Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Media of Exchange or Trade



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North America Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Before the arrival of Europeans intertribal trade had resulted almost everywhere in America in the adoption of certain standards of value of which the most important were shell beads and skins. The shell currency of the Atlantic coast consisted of small white and black or purplish beads out from the valves of quahaug and other shells and familiarly known as wampum. These were very convenient, as they could be strung together in quantities and carried any distance for purposes of trade, in this respect having a decided advantage over skins. In exchange two white beads were equivalent to one black one. During the early colonial period wampum was almost the only currency among white people as well; but inferior, poorly finished kinds, made not only out of shell, but of atone, bone, glass, horn, and even wood, were soon introduced, and in spite of all attempted regulation the value of wampum dropped continually until in 1661 it was declared to be legal tender no longer in Massachusetts, and a year or two later the same fate overtook it in the other New England colonies. In New York it appears to have held on longer, its latest recorded use as currency being in 1693. Holm says, speaking of the Delawares of New Jersey: "In trade they measure those strings [of wampum] by their length," each fathom of them being worth 5 Dutch guilders, reckoning 4 beads for every stiver. "The brown beads are more valued than the others and fetch a higher price; a white bead is of the value of a piece of copper money, but a brown one is worth a piece of silver." Hohm quotes another authority, however, to the effect that a white bead was worth one stiver and a black bead two. The latter says also that "their manner of measuring the strings is by the length of their thumbs; from the end of the nail to the first joint makes 6 beads."


On the Pacific coast between S. E. Alaska and N. California shell currency of another kind was employed. This was made from the Dentalium pretiosum (money tooth-shell), a slender univalve found on the W. coasts of Vancouver and Queen Charlotte ids. In the Chinook jargon it was called hiaqua. The principal place where it was obtained is said to have been the territory of a Nootka tribe, the Ehatisaht, in Esperanza inlet, W. coast of Vancouver id., but it was collected as far N. as Quatsino inlet. The method of procuring it is described in one of the earliest accounts of this region, the Narrative of John Jewitt. According to Boas, a block of cedar was split up at one end so that it formed a kind of brush which opened when pushed down into the water and closed when pulled up, thus entangling the shells. These shells were valued in proportion to their individual lengths. In W. Washington the standard of value was 40 to the fathom, and the value fell off rapidly above that number, while very long single shells were worth more than a dollar. A fathom of 40 was formerly equivalent to a slave, according. to Gibbs, and in his time would bring $5. In California and on the plateaus farther N. the shells had incised designs. Among the Hupa of California they are decorated by being wrapped spirally with fish skin or snake skin, and in addition usually bear a tuft of red feathers, probably from the woodpecker's crest. The following further description of these is given by Goddard:


"The individual shells are measured and their value determined by the creases on the left hand. The longest known shells were about 2½ in. long. One of them would reach from the crease of the last joint of the little finger to the crease on the palm opposite the knuckle joint of the same finger. The value of such a piece in early days was about $5. Shells of this length were called diñket. The next smaller shells were called kiketûkûtxoi, and measured about 2 3/8 in. They were worth about $1.50 each. A shell about 1 1/8 in. long was called tcwolahit. Their value was from 25 to 50 cents. Shells smaller than these were not rated as money and had no denomination. The length of the shells smaller than the first mentioned was determined by applying them to the creases of the middle and other fingers of the left hand.


"This money was strung on strings which reached from the thumb nail to the point of the shoulder. Eleven of the largest size filled such a string and was therefore called moanala. Twelve shells of the next smaller size composed a string and were called moanamax. Thirteen shells are called moanatak, and 14 of the smallest shells, called moanadink, was the largest number placed on a string. These strings are approximately 25 in. long. This, as it appears, was the least common multiple of the individual standard lengths.


"Since all hands and arms are not of the same length, it was necessary for the man, when he reached his maturity, to establish the values of the creases on his hand by comparison with money of known length as measured by someone else. He also had a set of lines tattooed on the inside of the left forearm. These lines indicated the length of 5 shells of the several standards. The measures were sub-divided, there being lines of moanala long and moanala short, and so on. This was the principal method of estimating the money. The first 5 on the string were measured by holding the tip of the first shell at the thumb nail and drawing the string along the arm and noting the tattooed mark reached by the butt of the fifth shell. In like manner the last and intermediate sets of 5 were measured." This shell money was carried in special elk-horn boxes.


Among the coast tribes N. of Vancouver id., dentalia were not so much in vogue, but were used for ornamental purposes and in trade with the interior Indians. The standard of value among the Kutchakutchin and neighbouring tribes consisted of lines of beads 7 ft. long joined together at the distance of a foot, and called naki eik ('bead clothing'). The whole naki eik , according to Jones, "is equal to 24 made beaver, and one of the lines is one or more beaver skins, according to the value of the beads."


A more usual standard of value among interior people, however, was the pelt, especially the skin of the beaver. Even on the Atlantic coast it was used from the very earliest times side by side with wampum, and in 1613 the statement is made that it was the basis of all trade between the French of Canada and the Indians. In 1670 (Margry, Déc ., I, 164, 1878) it is learned that a beaver skin was worth a fathom of tobacco, a fourth of a pound of powder, 6 knives, or a portion of little blue beads. According to Hunter it was also the standard of value among the Osage, Hansa, Oto, Omaha , and their neighbours. He adds that 2 good otter skins, from 10 to 12 raccoon, or 4 or 5 wildcat (lynx?) skins were valued as one beaver skin. Here this standard passed out very rapidly with the coming of white men; but in the great fur regions of Canada it remained the basis of value first between French and Indians, and afterward between English and Indians. Up to the present time everything is valued in "skins," meaning beaver skins, but the term has come to have a fixed value of 50 cents in Canadian money.


In former days, before the arrival of the Russians, the unit of value among the [Inuit] of the lower Yukon was a full grown land-otter skin, to which was equivalent the skin of the large hair seal. This has now given place to the beaver; and all other skins, furs, and articles of trade are sold as "a skin" and multiples and fractions of a "skin" "in addition to this," says Nelson, "certain small, untanned skins, used for making fur coats or blouses, are tied in lots sufficient to make a coat, and are sold in this way. It requires 4 skins of reindeer fawns, or 40 skins of Parry's marmot or of the muskrat for a coat, and these sets are known by terms designating these bunches." The pelt of a wolf or wolverene [sic] is worth several "skins" in trade, while a number of pelts of muskrats or Parry's marmot are required to make the value of "a skin."


Among the northern tribes in the N. Pacific coast area, where dentalia were not so much valued, elk and moose skins seem formerly to have constituted one of the standards of value, although the skins of other animals were no doubt used to some extent as well. In later times all these were replaced by blankets introduced by the Hudson's Bay Company, which were distinguished by points or marks on the edge, woven into their texture, the best being 4-point, the smallest and poorest 1-point. The acknowledged unit of value, at least among the Haida, was a single 2½ point blanket, worth in 1880 a little more than $1.50, but on the coast farther S. it is now rated at about 50 cents. Everything was referred to this unit, according to Dawson, even a large 4-point blanket being said to be worth so many "blanket,."


Another standard universal in this region was slaves, and perhaps the remarkable copper plates should also be mentioned, though strictly speaking they were legal tender of varying value which had to be fixed by means of some other standard, such as blankets or slaves. Pieces of cedar bark prepared for roofing sometimes appear as units of value also.


By the interior Salish of British Columbia Indian hemp bark was put up in bundles about 2 ft. long and 2 in. in diameter, and tied at both ends, and 6 of these bundles constituted a "package," while dried salmon was generally sold by the "stick," each stick numbering 100 fish (Teit).


Although including the more prominent standards, the foregoing list by no means exhausts their number, for where articles of various kinds were continually bartered, numerous standards of a more or less evanescent nature arose.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 156-158.


© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College