In Martha Lamb's History of the City of New York, written in 1877 (250 years after the reported purchase) she claimed that the Dutch bought Manhattan Island for $24 worth of trading beads ("wampum"). Wampum were small purple or white beads made from shells. These beads had great value to Indian tribes throughout the Northeast, particularly the Iroquois. The Iroquois believed that holding strings of wampum could give comfort to people grieving the loss of a loved one. They also wove wampum beads together to form belts to commemorate important events. When non-Indian traders arrived in the Northeast, they quickly realized how much the Iroquois treasured wampum and started making the beads to give to their new trading partners.
Although this 'sale of Manhattan' makes for an interesting story, there is no written documentation or evidence of any written deed or documentation to verify the purchase. More than likely, there was a 'deal' that could not be objectively verified -- and it is also possible that an unscrupulous individual 'sold' land that he did not own or else believed himself to be taking advantage of a fool. In fact, native peoples had a perspective incompatable with such a sale. In a famous quote from a letter written to President Franklin Pierce in 1854, Chief Seattle said, "How can we buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?"
Wampum is a Narragansett word that means 'white shell beads,' but traditionally they came in two colors: purplish-black and white. The white beads were made from the Whelk shell and the dark ones from the Quahog shell.To make wampum beads, the Native Americans would first bust a large shell into pieces with a rock. Then a thick, bead-sized piece of clam shell would be selected (usually about one inch long and a half inch wide). Using this piece as raw material, the craftsman would then drill a hole through it - with drilling always being the first step so they wouldn't have to do all the painstaking work of rounding and polishing the shell only to have it crack later when they drilled the hole for the string. Also, the bead is much easier to hold for drilling when it's in a rougher state than when it has already been rounded off.
To drill the hole, they would make a crude vise for holding the shell by splitting the end of a willow branch. The piece of clam shell was then placed in the split part and a thong or cord tied around the branch on each side to securely clamp it. Then they drilled the hole using a primitive hand drill which contained a bit made from a sliver of flint. After the hole was made, the bead would then be rounded and polished by rubbing it on stones of coarse grit at first, then progressively finer and finer grit would be used. The result of this tedious process was a precious object as beautiful as a silver or gold coin.
The image shown here is not of original wampum, but simulated wampum reminiscent of the beads historically used as a means of 'breaking the ice' with visitors, and of initiating trade and friendly relations.
If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy the earlier post, 'U is for Umbilical Pouch'.