters as digging tools.

Not satisfied with their loot on these four villages, the pillagers moved on to the former villages of the Seneca, looting 75% of the still obvious burials of the 1660-1675 villages and 50% of the burials of the 1635-1660 villages. None of the Seneca villages earlier than this or later than 1687 ever suffered this disaster.

The beads and wampum belts were carried back to the homes of these looters. The Illinois, the Huron, the Ottawa, etc. Perhaps this was the source of some of the fragmentary belts recently found in the cemetery at St. Ignace in Northern Michigan and believed to date from 1681 to 1700.

It can be conservatively estimated from archeological evidence that many more than 100 wampum belts, perhaps even hundreds, were destroyed or removed during this raid by the Denonville Army. This shattering experience probably explains why belts were seldom ever placed in the graves of the dead after 1687. Not until after 1750 were a few again used as mortuary offerings by the Seneca.

For those interested in statistics, 9 excavators in the past 70 years found 48 wampum belts (whole or part) and 7 glass bead belts (whole or part) in 44 Seneca burials. This information is from re- corded notes. It can only be conjectured how many were found by others and never recorded. Of these recorded discoveries, 46 belts were composed entirely of wampum, 7 belts were composed entirely of glass, 1 was composed of both glass and wampum, and 1 was composed of both wampum and brass beads.

Belts were buried with both sexes and with individuals of all ages. Where they could be identified, 10 were with adult males and 6 with adult females. 4 were with infants, 14 with children, 8 with adolescents, and 18 with adults.

The position of belts in burials may indicate how they were sometimes worn or at least placed. 1 was at the feet, 1 alongside the body, 1 was by the chin, 2 were inside brass kettles, 3 were by or on the neck, 4 were on the chest, 4 were on the hands or arms, 6-were on or-around-the head, and 14 were placed over the hips.

The width of these archeological belts ranged from 5 beads to 22 beads with the most frequent being 6, 8, 10, and 12. 6 were an uneven number while 22 were an even number wide. The length of these belts ranged from 25 to 312 beads with 4 being 50 to 100 beads long, 7 being 100-200 beads long, and 3 being 250 to 312 beads long. The number of beads in each belt ranged from 250 to 12,000; however, most contained between 1000 and 2000 beads each.

In all cases where evidence of warp and woof remained preserved, these early belts were strung on fiber cordage and not leather strips such as most of the later belts were. Purple wampum tends to be the most frequently used in these archeological belts despite the relative scarcity and greater value of the purple wampum over that of the white.

The designs of these archeological belts that we have been able to distinguish from chance preservation indicate that diamonds and diagonal bars were the most popular. Seven diamond belts and 4 diagonal bar belts have been recorded. Both of these belt types have the designs composed of 5 or multiples of 5 diamonds or bars. Other designs recognized were two with horizontal lines, and one each of vertical bars, both diagonal and vertical bars, squares, a rectangle connected to two diagonal bars, and one with a complicated design of alternate purple and white wampum.

It would seem that the designs of most of these archeological belts had meaning while only a relatively few were purely ornamental. To the very best of our knowledge, no designs representing human or animal forms have ever been found. These apparently were a later innovation and date after the 1750's.

*Minor editing and reformatting from original text by R. D. Hamell