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Wampum and the Origins of American Money

Author(s):Shell, Marc
Reviewer(s):Grubb, Farley

Published by EH.Net (March 2014)

Marc Shell, Wampum and the Origins of American Money. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013. xvi + 138 pp. $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-252-03366-7.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Farley Grubb, Department of Economics, University of Delaware.

Marc Shell is the Irving Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature and Professor of English at Harvard University. He is the author of several books, including Money, Language, and Thought and Art and Money. Wampum and the Origins of American Money continues the general themes of these prior works while focusing on wampum, namely the money used by Native Americans in the eastern portions of North America during the colonial era. Wampum consisted of tubular beads made from clam and conch shells that were strung together or woven into belts. The author not only contends that wampum was money per se, but that it was the origin of American money from colonial times to the present day. Of particular value are the numerous pictures of wampum belts, coins from throughout history, and American paper money from colonial times into the twentieth century. This reviewer found the chapter on “Money Writing,” which discusses how wampum belts were a language that could be read, the most interesting.

This is a book about imagery and analogy, and not about functionality. For those interested in the physical appearance and the metaphoric language of money, it is recommended reading. The author’s erudition and breadth of commentary is both edifying and entertaining. Alas, for economic historians, who are primarily interested in the functionality of money, there is little of value in this book.

The presentation is wide-ranging. The author’s discussions span from ancient Greece to modern-day Wall Street; from concepts of civilization to Native American “mascotism.” He often laments the plight of Native Americans, as well as the marginalization of numismatics. He is unhappy with the rise of economic science, especially as embodied in Paul Samuelson. He wants the core tools of analysis to be rhetoric rather than science, namely the artful creation of unique meanings rather than the establishment of empirically predictable and verifiable patterns of observable functionalities.

Beyond the tools of linguistic analysis, the methods used to establish key points are not compelling. For example, how do we know that wampum was the origin of American money or that it led to modern-day Wall Street? Well, in colonial times wampum beads were made by Europeans in Oyster Bay, NY which is not far from present-day Wall Street – Q.E.D. Likewise, nineteenth-century American banknotes sometimes depicted Native Americans on their face. We know that Native Americans used wampum. Therefore, banknotes were wampum – Q.E.D. The foregoing logic is the type of proof offered by the author.

By contrast, a little quantification would have helped. For example, there is no doubt that Native American images were used on American paper money in the past, but how frequently? This reviewer checked the images engraved on 230 different colonial paper money issuances, those reproduced in Eric P. Newman, The Early Paper Money of America (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, fifth edition, 2008). Native American images were found on only 13 percent of these paper money issuances, and none of these images depicted wampum. In conclusion, the claim that wampum was the origin of American money is poorly supported even when using evidence of imagery and the tools of analogy.

The style of analysis is something to which economic historians are not accustomed. That style is primarily journalistic. The author often lets the words of others speak for him. Whether something is true is unimportant. All that matters is finding someone who said it so that it can be quoted. As with journalists, this gives the author the air of deniability that he is actually claiming that something is true, while planting his truth in the mind of the reader through the words of others. Seldom are these quotations parsed, deconstructed, or put in context. In some cases, the author makes leaps in time that stretch credulity. For example, the author has short paragraphs where quotations from 1637 are juxtaposed against quotations from 1893 (p. 63), and quotations from 1881 are juxtaposed against quotations from 1972 (p. 93).

For this reviewer, the most valuable payoff from reading the book was being stimulated to reconsider whether wampum was money. Without giving it much thought, I had always presumed, based on the prior literature, that wampum was just another commodity money, like tobacco in colonial Maryland or silver plate throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. The author strongly asserts that wampum was money. He dismisses out-of-hand those who suggest that it was not. However, after considering the author’s evidence, and lack of evidence, I now doubt that wampum was money. Wampum was more likely just a ubiquitously traded barter good.

The author shows that wampum belts were unique. They were more language than stores of value or means of payment. A wampum belt was not a storehouse of so many beads. As such, wampum belts do not have a comparative metric. No evidence of the standardization of wampum belts into some unit of account is given. How people counted in wampum, in general, is unclear. At best, counting wampum in terms of handfuls of beads or string lengths was sometimes done, but it was done loosely and imperfectly. The concept of one wampum versus five wampum, versus 10 wampum, versus 20 wampum lacked meaning. As such, wampum could not be effectively used as a unit of account. No evidence is given that people primarily priced their goods in wampum or that colonial farmers and merchants kept accounts in wampum. Even Europeans who dealt primarily in wampum, still predominantly priced their goods in, and kept their accounts in, guilders and florins.

Europeans traded wampum to Native Americans in exchange for beaver pelts. Outside that connection, wampum had little value. The centrality of the fur trade gave wampum barter value among Europeans; however, the ultimate outcome of any ancillary exchange using wampum was the accumulation of that wampum by traders, who would eventually barter it for beaver pelts with Native Americans. Efforts by Europeans to standardize wampum into “money” in their ancillary trade among themselves for non-Native American goods were of dubious success.

The author’s strongest argument for claiming that wampum was money is his assertion that wampum was made a legal tender. But he does not state for how many years or in what jurisdictions this was true. Under this criterion, wheat has as great a claim to being money, and being the origin of American money, as wampum. Finally, more needs to be known about the functionality of wampum’s legal tender status before that status can be used to claim that it made wampum “money.” In particular, in tort cases, did courts force defendants to make plaintiffs whole only through the payment of wampum when the defaulted contract was for the exchange of other goods and monies?  To what extent did governments require the payment of taxes and fees to be only in wampum? No evidence is given by the author of such behavior.

Tobacco in early colonial Maryland was never made a legal tender, yet it served as a commodity money. People counted in tobacco units, namely in so many physical pounds of tobacco. People knew what one versus five versus 10 versus 20 pounds of tobacco meant. Court-case restitutions and fines, along with government tax payments and fees, were priced in pounds of tobacco. Farmers and merchants kept accounts in pounds of tobacco. No evidence is given that wampum served in such a capacity. Therefore, whether wampum served as money is doubtful. At times, it clearly functioned as a ubiquitously traded barter good. But being used as such does not necessarily a money make. Functionality matters. Without establishing functionality, the meaning of imagery is fluid. The origins of American money most likely lay elsewhere.

Farley Grubb is professor of economics and NBER research associate in the Economics Department at the University of Delaware. He is also North American Editor of the Financial History Series for Pickering & Chatto. His recent publications include “State Redemption of the Continental Dollar, 1779-90,” William and Mary Quarterly (2012) and German Immigration and Servitude in America, 1709-1920 (Routledge, 2011).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century
18th Century