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Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » American Encounters: Native American History at the Clements Library » Case 6: Sacred Objects, Instruments of Negotiation, and Commodities

Case 6: Sacred Objects, Instruments of Negotiation, and Commodities

Items within this case

Barthélemy Vimont,  Relation De Ce Qvi S’est Passé En La Novvelle France, és Annees 1644. & 1645, Paris: 1646.

An early published account of the use of wampum beads in diplomatic ceremony may be found in Barthélemy Vimont’s Jesuit Relations.  This volume includes the description of a treaty conference held between the confederated Iroquois tribes and the French at Three Rivers, Canada, in July 1645.  At the council, Iroquois Chief Kiotseaeton presented the French (and their Canadian Indian allies) with a series of wampum “collars,” which were used as gifts and as a record of their dedication to peaceful interactions.

Manuscript communication, from Colonel [Richard] Butler, the Mohawks, and the Oneidas to the Onandaga (by way of the Senecas and Cayugas).  March 29, 1779.

This message seeks to form tribal alliances against common enemies.  Each of the proposed agreements, including the movement of the council fire, is followed by a quantity of wampum belts or strings.

From the Great Britain Indian Department Collection.

Indian Commissioners’ Receipts, 1776.

Silver and other goods (such as textiles and foodstuffs) were also used for political purposes.  These receipts document purchases made by Indian Commissioners of the new United States.  The goods were given to Shawnee, Lenape, Six Nations, and other tribes in Pennsylvania and the Ohio Country, as gestures of peace and to encourage attendance at a treaty council held at Fort Pitt in October 1776.  The purpose of the council was to establish peace, and so reduce American fears that the British might encourage the tribes to attack the fort.

From a collection of 98 Indian Commissioners’ Receipts.


Wampum are small cylindrical white or black (purple) beads, made from the white inner whorls of whelk or dark eyes of quahog shells.  These beads are woven into bracelets and belts, or threaded on strings, and are used in diplomatic negotiations, as documentation of events and legal commitments, as ritual objects, and as a trade commodity. 

The colors and motifs woven into the belts and bracelets bear meanings:  white tending to signify positive and purple signifying negative messages (or used for the creation of patterns).  Wampum belts hold great spiritual importance.

The Clements Library acquired the papers of Josiah Harmar in 1936.  Harmar was a brigadier general in the United States Army, serving as military commander in the Northwest Territory from 1784 to 1791.  The collection arrived with multiple wampum belts and strings.  These wampum strings were likely manufactured by an eastern Algonquin tribe.

The wampum from the Josiah Harmar Papers were placed on indefinite loan to the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology in 1946.  The above description of the Harmar Papers wampum is based on a summary provided by the George G. Heye Foundation.

Trade Silver

Beginning in the mid-1600s, Europeans imported metalwork into America as silver, brass, copper, and pewter medals and jewelry.  The 18th and 19th century fur trade increased demand for silver adornments, which encouraged entrepreneurial European silversmiths to set up workshops in North America.

Please Note: The silver buttons were not included in the original American Encounters exhibit.