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Representative examples of the beads analyzed

Glass Beads Drove Transatlantic Trade in Early 17th Century North America

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In a recently published study, a pair of researchers from universities in the United States and Canada examined the chemical composition of glass beads made in Europe that were traded among indigenous people in the Western Great Lakes region in the 17th century. Through a unique and extensive process of analysis, the researchers were able to track indigenous participation in transatlantic exchange networks that predated the arrival of European settlers in the Great Lakes area, meaning glass beads made in Europe got to that region before actual Europeans

Glass beads played a pivotal role in the creation of the earliest trade networks connecting Europeans and the indigenous people of North America. Considered a key symbol representing the progress of European colonization of North America, glass beads made overseas became highly popular among many Native American groups, and continue to be coveted by some indigenous peoples even today. 

 Representation of Wendat women adorned with beads

a) Representation of Wendat women adorned with beads (from Champlain 1619); (Statens Museum for Kunst n.d,, Public domain; composite figure by authors/Antiquity Publications Ltd) 

The trade of these highly valued beads linked two continents together, with European settlers in the Americas acting as intermediaries to facilitate long-distance exchanges. But in their new analysis, anthropologists Dr. Heather Walder from the University of Wisconsin—La Crosse and Dr. Alicia L. Hawkins from the University of Toronto—Mississauga showed that glass beads were making the rounds in certain Native American circles earlier than previously believed, even before the representatives of the manufacturers who produced them. 

Glass Beads and their Relationship to Indigenous Society 

For the purposes of their new study, the two researchers performed an intricate chemical analysis of more than 1,000 glass beads from the 17th century known to have been moved in various directions along transatlantic exchange networks, beads that were obtained from sources in Europe and eastern North America. Taking an expansive approach, they hoped to learn as much as possible about how the trade in glass beads among indigenous peoples living in the Great Lakes region operated. 

“Previously, archaeologists have studied glass beads to understand the timing of site occupations of the 16th and 17th century,” Dr. Walder stated in a press release. “Instead of treating beads simply as chronological markers, we address their social significance to answer questions about interaction, exchange, and community-level relationships among Indigenous peoples.”  

During their analysis of the beads, the researchers achieved a breakthrough. They discovered that slight differences in chemical composition of these treasured artifacts made it possible to connect them to different glassmaking centers in Europe, and that this knowledge could be used to trace the movements of beads among indigenous peoples in the northern United States and southern Canada four centuries ago.  

Amazingly, the researchers found that glass beads passed around in the Western Great Lakes region before 1650 shared sources in Europe with those found in Wendat villages located hundreds of miles or kilometers away in Ontario. 

 Map of archaeological site locations for glass beads in this study (base map from Natural Earth

Map of archaeological site locations for glass beads in this study (base map from Natural Earth; figure by Walder & Hawkins/Antiquity Publications Ltd) 

According to Drs. Walder and Hawkins, what this means is that the Wendat peoples of Ontario were the first ones to possess the glass beads, which they would have traded with the Anishunaabe and other Native American peoples who later migrated to the Great Lakes area. In response to conflict with their enemies, groups affiliated with the Wendat Confederacy joined the migrants to the Great Lakes area around the mid-17th century, bringing the bead trade with them as they established strong market-based links with their new neighbors. 

Significantly, European settlers couldn’t have been the ones passing the beads around, since they did not arrive in the Western Great Lakes region in significant numbers until at least the 1670s (the French were the first Europeans to settle in this part of North America, coming down from Canada).  

“Diagnostic chemical elements in glass compositions reveal down-the-line exchange and population movement into the Western Great Lakes region prior to the arrival of European settlers,” the researchers wrote in a new article about their work published in Antiquity. They noted that this “highlights active Indigenous participation in transatlantic economic networks during a historical period of dynamic reorganization and interaction.”  

It was remarkable to discover that glass beads that were undoubtedly of European origin had been circulating on indigenous trade networks long before direct European contact in the Western Great Lakes region. 

The explanation for this can be found in the efforts by the French to establish alliances with various Native American groups, including those associated with the Wendat Confederacy, in the early 1600s. French explorers and settlers at this time sought to ally with certain indigenous groups to fight against those that resisted French expansionism, and they apparently traded glass beads with the Wendat peoples in exchange for other goods in order to forge a stronger bond. 

“Both the Western Great Lakes and Wendake [the geographical location in Ontario where the Wendat lived] were homelands of Indigenous Nations allied with the French at the time, and we show that at least some bead chemistries align with those of beads produced in Rouen or Paris,” Drs. Walder and Hawkins wrote in their Antiquity article, confirming a French origin for the glass beads passed along to other indigenous groups by the Wendat. 

A Transatlantic Connection Forged with Beads 

The researchers highlighted one other fascinating aspect of their study. Examining the beads chronologically, they were able to chart changes in the colors of the beads that were traded among the indigenous residents of the Great Lakes region over time.  

Reflecting Wendat preferences, the beads changed from mostly white and blue at first to mainly red later on. This means that French colonists in Ontario were sending messages to bead manufacturers back to Rouen and Paris to let them know what the Wendat were looking for, motivating the makers of the glass beads to change their practices to meet the demands of their Native American customers on the other end.  

Taken as a whole, the new study demonstrates a close connection between market-related activities and social, political, and cultural developments in 17th century North America, on both a local and international scale. 

“Glass beads can show how Indigenous people maintained social relationships and actively moved as strategies of resilience and resistance during the 17th century in the North American Great Lakes Region,” Dr. Walder stated, summarizing the significance of the new study’s findings. 

In short, beads are not (just) clocks! Unlocking their chemical composition using high-tech methods can help us tell stories of the relationships among communities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Top image: Left; A Glass and Coral Factory, Jacob van Loo. Right; Representative examples of the beads analyzed. Source: Left; Public Domain, Right; Walder & Hawkins /Antiquity Publications Ltd 


Walder, Heather & Hawkins, Alicia L. 2024. Tracking glass beads: communities and exchange relationships across the Atlantic in the seventeenth century. Antiquity Publications LTD. Available at: 

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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