Man Plains Indian Fur Trade Beads
by O. Ned
history of beads dates as far back as 40,000 years ago and
have been made by every culture since then. Egyptians were
making glass beads by 1365 B.C., and several thousand-year
old glass factories in Lebanon are still in production.
Evidence China has been making and exporting glass beads for
centuries has been revealed in archaeology sites. Glass and
Brass beads are found in burial sites of many cultures:
Egyptian tombs, Roman catacombs, Saxon, African, and
source of glass beads used in the fur trade was Venice,
Italy. Venetians held a near monopoly on the bead industry
for nearly 600 years. A guild of Venetian glass makers
existed in 1224 A. D.. Around 1291, a large portion of the
Venetian glass industry moved to Murano, an island north of
Venice; city fathers feared an accident with one of the
glass furnaces could destroy the city.
two hundred years, beads were made in Murano by a method
known as "winding." With this method, beads were
made individually by drawing a molten glob of glass out of
the furnace and winding it around an iron rod. Glass of
another color could then be added, or the bead could be
decorated with a design. Coloring agents were added to the
molten glass: cobalt made blue; copper produced green; tin
made a milky white; and gold resulted in red. Wound beads
from a master glassmaker were so perfect it was hard to find
a seam where the different molten glasses merged.
method was blown glass beads. Using this method, a glob of
molten glass was removed from the furnace and the desired
shape obtained by blowing through a glass tube—much the
same way glass vases are made.
industry was able to keep up with demand using these two
methods until the mid- to late 1400’s. Once European
countries started sending ships around the world, ship
captains and explorers carried beads made of glass,
porcelain, and metal to use as gifts, or for the fur trade.
The slow method of winding beads could not keep up with this
1490, Venetians started to make beads from tubes of drawn
glass; Egyptians may have used this process centuries
before. With this procedure, a master glassmaker took a glob
of molten glass from the furnace and formed a cylinder.
After working the cylinder into the desired shape, he
attached a rod to the cylinder. An assistant took the end of
the rod and run down a long corridor before the glass
cooled. The drawn glass tube was about one hundred and
twenty meters long. The length of the tube and the amount of
glass used determined the size of the beads. Once the tubes
cooled, they were cut into meter long pieces. These pieces
were cut into beads of various sizes. The cut beads were
placed in a large metal drum containing lime, carbonate,
sand, carbon, and water. While the metal drum turned, heat
was applied to the outside causing the rough-cut edges to be
smoothed. After the beads were smooth, they were cleaned and
then placed in a sack of fermented bran and vigorously
shaken to polish them. The monochrome glass beads of today
are not much different from those made five hundred years
1500’s, the demand for glass beads reached the point
Venetians were sending drawn glass tubes to Bohemia. There
the glass tubes were broken into beads, polished, and sent
back to Venice. The Bohemians (Czechoslovakia) had been
making glassware, vases, and cups since the twelfth century.
abundance of willing workers, quartz for the silicon base of
glass, and potash from wood-burning furnaces, Bohemia sent
men to work in the glass factories of Murano. The knowledge
these men brought back on how to make the drawn glass tubes
turned Bohemia into a major producer of glass beads. By the
mid-eighteen hundreds, Bohemia was producing more glass
beads than the factories in Murano.
also a source of glass trade beads. Studies by Peter
Francis, Jr., Director of the Center for Bead Research, has
shown beads from China were brought to Mexico with the
Spanish galleon trade. This trade route linked Chinese ports
with Manila and Acapulco, and from there to the rest of the
Spanish Empire in the Americas. Russians acquired Chinese
beads from trading post on the Mongolian border and
transported them to Alaska. A few Chinese glass beads have
been found along with Venetian beads on Colonial Spanish
17th century sites…one of America's top archaeologist,
David Hurst Thomas excavated over 62,000 beads from St.
Catherine, the northern most Spanish mission on the Atlantic
"bead" is derived from the old English word "bedu"
meaning prayer. The aristocrats of the glass beads are the
Chevron or Rosetta. They are also called Rosary or Star
beads. These Paternoster beads are multi-layered and
corrugated to produce a star pattern on the ends which often
result in stripes on the outside. The original Chevron bead
had seven layers. This hand-faceted bead was difficult to
make, and in order to meet the demand, variations were made
with as few as four layers. These new variations were
tumbled instead of being hand-faceted to speed-up the
process. The most common Chevrons are the blue, red, and
white combination. Green and white, or red and white,
Chevrons are rare. Father DeSmet carried these beads in his
work with the Plains and Northwest Indian tribes, but there
is no evidence Chevron beads were used during the Indian fur
trade period as a trade item.
Glass Beads - Brass Beads - Dentalium Shells
Chevron beads - Courtesy of Mike Albanese
I wrote this article and the others on this site because I
wanted to know about a particular subject. I am not, nor do
I claim to be, an authority any anything...only have an
inquisitive curiosity. Some so-called
"authorities" have complained about the chevron
beads in the above pictures. The chevrons in the first
picture were bought in Germany after World War II, but most
of the other beads in the pictures appear to be much
older......as far as I know, there is no way to accurately
determine the age of glass beads, or when and how they were
used. Despite the large numbers of beads found in some
archeological sites, there is little historical information
available on the majority of the beads found.
European contact, beads in North America were made from
gold, silver, jade, bone, the blue-green turquoise, and hand
polished shell beads. Anasazi,
Fremont, and other Southwestern Pueblo people traded
turquoise throughout the Southwest and into Mesoamerica.
Indians from the Pacific coast traded sea shells to the
Southwest Indians; Indians from the Atlantic coast and the
gulf of Mexico traded beads to the Mound Builders of the
Mississippi River valleys.
12, 1492, Columbus recorded in his logbook the natives of
San Salvador Island were given red caps and glass beads.
This is the earliest written record of glass beads in the
Americas. The Spanish explorer Hernando Cortéz landed on
the coast of Mexico in the spring of 1519. His ships carried
glass beads along with other European trade goods. The
Spanish explorers Narváez in 1527 and De Soto in 1539
carried glass beads for trade with the native inhabitants of
Florida. In 1622, a glass factory was built near Jamestown,
Virginia. Less than a year later, a raiding party of Indians
burned the factory. Very few of the beads made in the
Jamestown factory are believed to exist today.
prices varied with location, demand, and how bad Indians
wanted a particular bead. When trading for beaver pelts, the
Hudson's Bay Company used a standard value based on made
beaver...a made beaver was stretched, dried, and ready for
shipment. Records from early trading posts show a made
beaver was worth: six Hudson's Bay beads; three light blue
Padre (Crow) beads; two larger transparent blue beads.
historical information is available on the majority of trade
beads discovered in archeological sites. The Hudson's Bay
Company has celebrated over three hundred years in North
America, but the records on types and descriptions of trade
beads, along with invoices, and sources of supply have not
survived in the Hudson's Bay archives. Today the company's
only examples of the Hudson's Bay beads are in the Indian
Arts and Crafts section of their museums.
to Joan K. Murray, Corporate Historian, HBC Heritage
Services for updated information on Hudson's Bay seed beads.
In 1987, the Hudson’s Bay Company sold its Northern Stores
Division to the North West Company. The successor to the
Hudson's Bay Company in Northern Canada still sells beads to
Native Americans. The new North West Company stocks over
forty colors of seed beads.
Spanish Conquistadors and Priests traveled from the Florida
Keys to California. In 1741, the Russians reached the coast
of Alaska and from there down the western coast of North
America. A North West Company trader, Alexander Mackenzie,
crossed Canada to the Pacific Ocean in 1793. All of these
explorers, as well as David Thompson and the Lewis and Clark
Expedition, carried glass beads for presents and as a medium
of exchange in dealing with the American Indians.
beads are wound, opaque, light blue glass beads from China.
These beads come in three sizes: jumbo (Dogons) 5/8's to 3/4
inch in diameter, mid-sized (Crow beads) 3/8's inch in
diameter, and small Pony beads 3/16's inch diameter. Through
Spanish and Russian traders, Padre beads spread rapidly into
the Southwest and Northwest. In 1778, English explorer,
Captain James Cook made several references to the effect it
was difficult to obtain supplies and furs from the Pacific
coast Indians without this particular blue bead. Captain
Lewis had this to say about Padre beads and the Indians
tribes along the Columbia River…only the blue and white
beads were acceptable, the most desired, are the common
cheap, blue beads called "Chief Beads"…. Padre
beads were made in a variety of colors, but blue and white
were the most sought after by the Northwest Indians.
trade bead was the Vasaline, or Cave Agate. These beads
range in a variety of colors. This pressed bead was faceted
and transparent. On the earliest Vasaline beads, the hole
through the bead is larger on one end; the hole was made
with a hot pointed rod. Vasaline beads were widely traded
until the mid-1800. After the mid-eighteen hundreds, Indians
women requested the smaller seed beads.
had little to do with the Russian Blue beads. Produced in
Bohemia, the Russian Blue bead did not appear in Alaska
until just before Americans bought Alaska (1867). Russians
traders acquired these beads from the American and English
traders in exchange for furs. The Russian Blue beads are
shaped into six-, seven-, or eight-sided tube before being
drawn. After the tubes are cut to bead size, the ends of the
ridge between the adjacent sides are ground off. The result
is a bead with eighteen, twenty-one, or twenty-four facets.
Some deviations resulted in more or less facets.
Lewis and Clark Expedition carried thirty-three pounds of
small trade beads. There is no evidence they carried the
bead pictured to the right, but these beads are known as
Lewis and Clark beads. There are several entries in the
various journals kept by the Expedition members about how
hard it was to trade for food with any of the beads they
carried, except the plain blue and white ones.
the mid-1800’s, the "Cornaline d'Aleppo" beads
became known as the Hudson's Bay bead. This bead has two
distinct colors of glass, one color over the other. The
outer layer was red and the inner layer a translucent green.
The more recent version of the Hudson's Bay bead has a
yellow or white center of opaque glass with the outside
having a translucent or opaque red glass. This later version
can be found in tubular, ovate, and spherical shapes and in
a wide range of sizes.
last known bead made for Native American trade was the
Hubbell bead. This bead was supposedly made for Lorenzo
Hubbell owner of the Hubbell Trading Post in Gavado,
Arizona. First made in Czechoslovakia between 1915 and 1920,
this bead is still being made today. The Hubbell bead came
in a variety of sizes, shapes, and shades to imitate a
semi-precious stone...Turquoise. Records at the Hubble
trading post do not support any connection with this bead.
does not imply turquoise was not widely used as an Indian
trade item. Southwest turquoise has been found in the Plains
area, along the Pacific Coast, and as far south as Meso-America.
The Southwest Indians are still making turquoise jewelry.
beads like those used on this deer skin bag reached the
plains Indians in the mid-1840s.
Bear Paw Bag - Jeannie Harrison
primary beads used by Indian women for decoration were the
seed, Pony, and Crow beads. Made of drawn glass: the seed
beads were under 2.0 mm; Pony, or pound beads, were between
2 and 4 mm; Crow bead were 4 to 10 mm in diameter. The
larger Crow and Pony beads were carried by Lewis and Clark
and other early explorers. Crow and Pony beads were hung
from, or attached to clothing and horse gear. There is no
evidence of seed beads being taken to the Mountain Man
Rendezvous during the period 1825 to 1840.
the introduction of seed beads, porcupine quillwork was used
in decoration by the Plains Indian women. Developed by the
North American Plains Indians, quillwork followed the
introduction of horses. After acquiring horses, Plains
Indian did not have to range over larger territories in
search of game. Being able to spend more time in one place
allowed women time to quill. Each tribe had its own patterns
and traditions associated with the quill work.
strip of seed beads belonged to Carrie Bagley. Her daughters
Helen Yeaman and Betty Frome gave it to me.
string of jumbo Padre "Chief" Beads was a gift
from Julie Birrer of Jackson Wyoming. The beads original
came from the Nez Perce in the late 1700s. The Nez Perce
referred to these beads as Sky-Blue beads.
Indian Horse Bandolier
thirty-five inch bandolier went around a horse's neck. While
on his way to the Columbia River and Fort Astoria in 1811,
Wilson Price Hunt mentioned a similar decoration on a
Cheyenne Indian horse's neck. This pre-1885 Crow bandolier
has on it: Crow beads, vasaline beads, French brass beads,
white hearts, Mescal seeds, sea shells, Abalone shells,
Dentalium shells, Dutch dogans, watermelon beads, hawk
bells, thimbles, buttons, rifle shell casing, bullets, deer
dew claws, and a pieces of an American flag.
Americans along the eastern coast had their own beads. These
beads were made from the "quahog" or hard-shell
clam. The hard-clam furnished two colors of Wampum—white
and purple. Only a small portion of the shell could be used
to make the purple bead, resulting in its value being twice
the value of the white bead.
introduction of metal tools to drill and work the clamshell,
the beads became more uniform, about one-fourth inch in
length and one-eighth inch in diameter. The Dutch and
English colonists established factories to speed up the
production of Wampum, thus becoming one of the earliest
industries in America. John Campbell and his descendants in
New Jersey made the bulk of wampum beads traded in this
country. Quahog-shells were also sent to Europe to be made
into Wampum and then returned to the colonies.
beads were widely used for trade, but were not considered a
form of money. These beads were used for personal
decoration, and when arranged on a string in a particular
color pattern to convey messages between various tribes.
Wampum woven belts were often used in ratifying treaties.
The arrangement of colors becomes the treaty document. There
are records of court judgments and tuition in some of the
early American colleges as being payable in Wampum. Beads of
the quahog shell remained a medium of trade exchange until
1792, when the United States government established coinage
laws bringing into use the first silver dollars and ten
dollar gold pieces. Glass beads eventually replaced Wampum
as a means of ornamentation.
history books claim the Dutch bought Manhattan for
twenty-four dollars worth of trade beads. This story first
appeared in Martha Lamb's book on New York history in 1877,
which was two hundred and fifty years after the purchase.
Since her book was published, most historians have quoted
it. Manhattan was purchased with trade goods, but there is
no evidence trade beads were more than a small part of the
exchanged items. - Peter Francis, Jr. Bead Research Center.
Indian Trade Bead article was written by O. Ned Eddins of
Afton, Wyoming. Permission is given for material from this
site to be used for research papers.