Gorgets

Replica Shell Gorget

Spiro Site, Oklahoma

Roundish shell with two Mayan-like figures

Woolaroc Museum. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber. Usage governed by the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Spiro Mounds is an archaeological site in present Eastern Oklahoma. The site reflects the Mississippian Culture that thrived here before European contact.

Pre-contact Shell Gorgets

Before European contact, the gorget served a purpose similar to the peace medals that would come later. These were most common during the Woodland Period in Eastern America, 1000 BCE to 1000 CE and Mississippian Period, 800CE to 1600 CE. These adornments were often round, or oval, and carved from shells. Reilly states that "These shell gorgets carried intrinsic supernatural power, as well as serving as explicit badges denoting membership in larger affinity groups."1

Similar to the peace, early gorgets were round or oval and typically worn below the neck as regalia. They also featured strong images of leaders.

Expedition Gorgets

In the 15th century, the word gorget denoted a piece of armor protecting the throat.2 This definition aligns with Clark's gift of a shell gorget in exchange for services:

Collected all our horses, & Branded them 38 in No. and delivered them to the men who were to take Charge of them, each of which I gave a Knife & one a wampon Shell gorget . . . .

The above exchange occurred 05 October 1805, at the Clearwater Canoe camp. It was not a diplomatic gift, but a payment to the Nez Perce men who agreed to tender the Expedition's horses while the Expedition continued by boat to the Pacific Ocean.

By the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a gorget more commonly referred to a crescent-shaped badge or necklace made of metal and often worn by an officer on duty.3 Lewis and Clark gave these metal gorgets to chiefs to signify equal status between themselves and tribal war-chiefs. For example, on 09 March 1805, while wintering at Fort Mandan, Clark records:

found the Manitarree Chief about Setting out on his return to his village, having recieved of Captain M. Lewis a medel Gorget armbans, a Flag Shirt, Scarlet &c. &c. &c. for which he was much pleased . . .

—This page made possible with generous assistance from Bob Moore, historian,
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; Bonnie Bowler, and Barry D. Tayman.

These pages funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. F. Kent Reilly III, "Displaying the Source of the Sacred, Shell Gorgets, Peace Medals, and the Accessing of Supernatural Powers" in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum), 11.
  • 2. Smyth, Sailor's Word-Book, s.v.
  • 3. For an example of a British military gorget of the type Lewis and Clark were replacing, see previous page, Art of Diplomacy