Padre beads are probably the most ideal description of a “Trade Bead”. Padres beads come in three sizes: jumbo 5/8’s to 3/4 inch in diameter, mid-sized 3/8’s inch in diameter, and small Pony beads 3/16’s inch diameter. They are round, satiny opaque glass beads, mandrel wound, originally made in Venice possibly in the mid 1400’s. They were made in a deep blue, a sky blue, green, red-orange, yellow and white. The sky blue was the most famous and in demand bead. The size variations available made them all very useful to trade. They were called lots of different names; Dogans for the largest, Crow beads for the smallest because the Crow Indians loved this size, Chief beads throughout Africa because the African Chiefs liked them so much, and Padres traded possibly by Coronado, other conquistadors, and Spanish Missionaries, Monks, Friars and Traders who used them as a form of currency to the Indians. “While the Spanish are reported to have made glass beads, all evidence suggests they were primarily carriers and traders of Venetian products.”(1)
Padres are and have been beautiful, attractive and desirable to many different cultures, they have covered the world. Because of Spanish explorers and English and Russian traders, Padre Beads spread rapidly into the Northeast, Southwest and Northwest of North America. Columbus in 1492, Cortes and Francisco Pizarro in the 1500’s used these beads as gifts and important trade items. “Lewis and Clark journals called them blue beads of a coarse variety. In 1778, English explorer, Captain James Cook made several references to the effect it was difficult to obtain supplies and furs from the Pacific coast Indians without this particular blue bead.(2)
Captain Meriwether Lewis had this to say about Padre beads and the Indians tribes along the Columbia River…only the blue and white beads were acceptable, the most desired, are the common cheap, blue beads…. Padre Beads were made in a variety of colors, but blue and white were the most sought after by the Northwest Indians.”(3) They were long in demand in Alaska. American skippers also brought them as they sold Russian fur to China and Chinese goods to the Russians in Alaska because the Russians were barred from Chinese ports. The beads quickly moved south and east in North America traded by the Indians to each other. Captain Cook was amazed to see them in an area he knew the Russians had not yet reached.
The making and selling of these Padre beads is so universal that the bead takes on an amazing history. I’ve been totally made dizzy by the research on Padres. The Venetians seem to be possibly the earliest makers having the beads distributed by Spanish Explorers, English and Dutch Seafarers. Then the beads were introduced to Chinese glass makers who made, sold and traded them to Vitus Bering and the Russians. The Russian Fur Traders used them in trade with the NW Native Indians. Glass blowers and perhaps master glass craftsmen accompanied Viceroy Mendoza to New Spain in 1535. By 1542 the glass industry established in the state of Puebla was unique in all New Spain.
It is possible the white, blue and green opaque glass beads were products of this industry in New Spain and not just traded to Mexico and brought up into SW America by missionaries. The Padre beads are made of different types of glass in various places. Glass is basically Silica and Potash. The Venetian glass had up to twenty percent lead, colored by copper compounds. Some Chinese glass had no lead and other Chinese glass had a small amount of lead. This has been determined by modern spectrograph analysis of excavated beads. So you can see just how dizzy I’ve become jumping from continent to continent on the trade bead route!
(1) The History of Beads, Lois Sherr Dubin, 1998
(2) Peter Francis, Beads of the World, 1999
(3) Meriwether Lewis 1814 History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark reproduced in 1966 in the March of America Facsimile Series No. 56