wampum (wämˈpəm) [key] [New England Algonquian, = white string of beads], beads or disks made by Native Americans from the shells of mollusks found on the eastern coast or along the larger rivers of North America, used as a medium of exchange and in jewelry. Considered sacred, it was also used in a variety of rituals. In general, wampum beads were cylindrical. They were highly prized by the Native Americans, particularly by those of the Eastern Woodlands and Plains cultural areas. On the Pacific coast, shell ornaments (especially gorgets) were also used, but wampum was principally important in trade in what is now the NE United States. Wampum was passed by trade to inland tribes. Used as a currency or shell money, there were two varieties—the white, which is the only sort properly called wampum, and the more valuable purple, which went by a variety of names. Wampum was used for the ornamentation of such things as necklaces and collars. Wampum belts were of particular ceremonial importance because they were typically exchanged when a treaty of peace was signed. Frequently the belts had pictograph designs on them. Wampum was also used by white fur traders in their trade with the Native Americans in the early part of the 17th cent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.