Gateway to the Classics: Peter of Amsterdam by James Otis
Peter of Amsterdam by  James Otis

The Value of Wampum

Because of thus being employed, I very soon saw that which served the savages as money, and queer stuff it was, being neither more nor less than bits of shell.

The brown men called the stuff wampum, and because of having such poor tools it must be an enormous amount of work to make it. As nearly as I could learn, there were certain big shells which washed up on the shores here after a storm, and only some part of the inside of these, and a portion of the mussel shells, were used.

From the big shells they made a smooth white bead, grinding the shell down against a rock until it was perfectly smooth, and then boring a hole through it. The beads of wampum made from the mussel shells were in shape much like a straw, and less than half an inch in length.

These beads the Indians strung on the dried sinews of wild animals, from a half a yard to four feet in length, when, as I have already told you, they were used as money.

But wampum is even more than that among the savages. When these strings are fastened to the width of five or six inches into a belt, they are given to messengers to take to another tribe, much as kings of old used to give their seal rings as a sort of letter of recommendation.


The wampum belts were sent in token of peace after a war, or as a present from one ruler to another, and, as can be seen, this wampum was even of more value to the savages than gold is to white men.

One would think that when they got our beads in exchange for their furs, they would have strung them with those which had been cut from shells, and yet they did nothing of the kind, for in their eyes one of those tiny, white balls, which had a hole through the middle, was of more value than a cupful of Master Minuit's best.

I do not know how it was figured out; but you must know that in Holland they have a coin called a stuyver, which is worth in English money near to two pennies. Our people here allowed, in trading with the Indians, that four beads of wampum were equal to one stuyver, or two pennies, and a single strand six feet long, was equal to four guilders, or, roughly speaking, about eight shillings.

There is no need for me to say that our people did not buy wampum of the Indians; but in the course of the bargaining it passed back and forth, because of being the only coins the brown men had, and therefore I suppose it was, that Master Minuit believed it necessary to put some fixed price upon it.

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