Monday, July 22, 2013

A Closer Look at Seed Beads

Down at the Fort St. Joseph site we are beginning to find this season’s first traces of 18th-century artifacts. Some units have found artifacts like bone, slag and clinker, a fragment of a clay tobacco pipe stem, and numerous seed beads. Currently my unit has yielded the largest number of seed beads with over ten (white and blue beads) found so far. Seed beads are a common artifact at the Fort and this blog is dedicated to give you a little more background on something you’ll be hearing a lot more about in future posts.

A few of the seed beads found at my unit
Made by the Europeans and then transported to the New World, the seed beads were specifically designed to be mass-produced to facilitate trade. Most glass beads, especially in the 17th century, were produced by stretching out a long hollow tube of glass, letting it cool then slicing the hardened glass into individual beads. Seed beads get their name from their size; they are only a few millimeters in diameter and resemble small seeds. Because of their size they were embroidered onto clothing as adornment and decoration instead of being used as necklaces.  Larger beads are also found on site but only one has been recovered thus far. These trade beads where produced in large quantities by the 17th and 18th century and were frequently exchanged with Native Americans.

Such a high demand for these beads was created by the cross-cultural contact between the French and the Native Americans. Along with beads, Native Americans also traded for European fabrics, cutting it into the style of their traditional dress. Pre-bead decoration in Native communities was defined by what resources they had naturally like feathers, shell and bone. These traditional patterns were maintained after the introduction of beads.

Bead color was important. European traders learned which beads were more likely to sell based on which colors the Natives consistently bought. Colors like white, red and black were popular for their symbolic meanings. White stood for light, life, mind and knowledge. Red for fire (or for heat and light), life, blood and berries. Black symbolized darkness, death, mourning and an overall absence of well-being.

New glass technology was being pioneered at this time in Europe, arriving just in time to fill the demand for different colored beads. This allowed a wider range of colors to be produced. Different chemicals were used to create different colors in the glass. For example, the seed beads we have found so far have been blue and white. In order to make that blue color on the bead the glass maker would have used cobalt oxide, or some sort of copper compound. To make the beads white they would have added either tin compounds or antimony oxides.  

Seed beads are a common trade item for sites in North America where Native Americans traded with Europeans. We can find seed beads in many of the places where the two cultures were in contact. Patterns of seed beads similar to Fort St. Joseph’s bead assemblage can be found at other Great Lakes sites such as Fort Michilimackinac and Rock Island. The beads themselves took on different functions but one thing that is clear is that the beads represent an important part of the cross-cultural interaction between the French traders and the Native Americans who incorporated them into their own culture.



Malischke, Lisa Marie. “The Excavated Bead Collection At Fort St. Joseph (20BE23) and Its Implications For Understanding Adornment Ideology Cultural Exchange and Identity”. Western Michigan University. Kalamazoo, MI. 2009

Miller, Christopher L., and George R. Hamell. “A New Perspective on Indian-white Contact: Cultural Symbols and Colonial Trade.” Journal of American History 73 (2): 311-328. 1986

Geoscience News and Information. Elements of color in stained and colored, 2013.

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