Glass trade beads, and the products made from, them are high on the list of most collectors of Native American Indian arts and crafts. They represent an interesting and important facet of this country's intriguing history. The trade bead has played a very important part in the exploration and colonization of the New World. The first recorded introduction of trade beads in the Americas dates back to Columbus. On October 12, 1492, he recorded in his log that to gain the admiration of the natives of San Salvador Island, he gave them strings of glass beads which they placed around their necks.
There is really very little information on where and how the beads were made, when the various types were brought to this country and by whom they were traded.
The word "bead" has its origin from the Middle English word bede, meaning prayer. For thousands of years man has used beads of all sorts, including shell, bone, stone, pottery, copper, gold, silver and glass as decorations and ornaments.
While the use of the glass trade bead has been closely associated with the colorful and adventurous fur trade of North America, these beads also played a highly significant role in early Spanish exploration and colonization of the Southwest. From some of the earliest diaries and journals, we know that in 1540 Coronado and his Spanish conquistadors marched into what is now Arizona and New Mexico, searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Among their supplies were the important glass trade beads and other trade items for building goodwill with the Indians.
The giant of the fur trade, Hudson's Bay Company, was formed in 1670 and from then on, the use of glass trade beads was constant. In 1804, from the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition we learn of considerable use of trade beads with the Indians. The rugged early fur trappers or mountain men exchanged countless millions of these glass trade beads for vast fortunes in valuable furs. The beads, in turn, became a source of wealth and prestige among the Indians and were frequently traded among the various bands and tribes, following ancient Indian trade routes.
From Coronado's time until the late 1600's, a good part of the glass beads traded on the American continent were from Venice, Italy. The tiny republic of Venice enjoyed a near monopoly of bead manufacture for nearly 600 years and influenced glass craftsmanship over all of Europe.
There has been some confusion over trade bead classification and nomenclature. A basic problem has been the naming of trade beads by where they were found, who traded them, the tribes that used them and even by the methods they were transported, or from the ports they were shipped.
A classic example is the "pony" bead which is generally considered to be a simple, sometimes crude, monochrome glass bead about 1/8th in diameter, that was first brought into the western states by the "pony" pack trains of the traders.
Another example are the "Russian" trade beads that are considered to be short beads with multiple facets. This bead is most often seen in various shades of transparent blue, but is also seen as a deep transparent green or amber, a translucent white and occasionally in other colors. Since there is no evidence that the Russians made any glass beads, this bead was no doubt traded by the Russians to fur traders and Indians.
The "padre" bead is thought to be one of the earliest beads traded in the Southwest. It is a beautifully simple, opaque sky blue glass bead with a unique satin-like finish. This bead is still highly valued by the Indians of southwest Arizona.
One of the best known, oldest and most interesting bead is called the "chevron", also called "star", "patermoster" (our father's), or "sun" bead. This complex and very colorful bead has been found in many part of the United States and Canada, as well as other parts of the world. In the Southwest, the chevron can be connected with early Spanish expeditions.
Most of the early trade beads were rather large and of the necklace variety. Finally, with the introduction of more of the smaller beads, the Indians began to incorporate beads into loom weaving, making beaded sashes and beading them on buckskin and cloth. The smaller bead known as the "seed" bead first appeared in the eastern states in the early 1700's and gradually made its way to the west.
Trade beads have been used extensively by Native American Indians in their ceremonies, to decorate clothing, baskets, dolls, as necklaces and as a medium for exchange or trade among themselves. Glass beads have always been highly valued by the Indians and frequently were used to trade for horses and provisions. It is interesting to note that the U. S. Army paid the Mohave Indians six pounds of white beads, among other items, as a ransom for Olive Oatman.
It is ironic that the simple glass trade beads that the white man so lavishly gave to the Indians, in the days of exploration, fur trade and colonization, are so highly sought after today by bead collectors. The collection and study of trade beads is a fascinating activity that can lead you into many interesting facets of American history. The glass trade bead was a powerful and persuasive factor in the movements of civilization and especially in the history of the settlement of the American west.This article contains excerpts from ARIZONA HIGHWAYS magazine, July 1971 issue.