Beading has a long and interesting history in America. Before the Europeans came many of the Native peoples who lived in coastal areas that we now call Virginia and New England traded amongst themselves in wampum. Wampum was a hand made bead from the quahog or hard shelled clam. There are only 2 colors of this shell bead which are white and dark purple. The beads were about 1/4 inch long and 1/8th inch in diameter. They were easy to string in long strings and could be woven into belts. Different tribes used them in certain color design patterns to send messages from tribe to tribe too. It did not take the Europeans long to realize that their money meant nothing to the Natives so they had to come up with a barter system to conduct trade. The Europeans had been successful trading beads with the Africans already and they became the “currency” of trade here as well. Beads came packaged in large wooden barrels and so they made perfect ballast for the large sailing ships as well. It was perfect all the way around.
The value of trade goods was determined by supply and demand and it did not take the Europeans long to figure out that some tribes valued certain colors over other colors. The Hudson Bay Company kept really good records of the values. Beaver hats were fashionable in Europe. The “made” or “Plew” beaver was a prime trade good and it’s value was used as a common rate of exchanges. A made or plew beaver was a beaver hide that had been scraped, stretched and cleaned for shipment.
According to the Hudson Bay Company records:
GREEN BEADS WITH WHITE CENTERS: 6 beads = one made beaver
TRANSPARENT PEA-SIZE GREEN AND YELLOW BEADS: 6 beads = one made beaver
LARGE AMBER, TRANSPARENT BLUE, or OPAQUE BEADS: 2 beads = one made beaver
LARGE OPAQUE BEADS: 1 bead = 2 made beavers
So from about 1790 t0 1840, millions of beaver furs were traded and shipped back to Europe.
A lot of the trading posts were in St. Louis and in other towns and sites along rivers. To get the best prices for the beaver and other furs, the trade companies started to send their representatives into the mountains in the West where they could trade with the Natives and with the mountain men. The companies often gave the mountain men the traps and supplies to trap the animals and when the men traded back their furs to the company they deducted a percentage of the value to repay the advances. Other men were “free trappers” who owned their own gear and they traded with whoever gave them the best price.
Coming soon… the RENDEZVOUS!