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History of America: Hudson Bay Trade Beads

Hudson Bay trade beads is a term used to refer to trade beads originally collected from Europe and traded to North American regions by the Hudson's Bay Trading Company. The HBTC was an organized group of explorers who ventured into the North American continent for trade expeditions during the 19th century.

Origin of the Name

After most of their expeditions, the company brought to America many strings of beautiful glass beads made in Europe. Their intent was to trade them to local tribes for valuables. A similar venture was undertaken by Lewis and Clark Expedition. To most Europeans, these beads were cheap stuff and almost valueless and could thus be traded for the esteemed fur, as a killer bargain. However, to the Native Americans, the same beads became a grossly valuable commodity. The Hudson Bay trade beads became the single most valuable item of jewelry to local North American natives.

The Native’s Love for Hudson Bay Trade Beads

There is a very simple explanation to why the N. American natives found the Hudson Bay trade beads to attractive. These beads introduced the value of color in jewelry, something that was alien to them. The Natives had always made their beads from stones, seashells bones or rolled copper. On the other hand, the European beads (especially those made in Venice and Murano) were always made from glass, silicon casts of sand, shinny metals and similar color borne materials.

High Esteem and Preservation

These beads were primarily used for barter exchange of goods, since we had no money-based currencies then. They were then an expression of reaches and status worth to the Natives who could buy them. Chiefs had stocks of them and wore them gallantly if not flauntly. Thus was the love of the Hudson Bay trade beads among the North American natives, the appeal that ensured that the beads were preserved and esteemed.

Description of Hudson Bay Trade beads

Most of the Hudson Bay trade beads were white heart beads, invented at around the 1480’s. The most priced of their beads though were the red glass beads usually colored with actual gold, sparingly applied by skilled bead makers. The most ironic thing about this is that, although the red beads were the most expensive, the bead makers used a cheap color to initially fill up the bead’s core before the red was applied sparingly only on the bead’s outer layer.

The other type of Hudson Bay trade beads were the green beads (most common between 1480 and 1830). After 1830 however, the company switched from green beads to yellow, white and red-coated translucent beads. By 1860, the yellow beads had fallen out of favor. White became the exclusive Hudson Bay trade beads’ color.


The appeal of the Hudson Bay trade beads to American Natives has been used by many experts to explain why the beads gained such high esteem in the world even when they had initially been trampled upon by their original makers. The same can explain why the trade beads found their way to Africa. These beads are still very appealing today, surprisingly, even among Europeans. This is probably because the only available of these beads are antique collections.