Traditional “Money” of America in the ANS Cabinet

by Robert Wilson Hoge

There are very few pieces of American origin in the American Numismatic Society’s collection of traditional ethnological objects considered to be monetary in their function. While it is true that many items held value for native American Indian peoples, and certain materials were widely traded, or even hoarded, seldom in the pre-European contact period did they constitute forms of “money” in and of themselves. Almost invariably, objects which embodied wealth or served as mediums of exchange also represented religious or spiritual significance or had some kind of utilitarian importance. Therefore, their value depended on social factors which could be quite complex.

Woodpecker Scalp

A good example of this context is that involving one of the most unusual specimens in the cabinet: a piece of “woodpecker scalp money” attributed to the Karok people of the Klamath River region, in northernmost California and adjacent parts of Oregon. The ANS’ historical example of this rare item was donated to the cabinet in 1922 by the Museum of the American Indian, the Heye Foundation. The Karok are a Hokan-speaking tribe who traditionally shared cultural features with other native groups of the Californian interior but also derived certain socio-economic and religious characteristics from the peoples of the coastal regions, to the Northwest. These two groups engaged in very different aboriginal socio-economic lives.

Woodpecker scalp “money,” Karok, Northern California. (ANS 1922.21.4)

Throughout California—and among the Karok for much of the year—acorns provided the primary food staple. They were gathered from native oak trees in the autumn, dried, hulled, and pounded with a stone mortar and pestle, and then leached in water to remove the poisonous tannin before being used to make a kind of mush or acorn-bread. The acorn harvest was supplemented by additional gathering and hunting. Native peoples enjoyed a relatively relaxed and plentiful life-style, with a rather high population density. Acorns provided an abundant, dependable resource which could be easily collected and stored by anyone.

On the Northwest Coast, on the other hand, life centered around the annual upriver run of spawning salmon. Again, sustenance was plentiful and populations were substantial, but the peoples of this region developed a much more aggressively individualistic social outlook. The Karok people and their neighbors were fortunate to live in the southern reaches of the salmon habitat, and so were able to take advantage of this great resource in the same manner as did inhabitants of the Pacific Coast farther north. It is probably from them that the Northern Californian peoples may have developed an emphasis on individual status and the quest for wealth, along with rules concerning acquisition and transfer of the wealth items.

Private or familial ownership among the Karok included a wide range of “valuables.” Among these were rights or control over local natural resources, such as salmon-fishing spots, acorn groves, root beds, sites for collecting shellfish or driftwood, and redwood trees designated for future use in construction. There were also particular objects representing value, not only woodpecker feathers but remarkable animal skins, dentalium and other seashells, and blades of obsidian. Wealth accumulation depended partly upon individual industry, often in the form of trade, but aggregated through inheritance.

Woodpecker scalps were especially prized for the brilliant red top-knots on certain species. Different species were involved, recognized by size and value variation. The ANS specimen appears to be from Dryocopus Pileatus, the Pileated Woodpecker. (Classicists and historians will recognize from this designation the term pileus — the famed “Liberty cap,” the bright red distinguishing feature of the bird.) The feathered top-knots were used in various exchange reckonings, but featured most importantly as a traditional part of the regalia worn and carried by participants in the Jumping Dance (also called the Red Woodpecker Hat Dance). This was a sacred ceremony of world revitalization, which was the central tenet of the native belief system. The principal purpose of accumulating wealth was to display it in contexts like this, either as a participant or as a sponsor, a benefactor of society. The items of value could also be used when needed in other contexts, from bride-price (women from wealthier families commanded bigger payments), to fines levied for certain social transgressions (such as homicide, wounding, adultery, or uttering the name of dead person-the wealthier the injured party, the higher the fine), to medical fees charged by shamans. Those too poor to pay could borrow needed items, or go into “debt slavery.”


In the Northwest coastal region, including northwestern California, the exoskeletons of several species of scaphopod mollusks, such as Dentalium indianorum, were traditionally recognized as a form of “money.” These dentalium shells are tube-like and open on both ends—making them highly suitable for stringing as beads. Like woodpecker scalps among the Karok, they enjoyed a primary use in a ceremonial context, but were widely traded and popular as decorative items for both ceremonial and general use. Tusk-shaped and usually from one to two inches in length, dentalia were “harvested” from the seabed off Vancouver Island, or in similar habitats of the region. Convenient and desirable as trading commodities, many found their way to the inter-mountain basin and even onto the Great Plains.

The ANS holds a fine example of a string of dentalium shells, also reportedly originating from the Karok of Northern California. This was another gift from the Museum of the American Indian, the Heye Foundation. The individual shells are well-matched, and show an attractive spiraled brown marking.

Disk and Cylinder Beads

Many forms of decorative beads, commonly small disks cut from various shells, were popular items of adornment and trade throughout the Americas in aboriginal times. Sometimes they were strung into standard lengths and served as commodities in that form. To European ways of thinking, they represented an un-coined substitute for money although they were not normally treated in that manner by native users. They did sometimes figure in “denominational” exchange systems, however.

Cylindrical magnesite bead, Pomo, Southern California. (ANS 1922.21.5)

We are told that in southern California, the Pomo people used strings of shell disk beads made of mussel, clam, abalone or olivella which they rated at 800 per one cylindrical bead of baked magnesite (magnesium carbonate). This hard mineral was normally found in a rough gray state, but was baked by the Indians to a fine red or reddish brown color, then drilled and polished in a cylindrical form roughly one inch long. An excellent example of one of these Pomo beads was given to the cabinet by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation.

A certain group of shell beads has gained attention as having played a distinctive monetary role during the early years of European colonization in North America. These are small, cylindrical pieces usually of about 1/2″ in length and 1/8″ in cross section. They were carefully drilled with a small longitudinal hole, for stringing, and carefully polished. This shell bead “currency,” used in trade between the native Indians of New England and the Middle Atlantic Coast and the early British and Dutch colonists in that region, is familiarly called “wampum.”


The word wampum comes from terms of Algonkian origin meaning “white shell bead.” While white beads, normally cut and polished segments of the columella (central, spindle-like portion of the whorl) of whelk shells (Busycon sp.), made up the majority of the beads commonly in use, dark purple “black,” “blue” or “violet” beads (cut from the shells of the clam Venus mercenaria) were actually considered twice as valuable. A fairly large-scale wampum “industry” had developed among the Narragansetts and their neighbors in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but the worked shell beads, either individually or in strings, did not truly function as money until they became current among the Europeans.

Two typical examples of strung wampum beads are in the ANS collection, both part of the same 1922 gift from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. Both are attributed to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) peoples of New Netherlands/New York. Traditionally, the beads were woven into patterned “belts” which commemorated and represented formal societal pronouncements, such as treaties or adjudications, and were then given to the principal participants involved, who esteemed them highly. (Unfortunately, there are no examples of wampum “belts” in the Society’s collection.)

In the desperate days of the 1620’s, early European settlers found that, because of the desirability of the beads among the natives, they could trade wampum for food so they began producing. In the years following, while settlers in the southern colonies generally reckoned values in tobacco, those of New Netherlands and New England (and even some farther south) adopted equations of wampum beads to coined money.

In 1637, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony regulated wampum beads at six to a penny for sums under one shilling and Connecticut authorized wampum as payment for taxes. In 1650, the Massachusetts value was lowered to eight to the penny, but authorized for payment of higher amounts. While the specific values fluctuated, the need for wampum remained. Surviving documents attest its widespread use as currency among colonists. Sometimes used individually (called seawant) the beads were frequently strung into specified lengths (called peag or wampumpeag) representing different denominations ranging from one penny to ten shillings, and counted by the fathom.

Following the successful establishment of John Hull’s Boston Mint, regulation became more complicated while the need for wampum currency decreased. In New York, wampum use as money persisted to the end of the 17th century although there are records of problems with poorly-made or counterfeit examples. Even while their use as money faltered, wampum shell beads continued to be manufactured by European settlers as trade items for Indians to the West. The Campbell family of New Jersey mass-produced “wampum” shell beads and other ornaments for over 100 years starting in the late 1700’s.

Aztec “Axes”

Controversy surrounds the high-arsenic content copper pieces, coas, often called Aztec axe or hoe money, which have been found in substantial quantities in parts of Mexico in contexts and numbers which suggest their possible use as monetary objects. We know that the principal “currency” of Central America at the time of the Spanish conquest was in the form of cacao—cocoa beans (noted as early as Columbus’ fourth voyage, and regulated by viceregal decree in 1555 at 140 per real). However, series of flat copper pieces ranging in size from a couple of inches to about nine inches in length were described as a local form of native money by 1548. These are in the form either of chisel blades or “T-shaped” cross sections of a mushroom. Efforts have been made to establish a taxonomy and chronology for these pieces, which seem to relate to earlier metallic items of analogous form originating in the northern Andean region.

(Left:) Smaller copper “axe money” coa, Mexico (ANS 1975.22.3). (Right:) Early copper “Hoe money” or coa, Mexico (ANS 0000.999.53380).

That the “axe money” was valued by aboriginal peoples, hoarded, bundled and buried as grave goods is certain, but before the institution of the Spanish coinage system these pieces may well have served primarily as status indicators of wealth, and even held religious connotations. Although they are known, in Spanish, as tajaderas (scrapers), hachuelas (little hachets), hachetes (axes), azuelas (coopers’ adzes), their resemblance to tools may be incidental, since none seem to show traces of actual wear although they were reportedly seen in use for smoothing ceramic vessals. Some coas—the flat, chisel-shaped ones—may date from the 9th century. The latest pieces undoubtedly date to the period after the Spanish conquest.

The ANS collection includes a number of examples of Mexican coas of several sizes and shapes, among them 1) a large flat long one, with acquisition data missing; 2) a small one, with elongated blade and flared end, donated by Alexandre Orlowski; 3) a broad T-shaped one, donated by Dudley T. Easby, Jr.; 4) a longer T-shaped one, donated by Miss Frances S. Reilly, from the collection of John Reilly, Jr. (Note: the great Reilly collection focused primarily upon East Asian materials).

Although small, the ANS collection of traditional items from the Americas which can be thought of as emblems or exemplars of wealth contains a selection of good, representative pieces. While modern collectors enjoy regarding such materials as “money,” this concept may be illusory. Native peoples of the Americas generally regarded items of value in terms of their social and ceremonial context, and the status which they could endow or represent. These items tended to become objectified as “money” once they were confronted by European concepts of economics. Sadly, the oral histories which must have informed traditional usages in native society are largely lost to us today.

T-shaped copper “axe money” coa, Mexico. (ANS 1966.28.1)

Early copper “axe money”, or coa, Mexico (ANS 1937.179.19457)


Sylvester S. Crosby, The early coins of America: and the laws governing their issue, Boston: S.S. Crosby, 1875 (various reprint editions).

Louis E. Jordan, “Wampum: Introduction,” in The Coins of Colonial and Early America, A Project of the Robert H. Gore Jr. Numismatic Endowment, University of Notre Dame, Department of Special Collections, Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame.

John M. Kleeberg, “The New Yorke in America token” in Money of pre-federal America, John M. Kleeberg, ed., Coinage of the Americas Conference, Proceedings no. 7, New York: American Numismatic Society, 1992, pp. 15-57.

Alfred L. Kroeber, Handbook of the Indians of California, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1925 (also New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931).

J. Earl Massey, “Early money substitutes,” in Studies on money in early America, Eric P. Newman and Richard G. Doty, eds., New York: American Numismatic Society, 1976, pp. 15-24.

Philip L. Mossman, Money of the American colonies and confederation, a numismatic, economic and historical correlation, Numismatic Studies no. 20. New York: American Numismatic Society, 1993.

Charles J. Opitz, An ethnological study of traditional money, Ocala, FL: First Impressions Printing, Inc., 2000.

Alberto F. Pradeau, Numismatic history of Mexico from the pre-Columbian epoch to 1823, Los Angeles: Western Printing, 1938 (reprint, with annotations and revisions by Clyde Hubbard, New York: Sanford J. Durst, 1978).

Abraham Rosman and Paula G. Rubel, Feasting with mine enemy: rank and exchange among Northwest Coast societies, New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

A. Hingston Quiggin, A survey of Primitive money, London: Methuen, 1949.

Don Taxay, Money of the American Indians and other primitive currencies of the Americas, New York: Nummus Press, 1970.