Day By Day in a Colonial Town

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The deed was signed by the marks (Indian signatures to such deeds as these were in the form of pictorial marks: a beaver, a snake, a snowshoe, a bow, a hand) of the three sachems, by John Pynchon, and by five witnesses. It was subscribed below: “The Indians desired that they might set their wigwams at some time within the tract of ground they sold without offense, and that the English would be kind and neighborly to them in not prohibiting them firewood out of the woods, etc., which was promised them.” The deed was then assigned by John Pynchon to the “present inhabitants of Hadley,” he having acted as their agent for the purchase.

The currency of the Indians was wampum, and the 228 fathoms for which this land was sold was then the equivalent of somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty English pounds sterling. Wampum was made from shells and was of two kinds: white, made from the shells of the whelk, and black (actually darkish blue), made from the shells of the quahog clam, and having twice the value of the white. These shells were collected by the Indians along the shores of Long Island Sound, cut into tiny beads, polished to a glassy smoothness, bored, and strung on thin strips of deer sinew. If used for decoration, the strings of wampum were worn about the neck and wrists, or the beads were embroidered on deerskin to make a belt that was a prestige symbol, with the width of the belt and the number of beads, sometimes as many as three thousand, indicating the power and wealth of the wearer.

If used as currency, the wampum was usually strung in units of a fathom, or six feet, containing from 240 to 360 beads and worth from five to ten shillings if white, ten to twenty if black.

By enactment of the Great and General Court (the Massachusetts legislature) in 1641, wampum became legal currency in the Bay Colony for sums of ten pounds or less at the rate of six pieces of white wampum for a penny, and half as many black. However, wampum currency was soon debased by the influx of ill-made shells. In 1648 it was ordered that “it shall be entire without deforming spots” and strung in different lengths worth from one to twelve pence in white and from two pence to ten shillings in black, thus making it conveniently passable in lieu of small coins, which were very scarce.

In the early years of the colony, wampum was a sound currency, since it could always be exchanged with the Indians for beaver skins, which were readily salable in England at a good profit. However, as beaver grew scarce, debasement continued, and when silver from the West Indian trade grew more abundant, the value of wampum continued to slip. In 1661 the law making it legal tender was repealed. In 1675 a penny would buy twenty-four wampum, and by the end of the century it was no longer used except in remote villages, and then only for small change.

An early capitalist

 

MEANWHILE, THE DESIRE of the Indians for wampum and of the English for furs was gratified by a shrewd English gentleman. William Pynchon, a fur trader and one of the original proprietors of the Bay Colony, transferred his operations in 1636 to what is now Springfield, Massachusetts. He built a warehouse and trading post on the banks of the Connecticut River and quickly monopolized the fur trade of the great river and its tributaries. Prudently, and from sources unknown, he acquired bushels of loose wampum shells, and these he hired the women and children of his settlement to string for him to the extent of twenty thousand fathoms, paying them at the rate of three half-pence a fathom. By turning shells into currency, he accumulated capital worth somewhere between five and ten thousand pounds with which to pay the Indians for their furs.

How well the scheme worked is shown by the Pynchon account books now in the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum in Springfield. In six years William, and his son, John, secured from the Indians over nine thousand beaver skins, weighing about fourteen thousand pounds, which he paid for in wampum and in bartered goods. They also bought thousands of skins of otter, muskrat, mink, fox, raccoon, wildcat, and moose. These skins were packed in hogsheads and carted down the river to his warehouse just below the rapids, in what is now Windsor Locks, where they were transferred to coastal vessels for shipment to Boston and thence by packet to London. There they were sold, partly for cash and partly in exchange for bright-colored cloth and coats, knives, awls, axes, and trinkets for their trading posts.