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Trade Beads in the Americas

Most trade beads in America came from Venice or Bohemia, though Spain, Holland, Germany, India, China and other countries contributed. The largest single supplier was Venice and a century-by-century gallery of its beads is available. The two most important trade bead stories in the US are Wampum and Beads Buying Manhattan.

Trade beads were first used as gifts and later as commodities. As the "frontier" was pushed back, they were distributed in different regions at the current limits of the "frontier." The "frontier" is a Euro-American concept, the edge of the known or inhabited world. There was no such idea in Native American thought. To them the Europeans were intruders.

Native Americans used beads in a variety of ways and traded them amongst themselves. By studying these beads we learn about economic and social conditions among both the colonists and the Native Americans. It is a way to link up with both these groups.

A word of warning: There is a lot of nonsense out there about beads. This is partly the fault of the academic community, who is -- or should be -- aware of the facts of certain matters. Perhaps they have not sufficiently communicated their insights to a wider audience. So, here are a few words about bead misnames and myths.

The other stories available here are listed chronologically: Beads Brought by the Spanish, the Spanish Impact on Native Beadmaking, Lewis and Clark and Beads and Alaska: A Trade Bead Laboratory.


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