It’s a story more apocryphal than true that Manhattan was bought by the Dutch from the Indians for twenty-four dollars worth of beads. Whatever the truth of the matter, up until their meeting with the Europeans, Native American beads were hand made out of natural materials: bone, animal teeth, horn, and shell. But where did the idea come from for the Europeans to trade beads with Native Americans?
|Wichita Trade Beads, 1740, found |
by archaeologists in OK (1)
Trade beads were originally called ‘slave beads’ because they were used to trade for slaves in Africa; in Ghana, these were called ‘aggry.’ To many of the peoples of Africa, beads were a sign of both wealth and social position, so the beads were the most obvious currency, being brought over from Europe even as ballast in ships. Venetian glass beads were the most popular, but beads also came from Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as other cities in Italy.
Trade in North America started with small amounts. Lewis and Clark brought small supplies for their cross-country trek in 1804, and the Hudson Bay Company also used them as trade. From archaeology, we have learned that beads of certain size, shape, and color were favored by different nations, large blue glass beads being one such popular type. By 1848, the peddler’s trade across the plains carried beads, and twenty-eight year old Stephen A. Frost was one such tradesman. After the end of the Civil War, Stephen’s son, Daniel, was able to join him, and their company expanded.
|Beaded Spruce Root Hat, from Chugash Alaska,|
Museum of Cultures, Helsinki (2)
Stephen A. Frost & Son soon traded throughout North America, including Alaska and Canada. The company, with headquarters in New York from the 1870s, was well regarded by the Indians who even created special items in trade for the beads. In turn, the men collected beadwork products, pottery, basketry, silverwork, blankets, carvings, clothing and so on to sell to Europeans, some pieces even going to museums. Frosts also sold beads wholesale to other merchants, and manufactured bone ‘hair pipes.’
On Stephen’s retirement in 1900, Dan Frost continued to expand the company into non-Native activities, although it was always the Native American side that was the mainstay. The company exhibited its collection at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and continued in business until 1937 when Dan Frost retired, aged 87, and closed the business. During his stewardship, he had associated with such notables as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickock, amongst many others.
The remaining stock of Frost & Son was sold, but the bead sample cards were donated to the Illinois State Museum where they can be seen today.
|Dine/Navajo Necklace with 19th Century Trade Beads|
Photos: 1. By Uyvsdi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
2. Public Domain, Wiki