Working with Wampum

Written By: Douglas Goodale

When I was growing up we lived in Southampton Village, and being a adventuresome boy with a good bicycle, I came to know every foot of the ocean  beach from the cut at Flying Point to the jetty at  the Shinnecock Inlet.

I love walking along the beach, right where the waves are making their furthest push onto the sand, constantly on the lookout for a small flash of purple. Amid the myriad assortment of shells and stones, ranging in color from white to black and red to violet, I have long had an attraction to clam shells that have at least some purple, and even though I knew that it was not a technically correct designation, I would refer to my finds as wampum.

There are good days, and some not so good, but “seek and ye shall find”. I’ve been looking for a long time, and have baskets full  of pieces of quahog shell and intact half-shells with purple parts and figures, with a range of color from very dark purple to faint lavender. Some shows up as a solid , bold patch of color, and some fade into bands of progressively fading color often going in stripes. I don’t find these figures in whole shells, and have come to realize  this is revealed by a process of erosion. Much like the rings of a tree, clam shells are built up in layers, and as some of these layers are worn away you see material that was once the very edge of the clam.

The action of the surf, which is the  interaction of the ocean where it meets the land is a giant, continuous “rock tumbler”.  Like those little machines that polish small rocks, the wave action pushes shells, shell fragments, stones, shellfish, crabs and more onto the shore. The waves push this stuff toward the shore and drag it back away from shore through many cycles. Finally they push the material onto the shore- and then as they recede they wash the sand away revealing each shell and stone. Meanwhile, the action of the waves in the surf is performing a multitude of functions. It is continuously exposing and reburying clams and crabs that live burrowed in the sand. Through the twice-a-day rise and fall of the tides the surf is continuously offered different material to work with, and given variations in wind of both strength and direction, the size and force of the waves on the shore can range from a still, dead calm, to a raging, scouring onslaught, tearing away hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand in a single extreme event. Small wonder that the happy surf clam, thinking if he does that things are good 50 yards offshore finds his rude comeuppance in a nor’easter that pushes him right to the base of the dunes, and leaves him, high-and-dry.

Watch the window in your front loading washing machine, and you’ll get a sense of the vigorous action- the push-pull nature of water moved first in one direction and then the opposite, and you can see this in many outcomes at the beach. Successive lines of seaweed, clearly marking a succession of high tides, with the highest tide pushing the seaweed closest to the dunes, and progressively diminishing tides leaving their own parallel lines closer to the water.

Did you ever notice that some days when you go swimming in the ocean, as you wade into the surf, you feel soft sand under your feet, and then you might hit a patch of gravel, and sometimes when this gravel patch is close to shore you can hear a sound like a dump truck delivering a load of gravel as a wave back washes into the surf.

All of this is good for my wampum. The action of the waves makes the surf a churn, dumping rocks on clams, again and again  . The clams don’t stand a chance. Rocks are harder than clam shells, and when a rock crashes into a clam , the clam breaks. Once the shell breaks, it’s game over; the shell pieces are easier to break, and progressively easier to polish by the grinding action of sand (quartz)  on the softer calcium carbonate of the clam shell.

The shells I like, and the ones the native people prized, come from the northern hard clam , whose scientific name, mercenaria mercenaria,   actually makes  a false claim about the clam, implying that the parts of the shell were “as money” This was not the case among native people when the Europeans first arrived. They seemed to prize the shell for its beauty, but used it- not as a medium of exchange or barter- but as a ceremonial and memorial   marker; they made beads, and woven patterns of beads, that marked special social and tribal events. It was, sadly, only after that the European settlers saw the regard that the natives had for this special material, and their idea that if they could reproduce this counterfeit they could easily dupe the natives, that the exchange of wampum belts would buy them furs.

The wampum bead seems to have originated from areas where the hard clam lives. This is basically all up and down the eastern seaboard, but seems notably to be from areas from eastern long island and to the north. The outside of a hard clam shell comes in a range of colors from  white, to mixed gray  ,  to black, and on the inside, usually   a band of purple on the  outer edge and white towards the middle of the shell. Even though much of the hard clam’s shell might be white the native people often chose to use the shell of the whelk to make the white beads, and the word wampum comes from a native American word meaning “white bead”. The purple which is always at the outer edge of the inside of a clam shell is harder than the rest of the shell, composed of different minerals, and evolutionarily adapted to the fact that a clam feeds by opening slightly and sucking in and expelling seawater, feeding on plankton.  It is interesting that this microscopic life form feeds not only the lowly clam but also gigantic baleen whales.

The purple shell is more difficult to make into a bead because of its hardness, and I can’t imagine how hard it would be to work with prior to the arrival of hardened metal tools. To break off a piece of shell, and shape it by rubbing on  a piece of sandstone, and polish it by rubbing in sand is rudimentary. To successfully drill a hole in a piece is almost unimaginably difficult. Shards of flint and other very hard stone would be lashed onto stout,straight sticks, and with a primitive bow drill be tediously bored into the ends of the bead. To be able to hold the piece in place so it cannot move around, and to guide the tip of a pointed piece of stone, and then spin the stone so that it starts boring into the somewhat softer clam shell, is a testament to human patience and ingenuity. The early colonists saw the beauty of the worked beads and the high esteem the natives held for them and very soon realized  that if you could speed up and simplify production, making wampum beads was quite like being able to print money.

The Europeans brought steel drill points which made a quantum leap enjoyed by natives and settlers alike. The story of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan from the natives for $24.00 worth of beads is apocryphal, but it is definitely  the case that beads were highly prized , probably because the natives knew how hard it was to make one.

My attraction to these shells, and  shell pieces has led me to a hobby of shaping and polishing certain pieces, drilling a hole in them, and making some form of jewelry from them. Most shells pieces, when you find them at the surf line show that the colors are slick and bright when the shell is wet, and the colors seem much duller when dry. Tumbling around in the surf and then being sandblasted further by wind driven sand, these shell parts are brought to a  matte finish so that the piece looks dull when dry but shiny when wet; this kind of shell can be made to sparkle when buffed with a finer abrasive. I am satisfied with my hobby which is not about wampum but more about the beauty of the shell.