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The Origin Of Wampum

Next Page in Article Series European & Euro-merican Wampum

Contrary to what many crafts people claim about their products, not everything made from Whelk or Quahog shells is wampum. Wampum is specifically the small, cylindrical beads made from those shells. Everything else is simply shell ornaments - even if it is made from Quahog or Whelk shell.

Coastal Algonquin Native Americans have used shell to make beads and ornaments for centuries. The Narragansett Indians of New England, though, made the first small, cylindrical beads we call wampum. "Wampum" is an English mispronunciation of the Narragansett word "wompam", meaning "white shell beads". These were made from the inner column of the Whelk shell.

The dark violet beads were called "sukauhock" by the Narragansett: "suk" from their word "suki" meaning a dark violet color, and "auhock" from "poquauhock", the shell from which the purple beads were made. The English name for these clam shells - Quahog - is an abbreviation of poquauhock. Europeans simply the word "wampum" to refer to both the white and purple beads.

Other coastal Algonquin Indian nations became proficient in manufacturing wampum. The Narragansett and the Pequot became the principle suppliers for many generations, since the primary material source was in their home waters. Wampum beads were traded with many nations westward to the Great Lakes and from New England to the Carolinas, even before the europeans knew about our land.

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Copyright Jan 1999, 2015, Gary A. Reneker. All rights reserved. All text, graphics, programming, and coding are protected by U.S. and International Copyright Laws, and may not be copied, reprinted, published, translated, hosted, or otherwise distributed by any means without explicit permission from Gary A. Reneker.