Legend has it that, if a mountain man lost his horse, he always carried a chevron bead, so he could trade the bead for another horse.
Although the story has never been documented, Steve McCracken uses it as an example of the importance of trade beads during the fur-trade era. McCracken is a maintenance worker at Big Sky Elementary who has worked for the Billings Public Schools for 24 years and often shares his knowledge of trade beads at fur-trade-era gatherings.
The distinctive 12-point stars on the ends of the striped chevrons allude to Christ's 12 apostles.
McCracken combines old beads and silverwork to fashion period-style and contemporary jewelry, which he sells mainly through museum gift shops. He was born and raised in Billings and traces his fascination with the history of the West to a boyhood spent searching for artifacts, hunting and fishing.
"There's times I've felt like I was chasing Colter all my life," he said, referring to mountain man John Colter, the first white man to enter the area that became Yellowstone National Park.
At first, McCracken carved antlers, then he progressed to silver smiting, all the while incorporating trade beads into his work.
Even in his contemporary jewelry, he sticks to authentic old beads rather than reproductions, fashioning single beads into earrings or stringing necklaces. He sold the beaded jewelry at events marking the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, along with silver pins bearing the likeness of Seaman, the Expedition's Newfoundland dog, and pins shaped like muzzleloaders, bison and various other animals.
His old-style trade-bead necklaces often sell to collectors or those who go to rendezvous encampments to dress as mountain men and re-create the atmosphere of the fur-trade era. Most of the customers for his period pieces are educated buyers.
Although a pair of contemporary earrings might cost $20, his trade-bead necklaces can easily cost several hundred dollars.
"You don't spend that kind of money and don't know what it is," said McCracken, who has been selling his jewelry for 18 years.
You have free articles remaining.
The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial helped get out his name to museums as far away as St. Louis and Philadelphia. But he was in the business long before the flurry of interest stirred by the bicentennial.
"It hasn't hurt me any for the bicentennial to be over," he said.
In Montana, interest in his work remains strong among tourists who come to visit historical sites.
"The history is what I'm really selling," he said. "I teach people every time I sell a pair of earrings."
Many are amazed to learn that the old beads came to the New World by the barrel as ballast on ships. While Venice was the epicenter for the manufacture of glass beads, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark requested coarse blue beads from China, where they sold at a lower cost. The blue beads were regarded as sacred by some American Indian tribes, McCracken said.
The beads the explorers bought at the outset of their trip represented only 12 percent of the money they spent on presents for Indian tribes, but Lewis and Clark came to regret not buying more.
"They ran out of the beads the Native American wanted, the blue beads," McCracken said.
In 1989, the state's centennial year, McCracken went to his first mountain man rendezvous. From then on, he was hooked. Now when he goes to rendezvous, along with selling beads he often swaps silverwork to buy more beads.
For the rendezvous, his work includes ornate silver crosses and bear or mountain lion claws capped in silver. While he wears a grizzly claw he capped in silver on a necklace of trade beads, he only sells black bear claws because the sale of grizzly bear claws is illegal.