Digital Paxton: Digital Collection, Critical Edition, and Teaching Platform

The Ghosts of Wampum

Students will compare and contrast the representation of wampum in different types of historical sources to analyze the gap in understanding of reciprocity between the settler colonists and the Conestoga people from different historical perspectives.

Although wampum has often been portrayed as a form of Native American decoration, it played an integral role in colonial diplomacy. Wampum signified "the importance or the authority of the message associated with it. As such, treaties and other such agreements would have a large amount of wampum that had been loomed into a ‘belt' for them" (Ganondagan).

The 1763 Paxton massacres occurred in the context of rising tensions between those who sought accommodation, associated with the exchange of wampum belts, and those who sought ethnic cleansing, articulated in printed materials that conflated wampum with disregard for settler colonists in the borderlands.

Lesson Objectives:
Essential Questions:
Grade Level: Grade 11

Historical Background:

Reading packet:
Background readings:
Optional readings:

Pre-work: Have students read the homework packet on wampum and the Paxton massacres.

Classroom Activities (75 minutes)

1. Play this excerpt from the musical Chicago as students come in:

Ask any of the chickies in my pen
They'll tell you I'm the biggest mother hen
I love them all and all of them love me -
Because the system works;
the system called reciprocity!

Got a little motto
Always sees me through
When you're good to Mama
Mama's good to you!

2. Ask students to free write on "reciprocate." Students may write a list, letter, scene, poem, or draw a sketch that they associate with the word.

3. Students talk in pairs: what did you write or draw, and why?

4. As a class, generate a working definition for "reciprocate" and write it on the board.

5. Class or small-group discussion: why is it important to reciprocate in relationships? Segue to thinking about ways of symbolizing reciprocity in relationships. How do I communicate my relationships with people or organizations? (e.g. a wedding ring shows marital status).

6. Homework recap/ mini lecture on reciprocity, accommodation and wampum in the 1600s and 1700s. Ask students to retrieve/recall how wampum represented based on what they read for homework (ex. to Native people wampum belts represented reciprocity in treaties with the British. Wampum was not money or decoration).

7. Split students into two groups to examine the Reading Packet:
8. Both groups address their respective guiding questions and draft a thesis statement about what wampum meant to the settler colonists and Conestoga people.

9. As a class, compare both groups' thesis statements.

10. Finish by examining the full cartoon (Indian Squaw King) and explaining the role of pamphlets in the aftermath of the Conestoga Massacres. Stress to the students that Native people were still engaging in centuries-old ideals of reciprocity, whereas the settler colonists were increasingly intent on acquiring more land. Settler colonists were also frustrated that the metropolis (Parliament in London) did not unconditionally support them.

The Paxton crisis, as Thomas Penn predicted, was a war of words and images fought by Paxton critics and defenders who debated Pennsylvania's future by inflaming the passions and misleading the judgement of many in the colony. Yet, in a war sparked by violence against Indians, it is surprising how absent or misrepresented the Conestogas were in these discussions. Few texts acknowledged the Paxton murders. Instead, most works, including political cartoons, either denied the Conestogas' agency by portraying them as helpless dependents of the colony and its Quaker merchants, or by stereotyping them as either cunning, half-naked savages or hatchet-wielding warriors, images popularized during the Seven Years' War. With no native voices to argue on behalf of the Conestogas, the Paxton debates document the colonial narrative of the crisis. They also capture a turning point in the history of the Pennsylvanian colony, away from acknowledgement and negotiation and towards the whole scale displacement and dispossession of indigenous peoples

(Judith Ridner, Passion, Politics, and Portrayal in the Paxton Debates)

Assessment and Extensions:

Assessment: Write a thesis statement that addresses one or more of these questions. State what two pieces of evidence best support your thesis.
Extension: What additional resources would you need to better understand the significance of wampum to different groups of people? What else do you know, need to know, or want to learn? 

Homework: Read and annotate Ghost River. Select one page you want to close-read and discuss in class.

This lesson was created during the 2019 Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Teacher Seminar, "Native Peoples, Settlers, and European Empires in North America, 1600-1840" (July 28-August 3, 2019). You may also download a printable version of this lesson.

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