Later Huron, 1675

Having such a clear and vivid description of the early burial customs of the Huron, and the various ceremonies which were enacted by members of that tribe at the time of the death of one of their number, as recorded by Père Le Jeune, in 1636, it is of interest to compare them with the later customs of the same people, after they had become influenced by the teachings of the missionaries. The later account relates to the people of la Mission de Notre-Dame de Lorette, in the year 1675, at which time ” about 300 souls, both Huron and Iroquois,” were gathered about the Mission and heard the teachings of the Jesuits. And regarding the burial of their dead it was said “Their custom is as follows: as soom as any one dies, the captain utters a lugubrious cry through the village to give notice of it. The relatives of the deceased have no need to trouble themselves about anything, beyond weeping for their dead; because every family takes care that the body is shrouded, the grave dug, and the corpse borne to it and buried, and that everything else connected with the burial is done,-a service that they reciprocally render to one another on similar occasions.

“When the hour for the funeral has come, the clergy usually go to the cabin to get the body of the deceased, which is dressed in his finest garments, and generally covered over with a fine red blanket, quite new. After that, nothing is done beyond what is customary for the French, until the grave is reached. Upon arriving there, the family of the deceased, who hitherto have only had to weep, display all their wealth, from which they give various presents. This is done through captain, who, after pronouncing a sort of funeral oration, which is usually rather short, offers the first present to the church,-generally a fine large porcelain collar,-in order that prayers may be said for the repose of the dead person’s soul. Then he gives, out of all the dead man’s effects, three or four presents to those who bury him; then some to the most intimate friends of the deceased. The last of all these presents is that given to the relatives of the deceased, by those who bury hint. Finally, the whole ceremony concludes by placing the body in the ground in the following manner. A wide grave is dug, 4 to 5 feet deep, capable of holding more than six bodies, but all lined with bark on the bottom and four sides. This forms a sort of cellar, in which they lay the body, and over which they place a large piece of bark in the shape of a tomb; it is supported by sticks placed crosswise over the excavation, that this bark may not sink into the tomb, and that it may hold up the earth that is to be thrown on it; the body thus lies therein as in a chamber without touching the earth at all. Finally, some days after the burial, when the tears of the relatives have been dried to some extent, they give a feast to give the deceased back to life, that is, to give his name to another, whom they urged to imitate the dead man’s good actions while taking his name.”

A large grave as described in the preceding account would, in after years, when the supporting bark had become decayed and fallen, have been sunken and irregular. The remains would have become scattered within the excavated space, and all the lining would have disappeared. This may, and undoubtedly does, explain the origin of many burials in the eastern part of the country, especially in New England. When telling of the presents exchanged and given at the time of burial, Père Dablon mentioned particularly that the first was made to the church, and this was “generally, a fine large porcelain collar,” porcelain here refering to wampum. Such a specimen is now in the small museum connected with the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, at Rome, where it was deposited many rears ago by some missionary when he returned from America. Unfortunately the history of the remarkable piece is not known, but is one of the most interesting examples of wampum preserved in any collection. This is shown in plate 1, the reproductions being made from photographs of the original, made by the writer in 1905. It measures nearly 6 feet 6 inches in length and about 4 1/4 inches in width, made up of 15 rows of beads, each row consisting of 646 beads, or 9,690 in all. The design suggests the attempt to represent on one side Christianity, on the other paganism. At the end of the first side is evidently shown the chapel of the mission, with one window and a cross above the doorway. Next are several characters which may identify the mission; and beyond these are two keys, crossed. In the middle are two figures, evidently a missionary on the right and an Indian on the left, holding between them a cross, the Christian symbol. This most unusual and interesting piece of native workmanship, although showing so clearly the influence of the teachings of the missionaries, should undoubtedly be considered as having served as a ” present to the church” at the time of burial of some native convert, possibly two centuries or more ago. Arranged and fastened as it is suggests its use as a collar or stole, something more elaborate than an ordinary wampum ” belt.” The entire design is shown in figure 11.

Having described this remarkable piece of wampum, the most interesting example of such work known to exist, it may be well to refer briefly to wampum in general.

The term wampum, derived from an Algonquian word, has often been applied to all shell beads, but the true wampum beads are of a cylindrical form, averaging about one-eighth inch in diameter and one-fourth inch in length. They are of two sorts, white and violet, the latter by many writers being termed black. The violet beads were made of a part of the Venus mercenaria, while various shells were used in making the white variety. It is quite probable that such beads were made and used by the native, tribes along the Atlantic coast before the coming of Europeans, although it is equally probable that after acquiring metal tools, or bits of metal capable of being fashioned into drills, they were made in greater quantities and of a more regular form.

In the year 1656 there appeared in London a small printed catalogue of the collections belonging to John Tradescant. This was the first publication of such a nature in the English language. The title of this little volume is “Museum Tradescantianum: or a Collection of Rarities preserved at South Lambeth near London, by John Tradescant. London, M.DC.LVI.” On page 51 of the catalogue is mention of a “Black Indian girdle made of wampum peek best sort.” This is probably the earliest reference to a piece of wampum in a European collection, and it proves that various qualities were recognized. This was made clear by an entry in the Catalogue and Description of the Natural and Artificial Rarities, belonging to the Royal Society, and preserved at Gresham College, London, 1681. A most valuable reference to and description of wampum appears on page 370, and is quoted in full: ” Several sorts of Indian Money, called wampum peage, ‘ Tis made of a shell, formed into small Cylinders, about a ¼ of an inch long, and 1/5 over, or somewhat more or less: and so being bored as Beads and put upon Strings, pass among the Indians, in their usual Commerse, as Silver and Gold amongst us. But being loose is not so current.

“The meanest is in Single strings. Of which here is both the White and Black. By measure, the former goes at Five shillings the Fathome; the latter, at Ten. By Number the former at Six a penny; the latter, at three. “The next in value is that which is Woven together into Bracelets about ¼ of a yard long: Black and White, in Stripes, and six pieces in a Row; the warp consisting of Leathern Thongs, the Woofe of Thread. The Bracelets the Zauksquaes or gentlewomen commonly wear twice or thrice about their Wrists.

” The best is woven into Girdles. Of this there are two sorts. One about a. yard long, with fourteen pieces in a Row, woven, for the most part, into black and white Squares, continued obliquely from edge to edge. The other, not all-out so long, but with fifteen pieces in a Row woven into black Rhombs or Diamond-Squares and Crosses within them. The spaces between filled up with white. These two last, are sometimes worn as their richest Ornaments; but chiefly used in great Payments, esteemed their Noblest Presents, and laid up as their Treasure.” Such were the varied uses of the true wampum, and the great collar in the Collegio di Propaganda Fide,. at Rome, would have belonged to the last group, one of ” their Noblest Presents,” in this instance undoubtedly serving as a ” present to the church,” as related by Père Dablon.


Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920.

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