Wampum, beads made of various kinds of shells by American Indians for ornamental and ceremonial purposes. The word is an abbreviation of an Algonquian term and is unknown to other language groups. Laboriously cut and bored, wampum acquired a high value in trade. Laws in New England and New York gave it exchange value and guarded against counterfeiting it. However, not all Indians used wampum as money.
Algonquian and Iroquoian Indians used wampum in strings and belts to record events and as a medium of communication. A belt recording William Penn's treaty with the Delawares has been preserved. It shows two figures in dark beads against a background of white beads in 18 rows. The figure representing Penn clasps the hand of the other, an Indian. Strings of beads were similarly used on the Pacific Coast, and shell beads are commonly found in ancient burials all over America.
Glass beads, used by white men in trading with the Indians, replaced genuine wampum to a large extent. Beadwork of real wampum is rare and still valuable.