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Glass Trade Beads - History

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  • Glass Trade Beads - History

    The earliest known beads were made from materials such as bone, teeth, ivory, seeds, wood, stone, and resins from a variety of insects and plants. The purpose

    Link provided by Chase
    Look to the ground for it holds the past!

  • #2
    Glass Trade Beads – Early History
    Columbus -and- The Beginnings
    Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans were producing carved and polished beads made from wood, seeds, bone, antler, ivory, shell, stone and – in some areas - copper. Early European explorers in the New World were quick to recognise the cultural importance of beads to the native populations and equally quick to exploit that importance. The strategy of “beads -and- trinkets for the natives” was already well established from explorations in other territories. Items such as colourful Venetian glass beads, metal bracelets, small bells (of the kind used in falconry) and knitted woollen caps had been successful in Portuguese trade expeditions to West Africa and Columbus carried large quantities of all these items as standard cargo on the Santa Maria for his voyage of discovery.
    The Santa Maria was the largest of his three ships and served as the cargo vessel. The other ships were smaller and more suited to exploration of shallow bays and estuaries. The Santa Maria was also intended as the vessel which would transport any wealth back to the Old World and that required an “empty” hold, within which glass beads served as good ballast on the outward journey.
    So, it’s no surprise that Columbus’ log of 12th October 1492 when he had reached San Salvador records:  “Presently many inhabitants of the island assembled... I gave to some of them red caps, and glass beads to put round their necks, and many other things of little value, which gave them great pleasure… They afterwards came to the ship's boats... bringing us parrots, cotton threads in skeins, spears, and many other things; and we exchanged them for... glass beads and small bells.” There are further references from 15th October onwards: “… gave him a red cap, put some glass beads upon his arms"; “I ordered each man to be presented with something, as strings of ten or a dozen glass beads apiece, and thongs of leather, all which they estimated highly”; “we saw several of the natives advancing towards our party, and one of them came up to us, to whom we gave some hawk's bells and glass beads, with which he was delighted. We asked him in return, for water… I ordered more glass beads to be given them, and they promised to return the next day.”
    Around 10am on the 16th October, Columbus departed San Salvador for another island (Fernandina) that had been pointed out by the Taino on San Salvador and later overtook a lone native in a canoe, apparently making the same journey. They brought him on board and Columbus was astonished to discover: “he had besides a little basket made after their fashion, containing some glass beads, and two blancas [Castilian copper coins] by all which I knew he had come from San Salvador.” So at least one enterprising native had begun trading the items brought by Columbus from the moment he received them!
    The pattern continued, with Cortéz carrying large quantities of glass beads when he landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519, as did Narváez in 1527 and De Soto in 1539 for trade with the natives in Florida.
    Why the Fascination with Trade Beads?
    The technology of Europeans enabled a much greater variety of colours and patterns to be produced than was possible for Native Americans using local materials and available technologies. Many early explorers reported that natives had a particular fascination for blue beads (a difficult colour for them to reproduce) and also – perhaps oddly - for pure white beads. All European beads were regarded as prestige items. They would be worn on special or ceremonial occasions but not for everyday use. At night they would be carefully hung up in tipi or lodge. As well as being used for trade as a form of currency, these beads could be used to broker safe passage through hostile territory or even compensate injured and insulted parties.
    Beads were also very convenient. Strong, waterproof, compact, lightweight and easy to carry. They would be restrung and re-arranged as nicer items were acquired and also handed down through families to be cherished. It’s not therefore unusual to find original strings of beads which cover a very wide range of dates.
    The Spread of Trade Beads into America
    Robert Jirka’s comprehensive paper “Trade Bead Migration into North America” can be viewed here (no pictures) but you need a log-in to download it:
    The reproduction of this article in whole or in part without the written permission from either Anita or Robert Jirka is prohibited.

    Early Colonists – Jamestown, Virginia
    In January 1608, English Captains Christopher Newport and John Smith led a team of Jamestown colonists on a trading venture to secure corn supplies from the Algonquian Powhatan Indians. Chief Powhatan showed no inclination to trade, had placed a high value on his people’s corn and an argument ensued. That argument evaporated when Smith saw the Chief’s reaction to a handful of European beads. In Smith’s words, the Chief: “fixed his humour upon a few blew [blue] beads” and “importunatly desired them.” Smith then exaggerated the desirability of the beads, telling Chief Powhatan that they were: “composed of a most rare substance of the colour of the skyes, and not to be worne but by the greatest kings in the world.” Without much more ado, the Chief “for a pound or two of blew beads… offered “2 or 300 bushels of corne.” [Barbour 1986].
    Heather A. Lapham’s paper “More Than “A Few Blew Beads”: The Glass and Stone Beads from Jamestown Rediscovery’s 1994-1997 Excavations” published by the University of Virginia can be viewed here (you need a log-in to download it):
    Investigation of the glass and stone beads uncovered during Jamestown Rediscovery’s 1994-1997 field seasons identified 28 different varieties and established a material line of evidence on which to base subsequent studies regarding intercultural

    Although the glass beads from those excavations were European imports, a glass factory was built near Jamestown in 1622 to home-produce beads. It was a short-lived venture, being burnt down by a raiding party in the Indian Massacre of 1622 when surprise attacks were launched on at least 31 separate English settlements and plantations, mostly along the James River. Very few examples of its beads are known, but a cache of glass beads recovered at Leedstown (about 60 miles north of Jamestown) may have come from that factory and were likely produced by immigrant Italian glass-workers [Willoughby 1973].
    The Manhattan Purchase
    The oft-repeated story of Manhattan Island being purchased with $24 worth of beads is untrue. American scholars didn't even know that Manhattan Island had been a negotiated purchase until 1846, following the discovery, translation and publication of a stash of documents discovered in the Dutch national archives. Martha J. Lamb published her “History of the City of New York” in 1877 and fabricated an account of the purchase which the documents don’t support: “He [Peter Minuit, the director] then called together some of the principal Indian chiefs, and offered beads, buttons, and other trinkets in exchange for their real estate. They accepted the terms with unfeigned delight, and the bargain was closed at once” and a similar story was repeated in J.G. Wilson's seemingly authoritative “Memorial History of the City of New-York“ in 1892.
    In short, all the documents actually tell us is that an authorisation (but not an instruction) was given to the director of the colony (New Netherlands) by the Dutch West India Company in 1625 that: “In case any Indian should be living on the aforesaid land or make any claim upon it or any other places that are of use to us, they must not be driven away by force or threat, but by good words be persuaded to leave, or be given something therefor to their satisfaction…”
    Manhattan was not the company’s first choice but it was reported in a letter in 1626 that the island had been purchased “for the value of 60 guilders” (about $1,000 at today’s values) without any mention of trade beads or delight or the bargain being closed at once. The purchase deed was not present in the documents but a partial copy of the deed for Staten Island (the subject of a similar purchase) also makes no mention of trade beads – at least not glass ones. For Staten Island, it is recorded that shell beads (wampum) together with “drilling awls” used to make them were exchanged, but not in payment. More as a symbolic way of ratifying the deal.
    Peter Francis, Jr. received the Kerr History Prize in 1986 for his article “The Beads That Did Not Buy Manhattan Island” which debunked the myth. The above information is heavily condensed from that source.
    The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) -and- Fur Trade (1670-1870 approx)
    The HBC was incorporated by English royal charter in 1670 as the “Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson's Bay” which effectively made it the “government” in more than 1/8 of North America’s landmass before territories began to be formally claimed. Its traders established friendly relations with many tribes in order to build up a huge fur-trading empire in the northwest, based mainly on beaver skins but also racoon and other animals.
    Although the HBC was the largest trader, it had competitors such as John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and the North West Company but made several acquisitions to buy out the competition. Company trading posts stocked barter goods such as axes, knives, kettles, fish-hooks, needles, and blankets but glass beads were the currency of trade for a couple of hundred years, with each company having its own sources and types with various defined values. A prepared stretched beaver skin was worth six standard HBC beads. Unfortunately, the records are somewhat patchy with respect to who used what type of bead and from where.
    There’s some great information and pictures on the author O. Ned Eddins’ website titled “Indian Fur Trade Beads” here:

    Bead Sources
    Early trade beads arriving in America came mostly from the workshops of Venice and after a while from Murano in Italy and Aleppo. The Netherlands was also a substantial producer (mainly from Amsterdam and Delft). In later times the bulk of the output came from the Bohemian region of central Europe (much of what is now Czechoslovakia) and Poland. England, France and Spain produced them too.
    The so-called “Russian blue” bead has little to do with Russia. These transparent dark blue beads were most usually faceted with 18, 21 or 24 faces, fire-polished and produced in Bohemia in the early 1800’s. They were widely traded to Russian fur-hunters in Alaska and the northwest coast by both Americans and Europeans in exchange for furs, from the 1860’s onwards. That’s really why they came to be known as “Russian blues” but the term has been indiscriminately extended to describe other unrelated blue beads.
    As trading companies sought to reduce their costs and improve their profits, beads were increasingly sourced from China and India – especially towards the end of the fur trade period and beyond.
    Other Areas of the World
    One other thing worth noting is that trade beads of the type found in America are not necessarily confined to that continent. Apart from unique styles produced to order and used principally in the fur trade, other types were traded elsewhere and identical examples can be found in other colonial territories such as Africa and Australia.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.


    • #3
      Research paper, PDF: A classification system for Glass Beads
      Color examples are on the last few pages.

      Searching the fields of NW Indiana and SW Michigan