Historical Trade Beads

Much of Canadian History is not recorded, but is learned from stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. The First Nations people of northern Canada have collected and traded beads for hundreds of years and they were an integral part of the Canadian fur trade. Much of the information on the significance of these beads, has been told in the stories that have been passed down through the generations.

We do know that prior to settlement by Europeans, most North American natives shared an appreciation for beads. At least 8,000 years before Europeans crossed the Atlantic, native people were making, wearing and trading beads of shell, pearl, bone, teeth, stone and fossil stems. As explorers came to Canada, one of the significant items brought for gifts were glass beads from Europe. Using glass beads to win native friendship was a prevalent custom in the days when European countries vied for control of the northern territories.

Scattered all over the vast northern regions of Canada was the fur trading, Hudson’s Bay Company. The native people learned the “barter system” from them. To the native people, the beaded necklaces with variation of colors were truly things of beauty. The natives hunted for the furs and in turn were given beads. It has been said that “a six foot long strand of tiny seed beads were exchanged for a simple beaver skin.” These beads were widely sought after by the native people for their colors and ease of use. Beads were also compact and easily transportable. In today’s terms we can compare it to the desire to own and wear “diamonds.” We pay thousands of dollars for these small, clear stones.

The red bead or “White Heart,” soon became known as the “Hudson’s Bay” bead. The Hudson’s Bay Company bought thousands of these beads and used them as their trading commodity. They carried an exchange value of six beads to one beaver pelt. The Russian American Company used the “Russian Blue” as their bead of choice for trading with the natives. Many of these beads can still be found in the Pacific Northwest Region of British Columbia and the Yukon. Although the name of these beads imply that they were made or came from Russia, most of the trade beads were actually made in Europe and bought for the purpose of trading with the native people.

Native people soon grew to understand the “white mans” monetary system and concluded that they were being “had”. As a result, beads began to go out of favor as a medium of exchange and instead were kept as ornaments and decorations. The native people still believed that they were truly beautiful and treasured them.

Beads that have survived over the years have grown even more beautiful as their colors have mellowed into lustrous shades which modern man cannot duplicate. Beadwork continues to be an integral part of native artwork.

View available pieces of Historical Bead Jewellery here.

Watch this great 15-minute video for more information:

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