The prehistoric natives in both continents, that would come to be known as the Americas, made and wore many bead type ornaments.  They used ceramics, shell, bone, various minerals and probably wood to fashion these decorative embellishments but the manufacture and usage of Indian-made personal adornment began to come to an end in the fifteenth century AD.  Christopher Columbus recorded in his log, on October 12, 1492, that he gave strings of glass  beads to the natives who lived on the island that would become San Salvador.  That began almost four hundred years of giving American Indians gifts in exchange for furs, deer skins and land - gifts that included glass trade beads of Southeast America.

The word bead comes from the Middle English language words bede or bedu which means prayer – as in prayer beads. Beads have been used in various cultures around the world for  thousands of years with glass beads being made in Egypt as early as 2181 BC by melting sand and soda lime which formed a simple liquid glass that was then molded into various usable products including ornamental beads.  The artisans in Venice, Italy began making glass beads around AD 1240 but the manufacture of these decorative trinkets was transferred to the Italian island of Murano in AD 1291 because of the danger of fires in the Venetian city.  Between AD 1500 and 1530, there were about twenty-five large glass making factories operating in Murano.  Later glass items, including beads, would be made in other Italian cities as well as in Bohemia and Monrovia (modern Czech Republic), Holland, England, France, Spain and China and large quantities of glass bling, from all these worldly regions, were brought to the Americas and used for bartering purposes.

Today there is much confusion concerning the various types of glass beads since the factories that made the adornments kept very few written records on manufacturing methods.  The European craft guilds were very secretive and much of the information regarding the making of glass beads was passed on verbally and under the penalty of death for unauthorized disclosure.  Many of the names used today are generic terms such as pony or seed beads and apply only to the sizes of the items and have no relationship to the country where they were made or the regions in the Americas where they were found.  Beginning with the Spaniards in AD 1539, European and later American explorers traded tens of millions of the little vitreous orbs in North America.  The Italians recorded that in AD 1764, over 2.2 million pounds of glass trade beads were made just in the Venice region, much of which probably came to this country.  And that would have been an extraordinary quantity of beads considering that a single pound could have contained hundreds or even a thousand or more of these tiny baubles – and that was just from the Venice locale.  The earliest beads were somewhat large, that being one-half inch or more in diameter, and are considered being of the necklace variety.  The later examples are generally one-quarter inch across or smaller and were used for necklaces as well as being sewn onto clothing.  And all the swapping was not done only by the Europeans since the Indians themselves bartered the ornaments to other native groups who were located further away from the western hemisphere home bases of the European explorers.  The early Euro/Americans actually tried to make glass trade beads in a factory built in Jamestown, Virginia in 1622 but the local natives burned it to the ground a year later.

The European glass bead makers used several techniques to manufacture the little glazed treasures.  The first ones were made by a method called winding in which the molten glass was wound around an iron rod or mandrel and remained there until cooled at which time the spiral was cut into small bead sized pieces.  Blown glass beads were also made when an artisan used a hollow cylinder to blow the molten glass in the desired sizes and shapes, after which the individual beads were separated.  Drawn beads were made by a guild member holding one end of a length of semi-molten glass while another person carried the other end into a very long corridor thus drawing the pliable material, after which the drawn length would have been sectioned into desired sizes.  The last major technique for making beads was molding or pressing where the molten glass was poured into two part molds and the matching halves pressed together until the glass was cool.  After being sized, all these rough beads were placed in large drums along with lime, carbonate, sand and water and the drums rotated thus smoothing the objects within.  The beads were then placed in sacks of fermented bran and shaken until the ornaments were polished.  Most of these fancy gewgaws were monochrome or single colored where various minerals were put into the molten glass so as to impart desired hues.  Iron was used to make red beads while cobalt was used for blue.  Copper made the beads green; tin colored the glass white and on rare occasions gold was used to make amber beads.  Glass beads were also made translucent or colorless, in black, in yellow and in multi-colors though when found on Historic Period village sites, all these once bright colors will generally be faded from being in the ground for hundreds of years.  It has been estimated that glass trade beads were made in over one hundred thousand shapes and sizes and designs with the primary shapes being round, tube, oval and barrel configurations.  Sizes range from seed beads as small as 1/16 inch in diameter up to “robin egg” beads that can be larger than one inch across.  The designs are almost endless with single color, multicolor, twisted, faceted, onion skin and mosaic styles to name only a few.

Most of the trading in this country was done by men of English, Dutch, French, Spanish or Russian heritage.  According to modern history lessons, in 1624, the Dutchman Peter Minuit traded $24 worth of glass beads to natives in order to acquire Manhattan Island.  This, though, is just a myth that was actually written over 250 years after it supposedly happened, by a woman who made up the story and simply was looking for some fame.   The Hudson Bay Company was begun in 1670 and was responsible for a very large quantity of beads being brought to North America.  In particular they traded beads that are generally called green hearts, white hearts or yellow hearts but whose name is actually Cornaline d’Aleppo.  These beads have a red exterior color with green, white or yellow internally and were made and traded from around 1680 to 1850 during what is called the American Fur Trade Period.  From the interior regions of the southeast into the upper Midwest and onward to the Pacific Ocean, Russian barterers exchanged tens of thousands of short multi- faceted beads that are called Russian Blues today.  These beads were not made in Russia, though, but instead were fabricated in Bohemia and China and came in the colors of blue, green, amber and white in spite of the style being called Russian Blues.  The rarest and most desirable glass beads of the trading era are called chevrons and were produced entirely, or at least mostly, in Holland.  Also called patermoster, star or sun beads, these complex ornaments are very colorful and were made in four to seven individual layers of alternating colors of glass.  When the ends of these beads were ground and polished, all the colored layers could be seen.  In the southeast, glass beads were traded in most of the coastal regions and inland into the mountains and even beyond.  Heavy concentrations of trade beads have been found along the Atlantic Ocean bordering districts of modern-day Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia and many have also been found in coastal Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  Inland areas where large quantities have been discovered are along the Tennessee River Valley in Tennessee, near the Catawba, Dan, Pee Dee and Edisto Rivers in the Carolinas, the Chattahoochee and Savannah Rivers in Georgia and the Tallapoosa River in Alabama.  Most of the beads found in these areas will date from around AD 1650 to 1825 and will include about every variety brought into this country for bartering purposes.

Since the natives only had natural materials with which to make their jewelry type items, it  seems obvious that they would have been desirous of obtaining these shiny and colorful glass ornamental bibelots.  As previously mentioned in this article, tens of millions of beads were exchanged to the Indians after AD 1492 for land and animal skins and many collectors today maintain that the number could be in the hundreds of millions.  They are not particularly difficult to find in plowed fields adjacent to rivers throughout the South but usually being small, it takes time to pick them up and amass enough to actually make a necklace.  Care should be taken, though, if you decide to purchase supposedly old beads since many of the early styles are still being made and sold today.  Discovering ancient Indian artifacts when and where they can be found is a fascinating hobby.  So locate a plowed field bordering a large stream and, with the owner’s permission, walk and pick up some arrowheads and, hopefully, some glass trade beads of southeast America.




Brain, Jeffery P.                                                         1979


Brown, Eric E.                                                                        2005


Dubin, Lois S.                                                                        1987


Dubin, Lois S.                                                                        1999


Fenstermaker, Gerald B.                                        1974


Gallay, Alan                                                              2002



Orchard, William C.                                                 1975


Setzer, Frank, M. and Jesse D. Jenkins                1941


Smith, Marvin T.                                                       1982


     PAPERS, 1979

Waselkov, Gregory A.                                                          1989

     “Seventeenth Century Trade in the Colonial Southeast”,  SOUTHEASTERN ARCHAEOLOGY