The Dutch Among the Natives

American Indian-Dutch Relations, 1609–1664


"The Canoes and folke went all on shoare: but some of them came againe, and brought stropes of Beades: some has sixe, seven, eight, nine, ten; and gave him." Robert Juet describing a visit of Native people to the Halve Maen, September 18, 1609.

"The Indians use a kind of currency they call sewant .... it comes in black and white, the black being worth half again as much as the white." Adriaen van der Donck, 1655.

"They say finally, that the chain, by which they and the Dutch are held together in brotherly friendship, shall not be broken by them .... Hereupon they present a belt of wampum." Proposals made by Mohawk chiefs at Fort Orange, January 22, 1661.

Wampum is an English shortening of wampumpeag, a Massachusett-language word meaning 'white wampum beads'. The Dutch in New Netherland heard and used sewant, from Pidgin Delaware seawan 'wampum' and its Munsee variant séwan 'it is scattered all over the place'. The French, in turn, called it porcelaine. Whether called sewant or wampum, these were cylindrical shell beads with a drilled central aperture, about one-quarter inch in length, made from marine shell. White sewant was fashioned from whelk (Busycon) while the more valuable purple came from hard-shell clams (Mercenaria). For the Dutch and Native people nearest Fort Orange, sewant was obtained through trade primarily with the Pequots and Narragansett Indians of southern New England. Early on, the beads functioned in ceremonial or political contexts and were worn by Indians or attached to their clothing. Sometimes it was inlaid on objects such as smoking pipes as a decorative element. Contrary to the popular image, sewant was not at first used as currency. But with the building of Fort Orange, the fur trade, and an increase in its availability and distribution, it quickly became a medium of exchange commonly measured in fathoms. Sewant was also strung on fiber cords, and beginning around 1650, woven into belts, both forms used as mnemonics and in ritual exchange in ceremonial and political or diplomatic contexts.

Letter of Isaack de Rasière to Samuel Blommaert, 1628

"in the winter they make sewan, which is an oblong bead they make from cockle-shells, which they find on the sea-shore, and they consider it as valuable as we do money here, since one can buy with it everything they have; they string it, and wear it around the neck and hands; they also make bands of it, which the women wear on the forehead under the hair, and the men around the body; and they are as particular about the stringing and sorting as we can be here about pearls." 

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For over three decades, NNI has helped cast light on America's Dutch roots. In 2010, it partnered with the New York State Office of Cultural Education to establish the New Netherland Research Center, with matching funds from the State of the Netherlands. NNI is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law. More

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Housed in the New York State Library, the NNRC offers students, educators, scholars and researchers a vast collection of early documents and reference works on America's Dutch era. More

 

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