“Wampum belts” and “wampum strings”… what do these expressions refer to in the colonial archives of the Library and Archives Canada collection?
Wampum—a word originating among the Algonquian peoples in the southern parts of New England—refers to tubular white and purple beads made from certain seashells found only on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an abbreviation of wampumpeague (or wampumpeake), meaning “a string of white shell beads.” In the early 17th century, wampum became an important trade item in the growing fur trade in the northeast of the continent, in addition to serving as currency in the Dutch and English colonies until the 1660s.
The Iroquoian peoples from inland areas made special use of wampum in their formal diplomatic meetings with foreign or neighbouring groups. The shell beads were woven into strings and belts of varying sizes, which could contain anywhere from a few hundred to over ten thousand beads.
Playing a central role in international meetings and in maintaining good relationships, wampum belts were offered at official gatherings to record the words spoken, to render them official and legitimate. From the early 17th century to about the early 19th century, use of this diplomatic system spread to a large part of the American Northeast, from the vast Great Lakes region to the Maritimes, although with significant variations.
Since they were used to record spoken words, some wampum belts were kept for many years to ensure that the messages on them were maintained and preserved over time. That is why observers in the 17th and 18th centuries often compared wampum belts to archives or other official written documents (deeds, registers, annals, contracts, etc.).
Wampum belts were sometimes kept over a long period so that the terms of agreements reached would not be lost. As a support for oral tradition, wampum belts bearing the words spoken at a special event therefore had to be accompanied by a speech to be meaningful. Accordingly, the keeper of the wampum belts ensured that their meaning was repeated from time to time to community members. Periodically, he repeated publicly the “content” of the wampum belts preserved so that the nation’s history would be transmitted to the younger generation.
To continue your search: Wampum belts are frequently mentioned in the France fonds des colonies and the Haldimand fonds. The Héritage project is presently digitizing the many microfilm reels contained in these fonds.