For 40,000 years, beads have been used as a form of commerce by nearly every culture and nation. It was no different for the Arapaho and other Native Americans. And the most valued of all the beads was the blue glass beads of the traders.

Before the glass bead appeared, the ancient Native Americans traded beads made of antler, bone, copper, stone, wood, gold, silver, jade, blue-green turquoise and hand polished shell. Many of these beads continued to be used, but to the Plains Indians and most other tribes, the most valuable bead of all was the sky-blue Padre bead.

In fact, in 1778 Captain James Cook said it was difficult to do trade with the Pacific Coast Indians without this particular blue bead. Captain Meriweather Lewis said that only the blue and white beads were acceptable to the tribes they dealt with. The most desired of the beads he carried were the common, cheap blue beads called “Chief Beads” also known as the large Padre Beads. Unfortunately, for Lewis and Clark, the red beads they thought the natives would like were considered nearly worthless.

The sky-blue Padre Bead with its light blue shade reminded the tribes of a piece of the sky. The Arapaho, renowned for their trading skills, were so well-known for acquiring this particular bead that their name, the Blue-Sky People, is theorized by some to have come from the Padre Beads.

Whatever the case, the blue Padre Bead was highly valued and is an important part of our recent Arapaho history despite its small size.

This bead first came to the America’s aboard a Spanish Galleon and landed in Mexico in the 1400’s. Its name ‘padre’ came from the fact that Franciscan priests or padres gave the beads to Native Americans for their good work and to convert them to Christianity. It is also called “Peking Glass” and “Dutch Beads”.

The blue Padre bead was first made in China and, during the Ching Dynasty from the 1640’s to early 1900’s, were used in Chinese court costumes. These original beads were opaque with a sky-blue or a turquoise shade.

The Padre beads are wound, opaque, light blue glass beads and come in three sizes:

  • Chief Beads (jumbo) 5/8’s to ¾ inch in diameter
  • Crow Beads (mid-size) 3/8 inch in diameter
  • Pony Beads (small) 3/16 inch in diameter

Padre beads were made in a variety of colors but blue and white were the most sought after during the entire time they were used in trade between the 1400s and early 1900’s

As I said, trading beads were highly valued and a strand of small Padre beads, eight feet long traded for a small horse and earned their name, Pony beads.

The Hudson’s Bay Company used a standard value based on “made beavers” which were stretched, dried pelts ready for shipment. Their value?

One made beaver = six Hudson’s Bay beads; 3 light blue Padre (Crow) beads; two larger transparent blue beads

Once acquired, the Padres beads were used by the Arapaho to trade for goods from other tribes. The larger Chief beads, when kept, were worn primarily as necklaces. The Arapaho women used the smaller Crow and Pony beads to hang from or attach with sinew to their clothing and horse gear. They used these glass beads in tangent with quills for their art and, after the 1800s, with seed beads.

Padre beads were not massed produced like cut beads and were made individually. A master glassmaker drew a molten glob of glass out of the furnace and wound it around an iron rod. A glass of another color could be added or the bead decorated with a design. Coloring agents were added to the molten glass and in the case of the Padre bead, cobalt was used to make it blue.

And these beads, originally made in China, traveled across the world to become a vital part of the culture of the Arapaho tribes.