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Manuscripts Contain Rare 1712 Wampum Drawings

Brian Carpenter is the Curator of Native American Materials at the APS Library & Museum. An archivist by training, he...

In May of 1712, the Delaware (Lenape) chief Sassoonan was travelling north through eastern Pennsylvania with 12 other member of his nation. The purpose of their travels was to meet with a delegation of the Five Nations, also known as the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. During their travels, they stopped in Bethlehem to visit the colonial officials of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania. The most important aspect of the meeting was what the Delawares brought with them on their journey: 34 wampum belts, which they showed and interpreted to the colonial officials.

Book spine of council minutes volume
Provincial Council Minutes volumes. Caption: Original bound volumes of the Rough Minutes of the Provincial of Pennsylvania.

The record of this historic visit is preserved in the Minutes of the Pennsylvania Provincial Council, a set of manuscripts now in the APS Library’s collections. But the most unusual and remarkable feature of the brief five pages that document this event are the drawings made of the 34 belts. Such drawings are highly rare from such an early date, and represent a unique resource for scholars of Indigenous history of this era.

The visual impact of the manuscript itself has fully come to light only very recently. Although the text of this manuscript has been known to scholars since a printed version of the Council Minutes first appeared in 1838, that version did not include the drawings themselves, nor indicate that drawings had been made. In 2015, Lynnette Regouby, a Mellon Curatorial Fellow for the APS Museum, was searching for information on wampum in the online (and text searchable) print versions of the Council Minutes. After finding text of interest relating to wampum, she zeroed in on the location of the original manuscript in the Library’s collections and discovered in it these remarkable images.

The manuscript was then featured prominently in the APS Museum’s 2016 exhibition, Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America.

illustrated manuscript describing wampum
Detail of manuscript. Caption: Detail from 1712 manuscript.

The five pages documenting the designs of these belts have now been digitized and can be viewed in the APS Digital Library. Tip: To zoom in on the writing and drawings, click on the “Pages” tab and then select a page to examine. Because the original drawings are quite small, each about the size of a baby carrot, and many wampum belts can range up to several feet in length, the detail of these depictions cannot do full justice to the designs of the belts. With greater access to this important document, researchers in the future will be able to better interpret and illuminate the history of these important objects of Indigenous governance and diplomacy.