Wednesday, May 16, 2018

KEEPING A BEADY EYE ON THE TRADE: Stephen A. Frost and Native American Trade Beads

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
Author's  Collection 

Photos: 1. By Uyvsdi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
2. Public Domain, Wiki
3. author 


Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Interesting post, Andi. We don't always make the connection that the beads in all that Indian bead work had to come from somewhere else. When we were out this last fall I enjoyed seeing the examples of bead work especially at the Crazy Horse monument museum. The human urge to decorate themselves and their belongings always interests me, and of course with so many of the tribes on the move, embellishing their clothing and artifacts with beads was a practical way to have portable artwork.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Great post. I almost think the beads carry a spiritual significance as well. My mom is currently in Italy at a very famous glass conference in Murano (near Venice). The techniques they use are, I suspect, quite old. Maybe she'll bring some glass beads back home with her.

Andrea Downing said...

Patti, it is interesting that we always want to decorate ourselves--throw on a necklace, wear a ring, pop in earrings. And have you ever considered how it has come to be that rings symbolize being married? I was fascinated to learn of Stephen Frost because it never entered my head that one company would have been responsible for providing so many of the beads used by Native Americans.

Andrea Downing said...

Ah, Murano, Kristy. I've had the privilege of having visited there. Of course, they are very famous for glass--notably their chandeliers and tableware and so on, but I do have jewelry --a necklace/drop and earrings from there which incorporate stones and glass. So it was interesting that Venetian glass beads reached the Native Americans in trade.

Kristy McCaffrey said...

You've been all over, haven't you? LOL

Andrea Downing said...

Kristy, living in Europe for the most part for 40 years made it pretty easy to get around there! And the British school holidays were a month at Xmas, a month at Easter, and 2 months in the summer, so lots of time to travel!

Julie said...

Such an interesting post, Andi. I knew generally about beads as trade items, but certainly learned more from you. Thanks! We were just recently in Ashland, Oregon and saw a play called Manahatta--about how the Dutch took the island from the natives--or at least one story. The play alternated between the present day and the long ago past.
See you in October, I hope!

Andrea Downing said...

I'm wondering, Julie, if that play claimed the Dutch bought the island for $24 worth of beads or had some other story! Sounds like a play I should be looking out for. Since I can't get you to cross the Idaho/Wyoming state line, I'll look forward to meeting up at a conference, but sadly it won't be this Oct. due to a wedding.