I recently read a mention in a magazine that Native American trade beads and ornaments, called wampum, were made from sea shells. Did Native Americans in our area make and use wampum?

Yes. It appears the Narragansett, a Native American Algonquin tribe, were the primary makers of wampum – highly polished pieces of shell made from quahog clams and whelks.

Wampum

Narragansett tribal lands along the Atlantic Coast included vast expanses of prime habitat for these mollusks. Mollusks are among the most diverse and widespread group of animals in world, and historically their durable and versatile shells have had many uses, ranging from jewelry to paving material. Scientists recognize seven different classes of mollusks, consisting of some 120,000 species, easily making them the second largest group of animals in the world behind insects.

Native Americans harvested the two-shelled quahogs and single-shelled whelks in summer to make wampum beads. The rich, purple, inner hue of quahogs was more highly prized than the white of whelks.

The word “wampum” comes from the Algonquin word “wampumpeg,” meaning beads of polished shells strung together to make belts, sashes and ornaments. Native Americans considered wampum to have great honorary and ritualistic value, and it was often presented or exchanged in ceremonial events, as well as worn to indicate status. The finely crafted beads were also valuable for trading with distant tribes for flint, furs and other staples.

To fashion the beads, Native Americans cut, polished, drilled and wove bits of shell into elaborate patterns and strung them onto twisted plant fiber or sinew to create necklaces, belts and other ornamentation. Wampum belts could measure as much as 6 feet long and contain 6,000 or more beads.

The early Europeans misinterpreted the importance of wampum, perceiving it to have primarily monetary value. This resulted

in the quahog’s scientific name, Mercenaria, and led to the use of wampum as a form of currency by the early colonists during the 17th century.

Discover more fascinating facts about North Carolina’s aquatic animals and environments by visiting the aquariums on Roanoke Island, at Fort Fisher and at Pine Knoll Shores, or Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.