Gateway to the Classics: Stephen of Philadelphia by James Otis
Stephen of Philadelphia by  James Otis

Making Wampum

That which causes me the greatest curiosity is why the Indians spend so much time making small beads of seashells, and then claim that they are money. Wampum, the savages call these beads, and they are strung on strands of hide, or sinew, in certain lengths, each strand standing for so much of value.

To make it more plain, a beaver skin is worth five strings, or fathoms, of wampum, while the hide of a mink sells for two; and it may surprise you to know that we white people are using these same little shells as if they were so much silver and gold.

When we first saw wampum, Jethro and I believed we could make as much as we pleased by stringing the beads, which our people had brought to trade with the savages, on threads of tow; but, if you please, these brown men would not consent to call our beads wampum, although they were quite ready to buy them as ornaments.

It seems, as Jethro and I learned after our scheme of suddenly becoming rich, from an Indian's standpoint, fell to the ground, that these beads from seashells are of value because of so much time being needed for the making. I have seen one of the savages spend two full hours grinding into proper shape a small bead from the thick part of a big mussel shell, and when he was done the thing was by no means as fair to look upon as the roughest of our beads.

In order to have the proper kind of wampum, only certain portions of certain shells can be used, and it is not easy to find these even when you are on the seashore. The Indians go in their canoes near to an hundred miles after the shells, and a dozen men may be away two weeks or more to get twenty of the right sort.

Jethro and I have watched an Indian, seated on his blanket made of fiber from the wild hemp, working half the day to bore a hole in one of these bits of wampum, using no other tool than a tiny bit of flint rock fastened to a thin stick of wood.


Not only do the brown men use this wampum as money, but they sew the strands together to make belts, which are used as gifts when something very valuable is wanted. Wampum belts are sent from one settlement to another in token of friendship, or to bind some great bargain, as was the case when one was given to our William Penn, as I will set down later.

Perhaps I am spending too many words in telling you about the Indians; but if you had come to have them as neighbors, with whom it was necessary for your very life's sake to live on friendly terms, you would have been likely to watch them closely, as did Jethro and I, and to be interested in all their odd ways.

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