Native Man with Copper

“A cheiff Lorde of Roanoac” from Thomas Hariot’s A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, 1590
Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Special Collections (A 1590-
1634 .B79 GE)

The Value of Copper and Beads

Early 17th-century English accounts describe the settlers’ trading of “baubles” and “trinkets” such as copper and glass beads in exchange for food and supplies from the Indians.  English colonists, pleased with their ability to obtain valuable bushels of corn for the cost of a few “trifles,” believed that Natives were so awed with European technology that they would readily surrender their own “inferior objects.” The settlers failed to understand that within Virginia Algonquian society, copper and beads had long functioned as meaningful objects equated with power and status. Copper had to be transported from areas ranging from the Great Lakes to the interior of Virginia; shell beads came from Native communities on the Eastern shore. As a result, the ownership and display of copper pendants and ornaments, and white and blue shell beads was limited to high-status individuals--those with power and means to obtain such resources. Trading with the English provided the Virginia Indians with a more convenient avenue of access to these highly desirable objects, but may have also contributed to a breakdown of traditional leadership roles in Indian society.


Glass beads

Gooseberry beads, pale green with white horizontal stripes over spherical body, ca. 1590-1750; Blue dot beads, ca. 1607-1650; Glass beads, white, blue, and cobalt ring, ca. 1600-1700; tubular glass bead, green with red stripes, ca. 1600-1700

The Meanings of Exchange

The English settlers and Virginia Indian groups held different views of exchange. For Virginia Indians exchange was a ritual expression of alliance or friendship--an effort to establish connections that would provide powerful allies and needed supplies. The relationships created through exchange were as important as the items being traded. The English saw things differently, often focusing on profit and--particularly when they were desperate for supplies--relying on force to obtain the needed goods, provoking native hostilities in the process.

Trading copper

Pieces of trading copper, ca. 1608-1650

The Significance of Copper for Archaeologists

During the Late Woodland Period the lack of native copper in the Coastal Plain meant that Virginia Algonquian tribes were reliant on their immediate neighbors, the Monacans, who lived in the Piedmont of Virginia, or other Indian peoples living farther afield, to procure copper. When the English arrived, they flooded the Virginia Indian communities with European copper, making it easily available to a larger proportion of Virginia Algonquian society.  Archaeologists have wondered whether the source of copper recovered from early 17th-century sites was North America or Europe. Recent use of scanning electron microscopy and chemical analysis has enabled researchers to determine the origins of such copper materials, adding to our understanding of Indian and European trade patterns.