Did You Know? The importance of blue beads

Blue beads were among the most desirable throughout American history

from The Bead Scoop Vol.I Issue 1 Jun 2007

Joan Mowat Erikson writes in The Universal Bead:

“The value of beads differed according to their size, color, and decoration. What individual traders demanded for their beads we will, in all probability, never know, but the Hudson Bay Company has left some meager records which give us an idea of standards of value. All references to value are quoted in terms of ‘one made beaver,’ a beaver skin which has been dried and is ready for tanning. A bead of green or yellow glass, about the size of a pea, was valued at six for one made beaver. A somewhat larger light-blue bead had a value of three or four for a skin; for a large bead of opaque light-blue glass, the trader demanded two skins.

The high prestige of the color blue is clearly recorded, since mention is made repeatedly in accounts of trading with southern and western Indians of the demand for blue beads and blue beads only. The Seminole squaws, when blue glass beads became available, wore as many strings as they were able to afford and could carry around their necks. Young Tiger Tail’s wife is described as being bedecked with at least two hundred such strings of blue beads. Of course, she was visiting relatives and was willing, apparently, to forgo moving her head for the satisfaction of being well dressed.

Lewis and Clark, who explored the West, also write of the power of the blue glass bead. Their records note many incidents of Indians refusing to trade at all except for the preferred blue beads. The natives they encountered on their westward trek were already in possession of these glass beads, and there is a challenging note in the journals which suggest they came from China. One may hazard the guess that they came to this continent in trade during the years of brisk traffic in sea-otter skins between China and California which nearly resulted in the extinction of the California sea otter. From the Columbia River region Lewis and Clark recorded the following in their journals:

“In the evening Seven indians of the Clot sop Nation came over in a Canoe, they brought with then 2 Sea otter Skins for which they asked blue beads and such high prices that we were unable to purchase them without reducing our Small Stock of Merchandize, on which we depended for Substinance on our return trip up this river. Mearly to try the Indian who had one of those Skins, I offered him my Watch, handkerchief a bunch of red beads and a dollar of the American coin, all of which he refused and demanded ‘ti-a-co-mo-shack’ which is Chief beads and the common blue beads, but few of which we have at this time.”

The Crow Indians, we are told, were among the earliest of the Upper Missouri tribes to employ trade beads in their decorative arts, in which they excelled. In the early 1800’s they already were in possession of ‘small blue glass beads that they get from the Spaniards but by the second and third man’ – that is, through the Shoshoni, who traded with the Southwest. They too regarded these so highly that they would pay as much as a horse for one hundred blue beads.”

Erikson, Joan Mowat. The Universal Bead. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 1993.