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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Small and Pretty

A Brief Pre-history and History of Beads

by Kevin Lyons

The modern decorative bead, used in traditional North American Indian craftwork, has both a short and long history. The short history starts with the introduction of the glass bead to North America by European fur trade companies, which included among their numbers the famous Hudson Bay Company. Within the Pend Oreille Valley this would have occurred about 1809, when David Thompson, of the North American Fur Company, first explored this valley for its trade potential. It is often assumed, amongst both local historians and archaeologists, that the introduction of the bead preceded Thompson in this valley in that both traditional trade networks were robust and local tribes were highly mobile. Thus, if we are to make a reasonable inference on when the first glass trade bead arrived in the valley, we would have to say it was sometime between the introduction of the horse (about 1780) and the arrival of Thompson in 1809. A reasonable estimate therefore would be about 1795, well before Lewis and Clark’s expedition into the Pacific Northwest. These early trade beads, when you have a chance to sit down with them, are rather large and crude, approximately 1/3rd of an inch in diameter with opaque colors of dark to light blue, white, and other primary colors. As the fur trade became more established locally, beads became smaller in diameter and the colors far more vibrant, yet the color inventory first established in the early fur trade period remained very stable. By far the most popular color, in both European manufacture and Native American trade, were the blue trade beads: a small fact that requires a little explanation.

Of all the colors that pre-industrial societies can manufacture on their own, blue is a rare and difficult dye type or pigment to synthesize. But for its occurrence in feathers and flowers, blue is a rare color in nature and may explain why it was such a very popular color in the fur-trade and why it was such a prevalent color used in Mediaeval stain glass work in Northern Europe. Long before the introduction of the trade beads’ into the valley the local populations of the Columbia Plateau meticulously crafted their own beads from bone, Elk eyeteeth, and mollusk shells. Two of the mollusk shell types that have been archaeologically proven to have been used in this craft were those derived from Ovella and Dentialium. These specific mollusk species are native to the inter-coastal waters of Washington State and were prehistorically (about 2,000 years ago) traded into the interior as far afield as Missouri, where they are found in the grave goods of prestigious individuals. The Pend Oreille Valley happens to have been located within one of the primary prehistoric trade corridors between the Pacific Coast and the Missouri-Mississippi Basin. On an opposite end of the Native trade network, specifically Upper Lake Michigan, native copper was pounded and rolled into tubular beads that were then traded into the west approximately when Ovella and Dentialium beads were moving east. These tubular copper beads were also prestige items and are rarely found outside of the Mid-Missouri Trench, thus illustrating an age-old principal, “trade is seldom equal.”

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