From a summer, 1962 Gazette:
History has much to say about Indian wampum, or “shell-money,” as it is sometimes called. Apparently all Indians east of the Mississippi used wampum for money or other purposes, and even some of those who lived far from the coastal areas but who prized this product of the fishing Indians’ ingenuity.
Wampum consisted of discs, usually somewhat less than an inch in diameter and sometimes much less, cut from the shell of the hard clam or quahaug. These shells, viewed from the inside, are more than three-quarters white, but each shell has a purple spot as well, the shade of the purple deepening at times until it is nearly black.
Tradition says that the discs cut from the purple spots in the shell were prized above those that were white, but that in any event the average quahaug shell yielded only two or three such discs that were suitable for wampum. Once cut out, the discs were bored through the center for stringing on a sinew or cord, and polished on both sides and the edge. They were carried on strings which were worn as ornaments, and they also were woven into belts of varying lengths, and in trade between tribes wampum figured importantly as a medium of exchange.
There has never been any great amount of wampum found on the Island. Exactly why could be explained in various ways. But as the Vineyard Indian, before the whites came, was a poverty-stricken individual, it might just be that he was forced to part with much of the wampum he made, in order to obtain from mainland tribes the necessities of life of which he stood in sore need.
One of the oldest known of Indian burying grounds has yielded considerable wampum which had been buried with other artifacts in the older graves. There is no sign of crudeness about these specimens.
How such wampum was actually made has never been fully explained. But it is significant that among the tons of shells dug from Indian middens, it is not known that there was ever one discovered from which a disc had been cut, leaving a hole from which the disc was taken. This would indicate that the Indian wampum-maker destroyed the entire shell in order to come at the desired portion, whether purple or white.
How the perfect circle of the disc was achieved it is difficult to imagine. Rubbing on a stone might give the desired effect, but the wampum discs are so small it would have been difficult if not impossible to have grasped them with the fingers for such a purpose. And how, one wonders, were they held while being drilled, or was the drilling done first?
According to historical records white wampum was sometimes dyed, and when strung, was woven into belts, gorgets or collars, and even into a sort of shirt. Pictures of some ceremonial belts reveal patterns woven in, even human figures in various poses.
Yet the strings of wampum which have come to light here have not been strung with any apparent regard for design or pattern. The purple discs appear here and there among the white. Perhaps when wampum was used as money it was handled carelessly, as a handful of change might be today. Naturally the sinew or fiber on which the wampum was strung decayed and turned to dust in the ancient graves. But it was not greatly disturbed or scattered as a result, rather it appeared much as it had lain when the burial took place.
Such wampum as Islanders have known cannot be viewed without admiration for the skill and patience of the person who made it. The discs have been cut to a size that permitted the surfaces to be flat through grinding. There is no trace of the curvature of the shell to be seen.
As for the stringing, there may have been a variety of ways in which this was done, with respect to the distance between the discs when they were worn as beads or woven into belts. But the wampum discs seen here were laid so close together that a foot or three feet of the strung wampum could be handled like a stick.
Obviously there are mysteries connected with wampum-making which are unlikely to be quickly solved. Among these is the mystery of how such a perfect design and finish were accomplished. The old Indian wampum-maker was not the crude craftsman as he has sometimes been represented, certainly not on Martha’s Vineyard, anyway.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner