Our History: No credit cards in early NY, but there was wampum

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Recently I purchased a copy of the first complete history of New York City ever written and was once again intrigued by the story of wampum, the important currency in New Amsterdam and the New England colonies.

In 1629 New Amsterdam was the commercial metropolis of America. Emigrants of various nations began to flock into the province lured by the liberal offers of the Dutch West India Company to transport them in their own ships at the rate of 12 1/2 cents a day for food and passage. In addition they were to be given as much land as they could cultivate.

The province, unlike Massachusetts, granted full religious freedom and this naturally attracted victims of persecution — a population that was mounting in Europe. Among those ready to escape to the New World were Walloons, Huguenots, Calvinists, Quakers and Catholics.

Finding a home on our shores, they put down the foundation for our city's cosmopolitan nature which remains to this day. The colony, New Amsterdam, in the beginning was mainly Dutch and remained so for a long time, but influences in the new country modified life styles and the colonists adopted the foods including game, fish, and corn of the native residents. Wampum from the Indians became a common currency and medium of exchange.

In contrast to the war-like Iroquois of upper New York and the Narragansetts across the Sound, the Indians in this area were on the whole peace-loving, and were forced to pay tribute in wampum to the powerful mainland tribes. They generally welcomed the early colonists and often befriended them, and Long Island’s settlers did not often have to face the danger of Indian uprisings so common in other colonies.

The story of wampum and its use and manufacture provides an interesting sidelight to life in this area in the colonial period. The Indians of Long Island might be characterized as literally sitting on a mint. Called “Seoranhacky,” or "Isle of Shells,” the Long Island area became known for its superior wampum.. While the Iroquois and New England tribes made wampum of inferior quality which was badly strung, that of Long Island was considered by far the best quality.

On the North Shore of Long Island the Matinecocks occupied all the land east of Newtown and as far as the western line of Smithtown. A large family tribe, it was also a roaming one and in those early days had settlements in Flushing — which in those days included Bayside — Glen Cove, Cold Spring Harbor, Huntington, and Northport. Great fisherman well-known as makers of that precious commodity, wampum, they had by 1654 sold much of their territory to colonists. The Matinecocks took their name from the nature of the land upon which they lived, “hilly country.”

The Matinecocks made their homes around the necks and harbors of the North Shore, ideally located for the manufacture of wampum. Often the footpaths which led from one settlement to another widened into our main roads of today. Well-worn smaller paths led to the shore, the spring, or the fishing ground.

The Long Island tribes were well-known in all parts of the country for the minting of this money used as a medium of exchange and called wampum from the Algonquin word, “wamp-umpe-ag.” “Wamp” meant white, “umpe” meant string of shells and “ag" was for the plural to show there were many beads.

The quantity and variety of shellfish in this area provided not only food, but also ornaments, tools and the raw material needed for wampum. The wealth of the sea provided the supply which the local tribes needed to create their system of money. Wampum was of two kinds: Meteauhock, or white wampum made from the periwinkle shell, and Suckanhock, the black money carefully etched from the inside shell of the hare clam, the quahog. The black or blue-black purple beads were twice as valuable as the white. The law of supply and demand determined this, since the white shell was plentiful but only a small part of each clamshell was purple, providing perhaps only enough for one bead.

The English, the Dutch, and French traded with the Indians over 600 miles, carried there by none other than John Jacob Astor who made his fortune in the fur trade.

Roger Williams of Rhode Island described in detail the manufacture of wampum. It was a laborious task. Indian craftsmen cut, polished, and drilled to make the blue-black and white beads. Boring the lengthwise hole in the shell was done with stone or wooden drills in the sand. With the coming of settlers came tools which helped to hasten the process and increase the quantity. Wampum was much in demand among the Iroquois who sought tribute from neighboring weaker and more peaceful tribes.

In addition to being a valuable medium of exchange, wampum was used for records, messages, and the marking of solemn occasions. Belts of wampum, several feet to several yards long, were woven using animal sinew or plant fibers to string the beads. A message sent without a belt was considered an "empty work" and little heed was paid to it. The color of the beads had special meaning; the white beads represented peace, health, and harmony while the dark beads signified death, sorrow or hostility. Beads which were dyed red meant war.

In the early Dutch and English colonies there was a shortage of currency and the colonists used and priced wampum. A string a fathom long was worth four Dutch guilders. In the 1630s John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony had a ship, “The Blessing of the Bar,” built to sail to Long Island to buy wampum from the Dutch. Other New Englanders succeeded in draining New Netherlands of its finely polished wampum for coin and goods they traded, meanwhile introducing large quantities of their inferior and imperfect beads in turn .

So widespread was the use of wampum among the early settlers that it was accepted for the payment of taxes and court fees, and it was not unusual to find it in a church collection. As its use increased, the crisis became so alarming that the Dutch Council under Governor Kieft passed an ordinance setting a lower value on imperfect wampum. In 1673 it was publicly ordered that six white beads or three black beads should pass for a penny. As one might expect some enterprising colonists started to produce it themselves, and also had it copied in porcelain in Europe, circulating the "counterfeit " money. The value of the real article eventually was destroyed. The Indians however, admired the copies which were well suited for decorative and other purposes.

Wampum disappeared and in its place arose a lively trade in beads which for over a century provided the tiny country of Bohemia with a very lucrative export.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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