8 min read

The Native American wampum belt telling another story of the Mayflower

photo of a woman holding a bead made belt

Danielle Hill with the new wampum belt.

As we reflect on the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower – the ship that transported the first ‘Pilgrims’ from England to the New World in 1620 – a new exhibition is exploring the colonial legacy of the Puritan settlement of America

The story of Native Americans who helped the Pilgrims and unwittingly sowed the seed of European ascendancy in North America, is one that has laid submerged and sometimes been swept aside in the wider story of the Founding Fathers.

Now Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America has been developed by the Box Plymouth in partnership with the Wampanoag Nation in the USA, and aims to redress this imbalance by exploring their life in America today, their cultural history and the impact of the colonial past, as well as their creative aspirations for the future.

The exhibition centres on a wampum belt newly created by people of the Wampanoag Nation, alongside historic material from British museums.

As well as carrying the history, culture and the name of the Wampanoag people, wampum belts are a tapestry of art and tribal history. Made from the purple and white shells of the whelk and the purple quahog clam shells found on the eastern shores of North America, the beads and belts are said to embody the Wampanoag connection to the sea and to life itself, with each one imbued with memory and meaning.

long view of a wampum belt made of beads

The new wampum belt.

a close up photo of a bead design on a belt

Part of a design in close up.

a photo of a part of a beaded belt

early part of new wampum belt.

Traditionally worn as jewellery or as shawls, the most elaborate were woven into belts, which were carried by tribal leaders and are as significant to the Wampanoag as crowns are to royalty.

But with the coming of European travellers to North America during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wampum beads were increasingly used as an exchange between Native Americans and early settlers who even adopted wampum as a currency – producing their own beads before inflation caused the bead currency system to collapse and become obsolete.

The Wampanoag, also known as People of the First Light, or the People of the Dawn, have lived on the eastern coast of North America for 12,000 years – and they’re still there. Most of the 5,000 Wampanoag people today live in the federally recognised tribal nations of Mashpee and Aquinnah. They are also one of the indigenous peoples who met with the Pilgrims, ensuring their survival, but ultimately suffering as European settlers expanded their influence.

From 1675-76, the devastating ‘King Philip’s War’ erupted as the colonists expanded their territories, previous agreements broke down and vicious raids and counter-raids saw settlements of the English and Wampanoag in Southeastern Massachusetts ravaged and destroyed. The war escalated into the bloodiest in colonial US history, culminating in the deaths of more than 1,000 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans.

Among the fallen was Wampanoag leader Metacom, also known as King Philip, who was killed by a militia force of ‘rangers’ led by the Englishman Captain Benjamin Church. After the final defeat, tribal treasures were turned over to Church, including Metacom’s legendary Wampum Belt.

a close up photo of multi coloured beads on a belt

Wampum beads on belt close up.

a photo of a seashells and beads made from it

Shell and beads.

a photo of a group of wampum beads

Wampum beads.

Metacom’s belt served as a document of the tribe’s history, which was interpreted through images and symbols woven into the design, but when it was sent to England it was lost, and despite a partnership with The Box, which reinvigorated the search in 2017, no trace of it has been found.

However, the partnership – in association with the British Museum, whose wampum collection is due to feature in the exhibition as it tours beyond Southampton – did inspire the creation of a new wampum belt by Wampanoag people in the US, with funding from Arts Council England.

More than 100 Wampanoag craftspeople living in tribal Massachusetts today worked on the new belt, which united professional artists working with wampum – several of them from generations of families who have always worked with shells – together with emerging artists who are embracing this traditional craft and continuing it. Other participants are tribal members, who wanted to contribute their energy, medicine and story to the project.

The new belt is a stunning, authentic recreation of a 16th century wampum belt from the Wampanoag Nation and consists of 5,000 hand-crafted beads made from the shell of quahogs and whelk.

“It’s not a story that a lot of people want to hear, but it’s a truth that has to be told”

“The people who participated in the making of the new wampum belt are sharing the story in the age-old oral tradition of the Wampanoag,” says Paula Peters of Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Nation. “The White Pine in the centre tells our creation story – that we came from her roots more than 12,000 years ago to become the people of the dawn. This belt will preserve our stories for many generations of Wampanoag to come.

“I am always pleased to meet people who are so eager to learn about our story,” she adds, “but I am always genuinely surprised by how much people in England don’t know about our story.

“This belt is uniquely and rightly a way to bring our story to the people of England and remind them of the sacrifices that have been made by our ancestors as a result of their colonisation of our territory.

“That’s not a pretty story. It’s not a story that a lot of people want to hear, but it’s a truth that has to be told in order to balance the overall history.”

a photo of hands working on a loom

Weaving on a loom close up.

Wampum: Stories from the Shells of Native America is at SeaCity Museum, Southampton until Sunday October 18 where it is shown alongside examples of wampum from the collection of Saffron Walden Museum.

It then travels to Guildhall Art Gallery, London where examples of wampum from the British Museum will join the exhibition, from January 8 to Sunday February 14 2021 with a final run at The Box, Plymouth from May 15 to July 19 2021. 

Watch a film about the making of the wampum belt:

Some examples of historic wampum belts from the British Museum collection:

17th century Eastern Woodlands Iroquois

a photo of a belt made of purple and white beads with a square design woven in white over the purple

Wampum, belt, bead, Northeast Peoples, Iroquois, USA. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum’s crumb trail of curatorial notes for the origin of this particular belt reveals the detective work that goes in to uncovering the meaning of objects which have become disconnected from their origin.

“Ralph T. Coe ‘Sacred Circles’, London, 1976 provides the following commentary: ‘Wampum belt 17th century Eastern Woodlands Iroquois Shell beads 1.09 m long… A wampum belt served as a gift, also as a binding symbol of an agreement among Northeastern tribes, and they were of the highest importance as documentary evidence of such pacts. Here the ground consists of cylindrical, purple beads offset by three double rectangles of white beads. This was probably collected by Sir John Werden, 1640-1716, who was secretary to James Stuart, Duke of York…’.

“The association of the belt with Werden is probably erroneous and certainly highly speculative. 15-20 years ago J C King visited the descendant of the purchaser of the rest of the collection, and found an early costume, partially decorated with alternating tubular blue and white beads in the style of wampum. The costume, and other Worden Hall materials were in the collection by 1846. The costume is 18th century, and positively identified as Maliseet. It is therefore conceivable that this belt may have an association with the Maliseet, or another Algonquian people. The costume is published in Glenbow Museum: ‘The Spirit Sings. Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples. A Catalogue of the Exhibition’ Calgary and Toronto 1987 pp 18-19.”

Recovered from a grave and restrung?

a photo of a large beaded belt made of faded beads

Wampum belt, with a white ground, and two parallel zig-zag lines of purple wampum, three beads in width. © The Trustees of the British Museum

An interesting example with the British Museum’s notes describe this as a “Belt of wampum shell beads, recovered from a grave and restrung, white and purple in colour, with no indication whether the configuration is the original one.”

Curatorial notes also suggest this may have been taken from a grave in Fleming New York and was originally manufactured by settlers. In a letter dated July 19 1889 and sent by W A Baker to Sir Charles Hercules Read, (1857 – 1929) who was Keeper of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum, Baker comments:

‘…I think that the cylindrical beads you mention were made somewhere in Rhode Island, by whites, for traffic with the Indians, about 1600. They made them there by some primitive machinery and ruined the Indian manufacture utterly. The purple always lost its color when buried, and when dug up the white and purple look alike. There was an imitation also made in Venice which came over here with the beads, only that never lost its gloss by contact with earth…’

A surviving fragment

a section of threaded beads on a fragment

Fragment of a wampum belt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The design of this section of belt consists of 35 purple beads which make a diagonal stepped line across the white ground; a white line runs through the purple stepped design, one bead in width. With a production date anywhere between 1600 and 1860, curatorial notes say this piece was produced by Northeast Peoples and could be Algonquian or Iroquoian in origin.


a beaded belt with a zigzag design

Wampum belt, woven on a bow-loom with skin thong warps. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Another wampum belt with a striking zig-zag pattern of seven v’s, which again could be Algonquian or Iroquoian in origin, dating between 1600 and 1800.

All British Museum images used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.


The Box

Plymouth, Devon

The Box is a new cultural and heritage complex that completely transforms, extends and combines the original City Museum, Art Gallery and Central Library buildings and restores St Luke’s Church, to create new galleries, a striking elevated archive, learning and research facilities and the first public square to be built…

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *