Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/The Origin of Primitive Money

950735Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 January 1886 — The Origin of Primitive Money1886Horatio Hale



THE European colonists who first became acquainted with the Indian tribes of the region now composing the United States and Canada were surprised and not a little interested when they found that these barbarous clans had, in one respect, a marked advantage over the great semi-civilized communities of Central and South America. The Mexicans and Peruvians were much addicted to traffic; but, like the Egyptians and Assyrians of early ages, they carried on their commerce without the use of money. The wampum of the Northern tribes was a real money, and as such it was destined to play an important part, for more than two centuries, in the intercourse between them and their white neighbors. Lawson, the historian of Carolina, writing nearly two hundred years ago, described in quaint but expressive terms, and with a satiric touch aimed at his own people, the place which this remarkable invention held in the social policy of the red-men. "This," he says, "is the money with which you may buy skins, furs, slaves, or anything the Indians have; it being the Mammon (as our money is to us) that entices and persuades them to do anything, and part with everything they possess, except," he adds significantly, "their children for slaves. . . . With this they buy off murders; and whatsoever a man may do that is ill, their wampum will quit him of, and make him, in their opinion, good and virtuous, though never so black before."

So common and wide-spread was the use of this money among the Indians, that the white colonists were fain to adopt it from them, and their laws for a time gave it an established value and circulation throughout New England and New York. In Massachusetts, as Dr. Ashbel Woodward tells us in his valuable monograph on "Wampum," it was made by statute, as early as 1637, a legal tender for any sum under twelvepence, at the rate of six beads for a penny; and in Connecticut it actually became a legal tender for any amount, being receivable for taxes at four beads for a penny. In Massachusetts the same valuation was adopted in 1640, four white beads or two blue beads being rated at a penny. In New York, for nearly half a century, owing to the scarcity of silver money, wampum was almost the only currency in use; and, though its circulation in ordinary traffic gradually ceased, it was still employed in the Indian trade down nearly to the middle of the present century.

The material of this aboriginal currency may be described briefly as "shell-beads." It must not, however, be confounded with the cowries, or small shells, which are in use for a similar purpose in some parts of India and Africa. It differed from them, in fact, as coined money differs from bullion. Wampum was a manufactured article. The great labor required to produce it was, indeed, the main element in its value. It was used in two forms. The least common, but apparently the earliest form, was that of disks, varying in size from that of an English sixpence, or rather, perhaps, from that of an American half-dime, to that of an English shilling, but somewhat thicker than these coins. One writer compares them, for size and thickness, to a peppermint-lozenge. These disks were perforated through the center, and commonly threaded upon a string. The other and more usual kind was of cylindrical shape, resembling the segment of a clay pipestem. These smaller beads had a diameter of about the eighth of an inch, and a length about twice or three times as great. Like the others, they were perforated, and usually strung upon a deer's sinew or a string of some description.

These disks, or cylinders, were of two colors, white and dark-purple, the latter generally styled black. They were made from seashells of several descriptions. The white beads were usually derived from various species of periwinkles or conchs. The purple sort were made chiefly from the large round clam, common on the Atlantic coast, and known by the Indian name of quahaug, and in science as Venus mercenaria. This mollusk has near the anterior end of the otherwise white inside of each valve a deep purple or brownish-black scar, indicating the point of muscular attachment, and known to fishermen as the "eye." This dark spot was broken out by the Indians to form their "black wampum," which, from its greater rarity, was always rated at a higher value than the white beads. Such, in brief, is the account given by Mr. Ernest Ingersoll, in his excellent article on "Wampum and its History," in the "American Naturalist" for May, 1883. The Indians who lived along the sea-coast were the principal manufacturers, and drove a brisk trade in this article with the tribes of the interior. Long Island, in particular, was a noted seat of this industry. It was the Potosi or California of the Northern Indians, and bore among them the name of Seawanhake, or "Land of Wampum." In traffic the money was computed sometimes by the number of beads, and sometimes by the length of the string.

The word wampum is of Algonkin origin. Its application to this money originated in a misconception of the early colonists. Properly it means simply "white." Peage or peake, we are told, was the name of the shell-beads, at least when strung. When loose, the term sewan (or, as pronounced by the Dutch colonists, zeewand) was applied to them. This term is said to mean simply "scattered," or "loose." A string of white beads, the most common currency, was called by the Indians wampum-peak; or "white strung-beads." The first portion of the compound word was caught by the settlers, and hence all money-beads became known among them as "wampum." To break from the shell the fragment suitable for a bead, to rasp it on a stone to the proper circular or cylindrical shape, to polish it to an ivory smoothness, and then to pierce it with a drill-point of flint, was a tedious labor. It was this labor which, in great part, gave the wampum its value. This alone, however, would not have been sufficient, if the article had not held, in the social system of the Indians, a position which kept it always in demand. By their custom, handed down from time immemorial, it was essential that all great acts of state policy should be accompanied by the exhibition of wampum in some form. The messenger who summoned the chiefs of a tribe to a public meeting bore a string of wampum to authenticate his errand. The embassador, in proposing a treaty, laid down a string or belt of wampum at the close of every clause of his address. When the treaty was concluded, several belts were usually exchanged, by way of ratification. A belt of black wampum, formally delivered, was a declaration of war. A string of black wampum, borne by a runner, announced to all the villages of an Indian nation the death of a high chief; and, at his burial, belts and strings of wampum were deposited in his grave. At the great religious festival of the Iroquois, the "Sacrifice of the White Dog," the dead animal was enveloped in strings of wampum, which were burned with him. The belts and strings which accompanied the making of treaties and the framing of laws were kept as tribal records, and were brought forth on great occasions to be exhibited and explained to the people. The belts which commemorated the conclusion of the famous League of the Iroquois, framed by Hiawatha, Atotarho, and their associate chiefs, four hundred years ago, are still preserved on the Onondaga Reservation in the State of New York.

The belts, it should be added, were composed of short strings of wampum, containing from six to twenty-four beads each, laid side by side, and closely knotted together. The length of the string made the width of the belt, which varied from two to nine or ten inches, while its length varied from two to eight feet. The wider and longer the belt, the greater, of course, was its value, and the higher its significance as a pledge or memorial. Each belt usually had its special device, whose meaning was well understood. This device was wrought sometimes in white beads on a dark ground, sometimes in purple beads on a white ground. These symbols were genuine hieroglyphics, resembling the ancient pictorial figures in which the modern Chinese characters had their origin. In the Chinese script a parallelogram signifies an inclosure; it is the fence of a field. On an Iroquois belt a parallelogram denotes a town; for with them, in ancient times, the town was inclosed in a rectangular palisade. A lozenge-shaped figure represents a council; it is the Indian hearth, around which the councilors assembled. Oblique marks across a belt are the stamp and token of the Iroquois confederacy. They represent the rafters of the "longhouse," to which the confederacy was likened. Others of these symbols are remembered, but a far greater number have been forgotten. Of the many hundreds, and indeed thousands, of belts which are known to have been fashioned during the last three centuries, each bearing its own device, less than fifty whose meaning can be explained are now known to exist.

Wampum Belt, commemorating the formation of the League of the "Five Nations" (Iroquois). The lozenge-shaped figure represents a native hearth, and indicates the Onondagas, the central nation who kept the council-fire of the confederacy. The square inclosures represent the other nations, the Mohawks and Oneidas on the right (or east), and the Cayugas and Senecas on the left. The connecting lines denote the "peace-path" opened between the nations by the League. The belt is about two feet long and ten inches wide.

Shell-beads exactly resembling the wampum are found in great abundance in the graves of the mound-builders, and sometimes, along with them, the large conch-shells from which such beads were made. Messrs. Squier and Davis, in their well-known work on the "Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley," remark that "the number of beads found in the mounds is truly surprising; they may be counted in some instances by hundreds and thousands." They are described as resembling "sections cut from the ends of rods, or small cylinders, and subsequently more or less rounded upon the edge. Some are quite flat, and resemble the bone buttons of commerce; others are perfectly round. Their diameter varies from one fourth to three fourths of an inch. The size of the perforation is also variable, usually, however, about one tenth of an inch." No one doubts that these beads were used for the same purposes among this vanished people as among their successors. Dr. Daniel Wilson, in his admirable work on "Prehistoric Man," after referring to the fact that in the great Grave Creek Mound, evidently reared over the tomb of some notable personage, the shell-beads, such as constitute the wampum of the forest tribes, amounted to between three and four thousand, finds it "singularly consistent with the partial civilization of the ancient mound-builders that in such deposits we have the relics of sepulchral records, which constituted the scroll of fame of the illustrious dead, or copies of the national archives deposited with the great sachem, to whose wisdom or prowess the safety of his people had been due."

Indeed, when we consider that the tribes among whom the wampum currency and records were afterward used, in the particular form thus far described, were those which at first surrounded and afterward either conquered or absorbed this semi-civilized people, we might be tempted to conclude that the knowledge of this peculiar invention was a bequest to these modern tribes from their more advanced predecessors—just as some of the arts of Roman civilization were inherited by the barbarous conquerors of the empire. It is not impossible, nor indeed very improbable, that such may have been actually the case in this instance. But further inquiry shows that this system had a wider extent and probably a far remoter origin than this suggestion would explain.[1]

Crossing the Rocky Mountains, we find the shell-money in actual use among the tribes of the Pacific coast, down almost to our own day. Three kinds were known. In Northern California, in Oregon, and still farther north, a rare species of cylindrical univalve, the Dentalium, or tusk-shell, known in the Chinook "jargon" as the hiqua, or ioqua, was strung upon a string, and used as money. Its extreme rarity and its attractiveness as an ornament made, as with the pearl, its only claim to value. But farther south the genuine wampum, or disk-money, owing its value to the labor bestowed upon it, and to its importance in the social policy of the people, was in universal use. Full and interesting details on this subject are given by Mr. Stephen Powers in his instructive work on the "Tribes of California." Among the Nishinams and, as he believes, among all the tribes of Central and Southern California, the materials chiefly used are two species of sea-shell, found upon the coast. The most common is a thick white shell, the Pachydesma crassatelloides, from which is formed the money known as hâwok. This consists, he writes, "of circular disks or buttons, ranging from a quarter-inch to an inch in diameter, and varying in thickness with the shell. These are pierced in the center, and strung on strings made of the inner bark of the wild cotton, or milkweed (Asclepias), and either all the pieces on a string, or all in one section of it, are of the same size." The value of this money varies with the size of the disks. The larger pieces are rated at about twenty-five cents; the half-inch pieces at about half that value; and the smallest pieces at three or four cents, being usually rated by the string. "This," continues Mr. Powers, "may be called their silver, and is the great medium of all transactions; while the money answering to gold is made from varieties of the ear-shell (Haliotis) and is called ullo. They cut these shells with flints into oblong strips, from an inch to two inches in length, according to the curvature of the shell, and about a third as broad as they are long. Two holes are drilled near the narrow end of each piece, and they are thereby fastened to a string of the material above-named, hanging edge to edge. Ten pieces generally constitute a string, and the larger pieces rate at one dollar apiece—ten dollars a string; the smaller in proportion, or loss, if they are not pretty. Being susceptible of a high polish, this money forms a beautiful ornament, and is worn for necklaces on gala-days. But as money it is rather too large and cumbersome, and the Indians generally seek to exchange it for the less brilliant and more useful hâwok. The ullo may be considered rather as jewelry. The peculiar shape given to this ullo, or "gold-money," is deserving of notice, as will be seen hereafter.

Of the shell-money in general Mr. Powers remarks that "immense quantities of it were formerly in circulation among the Californian Indians, and the manufacture of it was large and constant, to replace the continual wastage which was caused by the sacrifice of so much upon the death of wealthy men, and by the propitiatory sacrifices performed by many tribes, especially those of the Coast Range." This use of shell-money in sacrifices and in funeral ceremonies is precisely the same that is made of the Eastern wampum. Like the shape of the oblong ullo money, this is a fact which will be found significant as we proceed. Mr. Powers continues: "From my own observations, which have not been limited, and from the statements of pioneers and the Indians themselves, I hesitate little to express the belief that every Indian in the State, in early days, possessed an average of at least one hundred dollars' worth of shell-money. This," adds the author, with a commercial precision which is both commendable and amusing, "would represent the value of about two women (though the Nishinams never actually bought their wives), or two grizzly-bear skins, or twenty-five cinnamon-bear skins, or about three average ponies. This may be considered a fair statement of the diffusion of wealth among them in their primitive condition."

Thus it will be seen that shell-money of this peculiar character was in use over a wide space of North America, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. The line along which it is found in the greatest abundance extends from New York and the Ohio Valley to Southern California in a direction somewhat south of west. If we continue this line in the same direction a little more than half-way across the Pacific, we arrive at the widely extended range of small islands, or congeries of island-groups, known in modern geography by the name of Micronesia. It fills a great part of the western half of the ocean north of the equator, and comprises the Radack and Ralick chains, the Kingsmill and Marshall groups, the Marian (or Ladrono) and Caroline Islands, the Pelews, Panape, Eap, and many smaller clusters and single islets. The well-known Loo-Choo islands form the stepping-stones, as it were, which lead from this vast archipelago to China and Japan. The natives of Micronesia are in about the same social stage as that which had been attained by the North American Indians when they were first known to the whites. In character, usages, and language they resemble to a certain extent the natives of the southern and eastern Pacific groups, which are included in the designation of Polynesia but with some striking differences, which careful observers have ascribed, with great probability, to influences from Northeastern Asia. They are noted for their skill in navigation. They have well-rigged vessels exceeding sixty feet in length. They sail by the stars, and are accustomed to undertake long voyages.

The southernmost group of Micronesia, commonly known as the Kingsmill Islands, was visited and partly surveyed by the vessels of the Wilkes Exploring Expedition. During a very brief intercourse with the natives of the principal island, Taputeuea, large quantities of what was at first supposed to be an ornament were obtained from the natives, in exchange for other wares which they valued. This peculiar article was thus described, before its real character was understood: "It consists of a string of alternate wooden and shell beads, if this term may be applied to them. The 'beads' are in the shape of a sixpence with a hole through its center, or more nearly like the 'button-molds' of our dress-makers. They are made of fragments of cocoanut-shell and sea-shells, which are broken or cut nearly to the required shape, and then filed down together till they are smooth, even, and exactly of equal size. Those of sea-shell are white, and those of cocoanut black. They are strung alternately upon a small cord, and appear like a round flexible stick, half an inch in diameter, marked with alternate white and black rings." The beads, it appears, by the specimens preserved in the National Museum at Washington, were not all of one size. Besides the larger sort, resembling an English sixpence, there was a smaller description, of about half that size, and bearing when strung a surprising resemblance to a string of small wampum beads, the only difference being that the Kingsmill Island disks are thinner than the proper wampum cylinders; but both in size and in thickness they resemble closely the smaller shell-money of California.

Further researches disclosed the true nature of this article, which, as it appeared, had been already studied and described by earlier voyagers at other islands of the Micronesian range. Adalbert von Chamisso, the naturalist who accompanied Admiral Kotzebue in his voyage around the world, was the first to make known its character and use. In speaking of the natives of the Ladrone Islands, now an extinct people, he remarks: "We have discovered among their antiquities something which seems to show a great advance made in civilization beyond any of the other islanders of the great ocean. We speak of the invention of money. . . . Disks of tortoise-shell, of the shape of button-molds, but thin as paper, and made extremely smooth by rubbing, are strung close together on a thick cord of twisted cocoanut-husk. The whole forms a flexible cylinder of the thickness of a finger, and several feet in length. These disks were in circulation as a medium of exchange, and only a few of the chiefs had the right to make and issue them." Some other facts are mentioned, which seem to indicate that

Chinese Copper Cash (ancient coins).
Kingsmill Island Shell-Money (white and black).
California Shell-Money (various sizes).
Shell-Disks from Illinois Mounds (ancient).
Ancient Wampum from Mounds.
Shell-Disks from Huron Graves.Large Wampum-Bead from Onondaga (recent).
Small Wampum-Beads, white and purple (recent).

this tortoise-shell money had an important place in the social usages of the people.

This ancient currency of the Ladrones was evidently the same with the supposed bead-ornaments of the Kingsmill-Islanders, except that the latter use other shells instead of that of the tortoise. But, when the nature of the commodity became apparent, some noteworthy inferences were drawn from it. As has been already observed, some of the customs and much of the mythology of the Micronesian Islanders seem to have sprung from communication with Northeastern Asia. This peculiar currency takes us in the same direction. The most common Chinese coins, their copper cash, have a hole through the center, are strung upon strings, and disposed of by lengths. This money is in use in the Loo-Choo Islands, midway between Micronesia and China. In Beechey's voyage to the Pacific, speaking of the assertion hastily made by Captain Basil Hall, that the people of Loo-Choo have no money, he says, "Our meeting with this peasant, however, disclosed the truth, as he had a string of cash (small Chinese money) suspended to his girdle, in the manner adopted by the Chinese." In a foot-note he adds, "These coins, being of small value, are strung together in hundreds, and have a knot at each end, so that it is not necessary to count them."

But evidence still more remarkable is afforded by the very valuable "Monograph on the History of Money in China," which we owe to Mr. Alexander Del Mar, late of the United States Monetary Commission, and author of "A History of the Precious Metals," and other works. He mentions a curious fact recorded in the great Chinese encyclopædia of the Emperor Kang-he, who reigned in the early part of the last century. In this work it is stated that "in ancient times the money of China was of tortoise-shell." How far back we must go for these "ancient times" is sufficiently shown, as Mr. Del Mar remarks, by the fact that Kang-he himself possessed a cabinet of metallic coins dating from the reign of Yaou, b. c. 2347; and the Chinese annalists assert that metal coins were known in the time of Fuh-he, six hundred years before the date just recorded. From this it might seem that nearly five thousand years have elapsed since this tortoise-shell money was in common use in China. But, from what we know of the conservative temperament of the Chinese, it seems highly probable that many centuries must have passed before the clumsy and burdensome copper coins completely superseded the lighter and more convenient tortoiseshell disks and slips. Cowries are used to this day, along with metallic coins, in some parts of the East Indies. It is not unlikely that the total disappearance of the shell-money from the currency of China dates from the period when paper-money first came into use in that empire, which is said to have been in the reign of Woo-te, about one hundred and forty years before the Christian era.

Some very ancient Chinese coins are still preserved in the cabinets of antiquarians. Mr. Del Mar gives us pictures of several of these, the earliest being a coin of the Emperor Sung, dating 2257 years before Christ. These early coins are of various shapes, some being round with a square or round hole in the center, and some oblong with a hole at one end, evidently for stringing them. These oblong coins are spoken of as knife-shaped or bell-shaped, though the resemblances thus indicated are not very apparent. Dr. Tylor, whose careful research no evidence of this nature escapes, observes, in his standard work on "Anthropology," that "perhaps the earliest money may have been the Chinese little marked cubes of gold, and the pieces of copper in the shape of shirts and knives, as though intended to represent real shirts and knives." This is certainly an acute and striking suggestion; but we have to consider that the circular pieces, the most common of all, could hardly have been intended to represent any implement or other object of traffic. And when we refer to California, where, as has been seen, oblong pieces of shell, perforated at one end, were used as a variety of their currency, we are led to suppose that the early copper coins of the Chinese, both oblong and round, derived their shapes from imitation of the still earlier disks and strips of tortoise-shell which they superseded.

Ancient Chinese Coins Ullo.—Oblong Shell-Money of California.

A singular usage still prevailing in China seems to point back to a time when the ordinary money was made of some combustible material. "Mock-money," as it is called, is composed of tin-foil and paper, and this is burned in large quantities at funerals and in sacrifices to the gods. In California, as has been seen, the Indians were accustomed to burn their shell-money in a similar manner. The Eastern Indians buried wampum with their dead, and burned it in their sacrifices.

Thus shell-money of this peculiar description, composed of small circular disks, perforated and strung together, and used both as currency and also (so far as our information extends) in important public and religious ceremonies, has been traced from the eastern coast of North America westward across the continent to California, and thence through the Micronesian Archipelago to China. In no other parts of the world, except those situated along or near this line (as in some parts of Melanesia), has the use of this singular currency been known. It is possible, of course, that the custom may have originated independently in each of the four principal regions in which it existed—that is, in China, Micronesia, California, and Eastern North America. Few persons, however, will be inclined to doubt that the Micronesians received this invention from Eastern Asia; and, at the other end of the line, the transmission of the usage from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other will seem equally probable. The only question will be as to its passage across the Pacific. The fact recorded by Dr. Wilson, in his work already quoted, that in 1833 a Japanese junk was wrecked on the coast of Oregon, and that some of her crew were subsequently

1, Chinese Cash; 2 and 3. Kingsmill Island Shell-Money (large and small); 4, California Shell-Money (small); 5, Wampum (large), all white; 6, Wampum (small), white and purple.

rescued from captivity among the Indians of that region, will show how easily this transmission might have been made. Nor is this the only instance known. Mr. Charles Wolcott Brooks, in his report on Japanese vessels wrecked in the North Pacific Ocean, read before the California Academy of Sciences in March, 1876, states that "one of these junks was wrecked on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1831, and numerous others have been wrecked on other parts of the Northwest coast."

In certain respects the history of money bears a notable resemblance to the history of the alphabet, or rather of written speech. Nations have attained a high degree of civilization without a knowledge of either of these inventions; and each invention, when once known, has spread widely and rapidly through populations in very different stages of social progress. The alphabet, from a rude and vague beginning in Egypt, passed thence through Phœnicia to Greece, where it was perfected, and whence, in a few centuries, it was diffused to India on the one side and to Scandinavia and Britain on the other. In like manner coined money, vaguely beginning, as Rome suppose, with the scarabæi of Egypt, was brought to perfection in Greece, and thence spread through many civilized nations of Asia and among the semi-barbarous communities of Western Europe.

Both the art of writing and the use of money seem to have had an indigenous origin in China. The Chinese written character has spread through a large part of Eastern Asia. The Chinese currency, in its ancient form of shell-money, appears to have had a still wider diffusion. It has spread, apparently, through the islands of the North Pacific, and, either thence or directly from China or Japan, has been carried across the ocean to California, and so found its way eastward to the Ohio Valley and the Atlantic coast.

The fact, if it be a fact, that the Indians of the west coast of America received their monetary system from Eastern Asia or from the Pacific Islands, could not in itself be regarded as affording evidence that America was first peopled from that direction, just as the fact that the coinage of Bactria was derived from Greece would not indicate that the Bactrian population was of Grecian origin. All that we could infer would be some early intercourse, such as recent experience warrants us in supposing. A Chinese junk, or a large Micronesian prao, drifting to the Californian coast some three or four thousand years ago, would sufficiently explain the introduction of an art so easily learned as that of making and using perforated shell-disks for money.

  1. Those who desire to pursue this inquiry will find ample material in the valuable essay on "Art in Shell of the Ancient Americans," by Mr. W. H. Holmes, in the Second Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology.