Encounters in the Cathedral: Revisiting the 1678 Huron-Wendat Wampum Belt at Chartres, France

October 17, 2017

Every year the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Report from the field by LISE PUYO.

In 1678, Huron-Wendat converts at the Jesuit mission of Lorette in Quebec, Canada, created a large wampum belt bearing the words “Virgini Pariturae Votum Huronum” (“Gift from the Hurons to the Virgin who shall give birth”). The members of this First Nation Indigenous community then sent this object to the Chartres Cathedral in France, accompanied by a transcription of a speech recording their diplomatic requests, translated into Latin and into French. The material and text of this belt offer a remarkable example of an Indigenous group conducting wampum diplomacy, not just with French missionaries, but also with Christian deities.

The cathedral of Chartres attracts many pilgrims who come to pay respects to the relics of the Virgin Mary. Tourists also visit to see the architecture, stained-glass windows, and paved labyrinth. Photo by Lise Puyo.

In 1699, twenty years after the chapter of Chartres sent a silver reliquary to Lorette to thank them for their gift, the Cathedral received another wampum belt. The Abenaki converts at the Saint-François de Sales mission (present-day Odanak, Quebec) also crafted a gigantic wampum belt which they sent to Chartres in accompaniment with transcribed and translated speeches. In January 1700, the chapter published a printed version of these letters, recording the Huron and Abenaki alliances.

The 1678 Huron-Wendat belt at Chartres Cathedral, France. Photo by Lise Puyo.

These belts have remained together at Chartres for four centuries and, like so many other wampum belts, their histories have come in and out of local interest and memory. As we have noted in other research from the Wampum Trail project, wampum belts are powerful objects, indispensable to conducting diplomacy in the Native Northeast. Yet, they are often (mis)interpreted as museum relics, which obscures their importance to the Indigenous communities that created them. The Huron-Wendat wampum belt provides an interesting example of an object that has been repeatedly “lost” in collections and “re-discovered” by scholars.

Unexpected Discoveries

In 1841, Ignace Bourget, the bishop of Montreal, made a pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral to visit the relics of the Virgin Mary. While descending into the crypt to gaze upon the statue of “the Virgin who shall give birth,” he is taken aback: he sees two wampum belts suspended near the statue, bearing the names of two First Nations he is very familiar with, in a place where he least expected them. Bourget’s meeting with these two belts inspires a renewed alliance between Chartres and the clergy at Montreal, who receive a piece of the famous fabric relic housed at the Chartres cathedral. This meeting does not, however, seem to have inspired any meaningful reconnection with the Huron-Wendat and Abenaki communities who created these objects, or any reassurance that (as the belts were originally intended to signal) the Jesuits and the First Nations would treat one another as equals.

Chartres is famous for its relic of the Holy Shirt, the shirt in which the Virgin Mary became pregnant with and gave birth to Jesus Christ. It has become a symbol for the cathedral, and you can find this shape on medals, books, and seals at Chartres. Given to the cathedral in the 800s, it was identified as a “shirt” until the 1710s, when the clergy opened the reliquary and realized it was a single piece of fabric, a “veil” more than a “shirt.” Photo by Lise Puyo.

From this moment, it took sixteen years to re-discover the original letters that were sent by the Wendat and Abenaki. In 1857 and 1858, two local historians—Jules Doublet de Boisthibault and Lucien Merlet—issued new editions of these documents, and the belts seemed to resurface in scholarly publications.[1] A few decades later, they were mentioned in the broad survey of wampum collections by New York State archaeologist William Beauchamp.[2]

In the summer of 1921, George B. Gordon, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, made a remarkable “discovery.” While on a vacation trip to Europe, he visited Léon Legrain, the French ecclesiastic recently recruited to be the curator of the Museum’s Babylonian Section. Similarly to Ignace Bourget a century earlier, they visit the Chartres Cathedral together. Gordon is extremely surprised when he encounters two wampum belts on display in the crypt. A few days after his return to Philadelphia, he writes to Legrain:

“I have often recalled our visit together to Chartres and it is curious how certain small details stick in one’s mind. The two Indian wampum belts stick in my mind because of the surprise they gave me and I have been wondering whether you have been able to find out their date. It is a matter about which I am very curious.”
– George B. Gordon to Léon Legrain, October 21 1921[3]

Legrain was commissioned to make the very first photographs of these two belts for publication in the Museum Journal. The short article by William C. Farabee, Curator of the American Section (issued in 1922),[4] mainly borrows from Lucien Merlet’s 1858 publication. Although the photographs invite consideration of these objects’ materiality, Farabee, like many scholars since (e.g. Gobillot 1957;[5] Sanfaçon 1996; [6] Becker 2001;[7] Lainey 2004;[8] Vélez 2011[9]), tends to focus on the documentary evidence, rather than the ways in which the alliance is materialized by the belt.

The two wampum belts were photographed at Chartres for the first time by Léon Legrain for publication in the Museum Journal (volume 8(1), 1922).

In 2015, after joining the Wampum Trail research team at Penn, I visited the Chartres Cathedral while working on my master’s thesis in Ethnology and Social Anthropology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris.[10] As part of this survey, I conducted close material examinations of the Huron-Wendat and Abenaki wampum belts at Chartres and “encountered” details that had been overlooked by previous researchers.

Material Matters

Superficially, the Huron-Wendat wampum belt looks like other historic wampum belts. Its background and most of its text are composed of traditional tubular white and purple shell beads carved from whelk and quahog, similar to other wampum belts of the era used by both Algonkian and Iroquoian peoples.

Detail of the 1678 Huron-Wendat wampum belt. Photo by Lise Puyo.

However, this belt also features a selection of oval glass beads instead of the usual tubular glass beads available at that time to imitate wampum. The Wampum Trail project director, Dr. Margaret Bruchac, suggested those might be rosary beads, as they are very similar in their shape, size, and material. The placement of these beads and what they mean in the Catholic dogma lead us to a new interpretation that reinforces and sheds new light on the historical documents associated with this Huron-Wendat wampum belt.

The glass beads appear only in the Latin words that pertain to Catholic doctrine; they do not appear in the word “Huronum,” which could reflect Indigenous territory. The specificity of this design suggests more than a merely decorative choice. These beads appear to signify a deep understanding of Catholic dogmas, echoing the diplomatic demands expressed by the Indigenous community to Mary and, by extension, to the Catholic Church and to France.

During the summer of 2017, with field research funding from the Penn Museum and from the American Philosophical Society’s Phillips Fund for Native American Research, I set out to test the hypothesis that the glass beads are crucial elements in this object. I consulted with Huron-Wendat scholars, visited both the Musée Huron-Wendat and the Musée des Abénakis, examined 17th century rosary beads in historical collections, visited the Ursulines Museum, and searched the Jesuit Archives for additional clues. By examining material and textual evidence, and by comparing that data with contemporary oral histories, I sought to better understand the semiotics of both wampum and glass beads in the practice of Indigenous Catholicism in the 17th century Saint Lawrence River Valley.

Lise Puyo examining 17th-century rosaries at the Ursulines Museum, Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Canada. Photo by Josée Grandmont.

All of the objects examined during this field research—including a 1674 embroidered altarpiece made by the Ursulines of Québec city for the Huron-Wendat community at Lorette, multiple examples of rosary beads, and other historic wampum belts—provided new insights into the 1678 Huron-Wendat belt at Chartres. I learned, for example, that both shell wampum beads and glass wampum beads (glass beads blown and cut to mimic shell wampum beads) were abundant at Lorette in the 1670s. Why then, had so many scholars interpreted the glass beads as merely replacements, and not as selective choices? And what of the belts themselves? Are these merely “Christian” wampum belts, Catholic ex-votos that signal a break from Indigenous traditions? Or do these items represent something more: living objects that embody and evoke the strategic incorporation of both Indigenous and Catholic signals? Might they also represent an unfulfilled political agreement?

The research on recovering the histories and relationships embodied in these belts continues—watch the Penn Museum blog and the Wampum Trail blog for future findings.


[1] Doublet de Boisthibault, Jules. 1857. Les Voeux des Huros et des Abnaquis à Notre-Dame de Chartres Publiés pour la Première Fois d’après les Manuscrits des Archives d’Eure-et-Loir. Chartres: Noury-Coquard. And Merlet, Lucien. 1858. Histoire des Relations des Hurons et des Abnaquis du Canada avec Notre Dame de Chartres, Suivie de Documents Inédits sur la Sainte Chemise. Chartres: Pétrot-Garnier.

[2] Beauchamp, William M. 1901. “Wampum and Shell Articles Used by the New York Indians.” Bulletin of the New York State Museum 41(8):327-480.

[3] George B. Gordon’s Letter book #29. Letter 478. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Archives.

[4] Farabee, William Curtis. 1922. “Recent Discovery of Ancient Wampum Belts.” Museum Journal 8(1). This source incorrectly identifies the date of the Huron-Wendat wampum belt as 1674, rather than 1678.

[5] Gobillot, René. 1957. “Les Trois Ex-Voto Candaiens de Chartres.” Revue d’Histoire de l’Amérique Française. 11(1):42-46.

[6] Sanfaçon, André. 1996. “Objets Porteurs d’Identité dans les Consécrations Améridiennes à Notre-Dame de Chartres, 1678-1749,” pp. 449-466 in Turgeon, Laurier, Delâge, Denys, and Ouellet, Réal (eds.): Transferts Culturels et Métissages, Amérique/Europe, XVIe-XXe siècle/Cultural Transfer, America and Europe: 500 Years of Interculturation. Ste-Foy: Laval University Press.

[7] Becker, Marshall J. 2001. The Vatican Wampum Belt: An Important American Indian Artifact and Its Cultural Origins and Meaning within the Category of “Religious” or “Ecclesiastical-convert” Belts. Vatican City: Tipografia Vaticana.

[8] Lainey, Jonathan. 2004. La Monnaie des Sauvages: Les Colliers de Wampum d’Hier à Aujourd’hui. Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion.

[9] Vélez, Karin. 2011. “’A sign that we are related to you:’ The Transatlantic Gifts of the Hurons of the Jesuit Mission of Lorette, 1650-1750.” French Colonial History 12:31-44.

[10] Puyo, Lise. 2015. Les Collections de Wampum en France. Master’s Thesis, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, France.


For more information on the “Wampum Trail” project, see the Wampum Trail Research Blog and Wampum Trail Facebook page for reports on research discoveries and travels. For a brief summary report, also see “Wampum Research: Notes From the Trail 2014-2015” on the Penn Museum Blog.