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Original Wampum Sizes & Colors

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Sizes Varied

Color Was Important

eagle feather Sizes Varied
The width of the primitive drills used by Native Americans caused a center hold in very early shell wampum of about 2mm. So they did not break through the side walls beads needed to be about 4mm wide. The lengths of early wampum beads ranged from 7 to 11mm.

In the early 1500's the european traders introduced the Native Americans to steel tools, including awls and needles. Indian craftsmen adapted some awls and needles to their hand drills, and began producing beads with smaller 1mm center holes. This allowed wampum beads to be made with smaller widths from 2.5 to 3.5mm, depending on the expertise of the craftsman. In turn, this allowed the Indian craftsman to get more beads from the same amount of shell.

Wampum bead lengths were also shortened to a range of 5 to 8mm to maintain similar width-to-length proportions as on earlier beads. Not every craftsman stopped making the larger wampum just because they could make smaller wampum. Many Indian craftsmen continued making the larger, old style wampum, because some people they traded with continued to prefer that size.     [Top of Page]

eagle feather Color Was Important
Purity of the message was very important to Native Americans, especially in treaty and history belts. Wampum beads of pure white or deep purple were used on the original belts. Shell pieces of mixed color were generally discarded as having little or no value. Think about it. Would you make something you can only sell for $.05 if, for no more effort, you can make something that sells for $1.00? Today those "pure color" beads are rare to find.  Crafts people are forced to replicate belts and other items with beads that may only have 80% color purity.

Treaty (peace or alliance) belts, and most history belts, used white wampum for a background and purple wampum (NOT lavender) for design elements. To convey to allies a desire to engage in hostilities, belts would be made with dark background and white designs. The exceptions were some Iroquois alliance belts that used white designs on a dark background.

If belts conveyed an open declaration of war, or a summons to allies to begin hostilities, they were painted with red ochre or vermilion. Contrary to some statements made today, Native Americans did not have red glass beads of wampum size and shape until the 1800's.

Personal items, such as bracelets, armbands, collars (?chokers?), and so on, were made of any design the weaver or wearer chose. Often there was no design on personal items; just the fact they were wearing wampum being significant enough. Rev. David Zeisberger, lived among the Lenape (original Delaware) for 62 years. In his "History of the North American Indians" (1780) he describes attire and personal adornment of people from various nations. In his words, "They also have great belts of wampum made of violet, not the white, wampum."     [Top of Page]

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