8 Origin of Pearl Street

Sign 8- Origin of Pearl Street, obverse side

Sign 8- Origin of Pearl Street, obverse side

The blue band across the obverse side of the sign represents the outline of Pearl Street (REPOhistory 1993, 12). The word Pearl in Pearl Street appears in the text in blue, matching the band. This band is consists of cutouts of shells. Other cutouts of red shells and text or patterns in the shape of shells are shown on other areas of the sign. To left of the band is a woman with a basket. The woman perhaps represents trade between the Woodland nations and Dutch colonists, however, it is difficult to determine to which group she belongs. The shape of the woman figure appears on the reverse side of the sign, but is made of red cutouts of shells. There is a thin strip of purple to represent a wampum, or beaded, belt and the word purple is in purple when it is used.

As member Sabra Moore first indicates in the text on the obverse side of the sign, Pearl Street was once along the water. Along the shore, there were large mounds of oyster shells called “middens,” and Pearl Street was named after one such midden (Nigro 2011). The Lenape tribe, who inhabited the island now known as Manhattan, may have left the unneeded shells after eating the oyster meat inside them (National Museum of the American Indian 2010, 6). At one point the road was paved with shells, or at least seemed to be paved with shells due to the number of them (Nigro 2011; Pickman 2006). Moore’s design of a band of cutouts of shells is a fitting artistic representation of this.

In the early years of Dutch settlement, the Dutch settlers and American Indian nations, such as the Lenape, lived peacefully. However, disagreements between Native tribes emerged as they competed with each other to trade with the Europeans (National Museum of the American Indian 2010, 4). Wampum beads, made of shells, was one of the goods the Native tribes traded for supplies from the Europeans (Perry 2017).

The wampum beads would be woven together into geometric designs of purple and white to make belts and collars. The belts and collars would be used for ceremonial observances, for trade, to historically record messages and treaties, for inlay, and for adornment (Perry 2017). On the reverse side of the sign, Moore shares what the white and purple of the beads may symbolize. However, the symbolism of the colors, proportions, and patterns may have conveyed different ideas for different Native tribes. For many groups, white was used for ritual or ceremonial purposes and indicated peace, health, welfare, and prosperity. Moore expressed white meant something similar, stating light and life. Black, dark, or purple, as Moore suggests on the sign is used to mean sorrow or mourning (Hodge 1910, 907).


South side of Pearl Street, just west of Whitehall


8 Origin of Pearl Street


Sabra Moore






Sabra Moore


Hodge, Frederick Webb, ed. 1910. Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico: In Two Parts, Part 2. Smithsonian Institute, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 30. Washington DC: Government Printing Office. https://books.google.com/books?id=mABSxpaH0O4C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

National Museum of the American Indian. 2010. Manahatta to Manhattan: Native Americans in Lower Manhattan. New York: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institute. http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/Manahatta_to_manhattan.pdf.

Nigro, Carmen. 2011. “History on the Half-Shell: The Story of New York City and Its Oysters.” Food for Thought, New York Public Library Blog, June 2. Access April 16, 2017. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/01/history-half-shell-intertwined-story-new-york-city-and-its-oysters.

Perry, Elizabeth James. 2017. “About the Art of Wampum.” Elizabeth James Perry-Original Wampum Art. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://www.elizabethjamesperry.com/about-wampum-art.php.

Pickman, Sarah. 2006. “Lower Manhattan—What’s In a Name?.” Archaeology magazine, September 28. http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/nycolonial/name.html.

REPOhistory. 1993. The Lower Manhattan Sign Project, June 27, 1992 - June 30, 1993. New York, NY: REPOhistory. Dark Matter Archives. Accessed January 29, 2017. http://www.darkmatterarchives.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/REPOhistory-CAT-1992.271.pdf.



Sabra Moore, “8 Origin of Pearl Street,” REPOhistory's Lower Manhattan Sign Project, accessed September 26, 2023, https://thesis.ckthompson.com/items/show/10.