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Ye Olde English 101 - What was wampum?

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

So many terms our ancestors used are so long removed from our everyday language, we have no idea what the words mean. Such is the case with wampum. This was a common term among America's early settlers, as well as the Native Americans who were here before us, yet I was clueless as to what it was when I saw it mentioned in various deeds, such as the purchase of Norwalk, Connecticut, by Roger Ludlow in 1640. Among the articles Ludlow traded the Indians for the land was "eight fathoms of wampum".

A fathom was a common term used in taking measurements in a time before rulers and tape measures were mass produced in China. It is approximately equal to the length of an adult's outstretched arms, from the tip of one hand to the tip of the other, or about two yards (six feet) per fathom. So eight fathoms of wampum is equal to about 48 feet, but what is wampum?

Thanks to the rabbit hole called the internet, it wasn't hard to learn that wampum was a commodity used for trade among the Indian tribes. They were beads made from the shell of a sea snail called the channeled whelk or the quahog, a hard-shelled clam. The Indians valued wampum as it was used for story-telling, gifts, and sacred occasions. It was made into headdresses, belts, jewelry and more. The Dutch settlers used a steel drill to make production more efficient, causing the eventual decline in value (inflation).

Learn more about wampum beads in this short and informative video: (Not my video)


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