Dutch Wampum-making in Nieuw Amsterdam and Old New York (1627-76): How Wompi, the Native Ritual Shell Beads, Became Wampum, New York State’s First Currency
First in a series of articles honoring New York State’s Henry Hudson Quadricentennial, 1609-2009, featuring images of authentic 17th-century objects used in everyday life by the inhabitants of old Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Nieuw Amsterdam (New York City) and Beverwijck (Albany), in both northern and southern New York State.
Wampum, the purple and white shell beads fashioned from the quahog or chowder clam were called the “gold” (purple) and “silver” (white) in their roles as the “first money” of New York, its city and state. Created originally for sacred and ritual purposes by Native Long Island Peoples, wampum was also made by the 1600s Dutch of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and across New York State and used as local money. The Dutch also created special wampum for trade.
The author has reconstructed the Early Style 1600s tools and techniques of skilled Native and later Dutch artisans, when by the 1630s and ‘40s, they learned to first produce wampum acceptable to native people – the prized “Splendid Manhattan’s Sewant.” The word sewant (or zeewant) was a Dutch language adaption of the native Algonkian word sewaaún, meaning “purple and white beads.” Wampum, formerly wompi, originally meant only white beads. Wampum later came to mean both white and purple beads when the expression was used in trade.
By 1641, Dutch officials had chosen wampum as legal tender, money valid to pay debts, in Nieuw Amsterdam to 1664, and in New York from 1664 to 1700 when under English rule. Iron nails or spikes were a second common monetary substitute. However, only wampum, and its equivalent in Dutch and English coins were recognized as legal tender. Spanish and other foreign coins also circulated.
The great labor in making wampum - and polishing it - conferred prestige among its native inventors and served its Dutch makers among colonial settlers as their daily wages. Finely-wrought wampum had a high worth of two purple beads equaling one Dutch stuiver/English penny or four white at the same rate. Rates could fluctuate greatly. In New England in 1637 the highest rate held, while in 1640's and 50's Nieuw Amsterdam, it could be valued as low as three purple and six white per stuiver, and even much lower. Yet for two generations, up to about 1700, it was in fact legal tender.
Note: This article first appeared on artmuseumjournal.com on July 16, 2009.