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Articles / True Blue Chevron

Published: 2020-07-02
Category: Fur Trade and Early Frontier Material Culture

By Michael Nilsson

What are those multiple layered beads, that trappers and mountainmen alike, wear with pride?

Predominantly red, white and blue, and sometimes with as many as 7 layers, the chevrons are drawn, polished and has their ends ground off to expose the inner layers. With an astonishing result being a star pattern in cross section, they are a favorite among most collectors.

During the age of the European expansion, chevrons were particularly important and among the first items of trade. The chevron bead is well known and is also referred to as a rosetta or star bead. Numerous examples has been reclaimed from early sites referred to the Spanish Colonial Period of the Americas as well as in Asia and Africa.

The first chevrons were produced by the Venetians during the end of 15th and during the 16th century. For reasons unknown, a decline in production occurred during the 18th century. During the 19th century however, the chevrons were again produced in large quantities.

A plethora of beads
The sheer volume of Venice's bead production mirrors in the number of established glassworks. In 1764 alone, 22 manufacturers produced 44.000 pounds of various bead types. On a weekly basis!

The manufacture of the intricate bead with an internal star-shaped pattern, was a complex sequence of encasing and molding multiple layers of various colors, drawing out into canes, sectioning into beads and finally hand-finishing them. They are broadly categorized as being either "faceted", "tumbled" or "tubular".

Symbolism and metaphors
Colors are hugely important in native american material culture. Whether they are represented on broadcloth, berries or beads, they are expressed symbolically throughout everyday life; both socially and spiritually. Though basically sharing the same thoughtworld, there were some regional and tribal differences. Blue beads seems to be favoured by everyone however, regardless of timeframe.

In the article "Comparison of Southeastern Beads with Northeastern Beads" by Marvin T. Smith, the author mentions northeastern findings, in mid 17th century, indicating that the outer blue layer of the chevron had been grounded off to expose the inner red layer. Perhaps a symbolic and metaphorical difference in beliefs, since at this time red beads were not important in the southeastern trade.

Importance of archaeology
Since tradelists, invoices and ledgers mostly use color to describe beads, it is impossible to determine certain types. The nomenclature and description of beads today, are from an archaeological point of view, vital. The contemporary study of beads has a standardized form enabling the researcher to identify, date and understand the method of construction of a particular bead. Dating the bead is extremely important, since it leads to a more accurate dating of the site where it was recovered.

For a layperson, the accepted terms and naming are simply based on the design of the bead; examples being: "Feather", "Lewis and Clark", "Padre" etc. And since the tradelists above mentioned has its obvious flaws, the key is to turn to archaeology for answers.

If an archaeological excavation at a certain dated site, showed that the predominant bead was a blue, faceted necklace bead; would it then be safe to assume that the favorite bead in that region and time was blue.. and faceted?

If the same excavation failed to uncover a certain type of bead, would it then be safe to assume it wasn't favored.. or even existed in that particular area?

In the area of the western Great Lakes for instance, during the late historic period (1760-1820), the principal bead found is what is referred to on American Fur Company invoices as "cut glass beads". Hexagonal in cross section, these are drawn beads with triangular to trapezoidal facets ground on each corner. Using the Kidd classification system, the type of bead is classified as "If" and "IIIf". Along the Canadian, anything other than blue and white faceted beads is in limited quantities. And there are always a greater number of blue ones.

Maj. Paul L. Chouteau, U.S. Indian Agent for the Osage Nation, bought of the American Fur Company, in August 1833, 50 dozen cut glass beads @ 37 1/2 cent a dozen. The only beads ordered. This was part for the annuities of the Big and Little Osages that year. (Chouteau-Maffitt Collection. Account for Paul L. Chouteau, August 1833, Missouri Historical Society).

Combining archival and archaeological research, gives us plentiful information. Not only does it show us the preferred, ordered bead. It also uncovers the fact that 60 percent of the sample beads recovered from the trading post of August Pierre Chouteau 1823-1833, situated on the Verdigris river at the Three Forks area, is drawn and faceted; i.e. the "cut beads" mentioned. So, were the "cut beads" a favorite, sought after bead? I'd say, pretty much so.

According to American Fur Company records in the Missouri Historical Society, these "cut glass beads" were shipped to western posts in great quantities.

Chevron bead and availability
The provenience of the chevron bead is not in question. It is widely accepted that chevrons date from early 16th century and were made by the Venetians. The question is, however: were they available in the Rockies during the golden era of 1825-1840?

Faceted chevron beads are excellent 16th century time markers. In the southeastern parts they are present on the earliest sites and continuing after the founding of St Augustine in 1565. By about 1600 or earlier, "tumbled" chevron beads replace faceted examples. Sites dated to the 1630-1670 timeframe, produce mostly monochrome beads. Fancy beads such as chevrons are absent.

By studying the archaelogical findings in northeastern- and southeastern sites, it is indicated that NO chevron has been found archaeologically post 1690.

The chevron seems to fall out of favor in the late 17th century and yields to the simpler monochrome beads; drawn beads, round, or tubular, either plain or with compound stripes.

According to Lois Sherr Dubin and her magnificent publication "The History of Beads", little is known about chevron production during the 18th century. It appears relatively few were produced. After the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon in 1797, the industry suffered a setback as many workmen were taken to France. By 1836 the number of establishments had decreased to 12. During the 1800's, upon recovering from the Napoleonic wars, chevrons were again produced in large quantities. In a great variety of colors, shapes, sizes, layers and points with a vast majority having four to six layers in colors red, white, and blue.

The above statement by Lois Sherr Dubin: "During the 1800's" is too vague, and could apply to 1815 when the Napoleonic wars officially ended. It could also easily refer to the 1880's, when yearly shipments to United States alone, amounted to six million pounds of beads.

To find answers, the key is archaeology. Emphasis should be on trading posts of the period and region as well as indian sites and burial grounds.

So what does this mean? Should we unlearn what we have learned?

Unless new archaeological information surfaces regarding sites throughout the western parts, a suggestion would be to tread very easily on the chevron path.

The chevron seems to be more of a rendezvous phenomenon, rather than a historic one. Thriving on hearsay, they're simply a result of the African traders peddling them on the open market since the 1970's and 1980's, feeding on the early "buckskinning" culture.

Questions such as "What if?", and "Just suppose?" are categorized as probable causes. They should make way for more substantiated conclusions. And since the creed is "go for what was common", I will now strip my favorite necklace of antique chevrons.

I believe the chevron is suitable for reenacting the 16th century through early 18th century. From 17th century onwards the bead should be tumbled round or referred to, as some of you may already know, the term "a speo".

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Bibliography/References/Suggested reading

1. Proceedings of the 1982 Glass Trade Bead Conference - Rochester Museum & Science Center.
2. Manufacture of Intricate Glass Canes - Jamey D. Allen.
3. Glass Beads From Upper Creek Indian Towns in the Southeast and in Oklahoma - Mary Elizabeth Good.
4. Comparison of Southeastern Beads with Northeastern Beads - Marvin T. Smith.
5. Trading in Metaphors: The Magic of Beads - George R. Hamell.
6. Classification System For Glass Beads For The Use of Field Archaeologists - Kenneth E. Kidd, Martha A. Kidd.
7. The History of Beads - Lois Sherr Dubin.
8. Chevron and Nueva Cadiz Beads - Picard.
9. A Handbook on Beads - W.G.N van der Sleen.
10. Archaeology as a Key to the Colonial Fur Trade - John Witthoft.

Seven-layered chevrons. Authors collection.

Firstly I'd like to thank my sponsors: Sebastian "Char Lip" Scheler, and Teton Todd Glover. Sebastian for accepting my procrastinating personality and lifestyle, and Todd for the supporting and invigorating peptalk mails; and of course for the trip of a lifetime. The days I spent with you will be cherished forever.
Secondly, I would like to thank my friend Ward Oles, proprietor of A master craftsman and maker of 18th century period beads. We had nice, enlightening discussions on the subject. Thanks.
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