"A Thousand Beads to Each Nation:" A social interpretation of glass trade bead distribution in the Upper Great Lakes region of North America

Author(s): Heather Walder

Year: 2015


Through LA-ICP-MS elemental analyses of 874 glass trade beads from 31 early colonial-era archaeological sites in the Upper Great Lakes region of North America, and from late 17th century contexts historically associated with French exploration of the Gulf Coast of Texas, I identify patterning in the spatial and temporal distribution of European glass-bead recipe groups. Trading relationships among Indigenous peoples and outsiders in this French "Upper Country" took place on a complex "middle ground" organized and navigated by an "Infinity of Nations" (White 1991; Witgen 2012), who maintained social and political autonomy through gift-giving and forging fictive kinships. Therefore, patterning of glass recipe groups may reflect: socially-structured exchange networks circulating goods across a diverse ethnic landscape, dynamic population movements, and groups’ changing access to materials over time. In this case study, archaeometric analysis of glass beads supplements standard archaeological methods, like stylistic analyses of ceramics and other "Native-made" artifacts, to clarify ethnic groups’ interactions and boundaries as reflected in material culture. This regional examination of glass bead exchange highlights the usefulness of investigating archaeological glass recipes beyond simple chronology-building or clarifying historical manufacturing processes, demonstrating potential for illuminating social connections of ethnic groups interacting on a dynamic past landscape.

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Cite this Record

"A Thousand Beads to Each Nation:" A social interpretation of glass trade bead distribution in the Upper Great Lakes region of North America. Heather Walder. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 396444) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8TD9ZGQ


Spatial Coverage

min long: -92.944; min lat: 40.044 ; max long: -82.485; max lat: 47.577 ;

File Information

  Name Size Creation Date Date Uploaded Access
Walder-SAA-2015.pdf 5.22mb Apr 20, 2015 Apr 20, 2015 5:08:02 PM Public
Slides presented showing two case examples, including distinctive glass beads from the Hanson site, WI, and a discussion of the possibility of tracing beads associated with French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, in the Upper Great Lakes and in the Gulf of Mexico.