MIDDLEBURY-During the April spring break, members of Mrs. Carma Fitzpatrick's MUHS French Class inspected a 300-year-old Native American Abenaki Wampum Belt in the old treasury room in the Chartres Cathedral on a field trip to France.
As part of his Boy Scout Eagle Service Project, Duncan Mathewson, Jr.-son of Duncan and Arlene Mathewson of Middlebury- used his 10th grade French class trip to make arrangements with Gilles Fresson, attach du recteur, at the Chartres Cathedral to view and photograph the Abenaki belt while his French class was visiting the cathedral.
Duncan will be preparing a four-panel 6 month exhibit of this famous wampum belt for completion of his Eagle Scout Advancement program with Boy Scout Troop 536 in Middlebury.
This public educational exhibit will be on display at the Isley (July 8-9 and Aug. 23-24) and Bixby (Sept. 2-Nov. 1) public libraries from June to November.
Wampum served primarily as a symbol of friendship and good will among Indian tribes and their allies. It was made from purple and white clamshell beads and it was exchanged at ceremonies or at treaty-signing councils.
Belts were symbolic of the pledged word of the tribe. This belt which has been preserved as a pledged allegiance is extremely rare and represents a lasting cultural legacy of the Abenaki people as the original inhabitants of Vermont with roots going back over 10,000 years ago.
The belt was made by Abenaki at the St. Francis Indian Village near the St. Lawrence River in Canada for presentation by Jesuits to the Chartres Cathedral in 1699.
The Abenaki belt was photographed and measured as 6.5' long and 7.1" long, making it one of the largest wampum belts preserved from the past-this regal belt has white shell letters backed by a unique purple field of quahog shell beads which is edged with dyed porcupine quills.
The inscriptions are in Latin but the graphic art technique is Native American. The Abenaki belt is a dedication to the Virgin Mary and reads "MATRI VIRGINI ABNAQUAEIDD". Abenaki craftsmen could shape and drill from 100 to 200 shells a day for stringing 1/4" beads on to a belt. There are over 13,000 shell beads in the Abenaki belt, representing over four months of work. Wampum came from sea shells found along the southern New England shoreline with major shell sources in Narraganselt Bay and Long lsland Sound; when the fur trade began to gather momentum in northern New England during the early 17th century, the shells were traded inland up the Connecticut, Merrimack and Hudson Rivers.
As a highly sought after traditional commodity, the white shells usually came from the central column of whelks while the purple shells thought to be twice as valuable by Native Americans, from Quahog clams. The word itself comes from the Algonquian word 'wampumpeng'.
This elaborate wampum belt is a traditional symbol of diplomatic and ceremonial relationship between the Abenaki people and the Catholic Church. It celebrated the conversion of Abenaki to Christianity and the close alliance with the Jesuit missions in New France who were attempting to wrest growing colonial control away from the English in Northern New England.
Chartres Cathedral acknowledged receiving the wampum belt with a return gift of a "two -foot high solid silver statue of the Virgin Mary" for the Jesuit mission in St. Francis.
This statue graced the church's altar until near the end of the French and Indian War when in 1759 British Gen. Amherst issued orders to Rogers Rangers-stationed at Fort Crown Point on Lake Champlain-to destroy the village in a surprise attack.
During the barbaric sacking and pillaging of the village by the British, the Catholic mission was destroyed. Rogers' men desecrated the church and the silver statue from the Chartres Cathedral disappeared forever, along with the mission's ecclesiastical furnishings.