Tag Archives: Wampanoag Tribe

The Gay Head Lighthouse, An Iconic Piece of Martha’s Vineyard History, Is In Danger

Perched on top of the famous clay cliffs in Aquinnah, the Gay Head Lighthouse is in danger of toppling into the sea below if it isn’t moved back within the next year and a half. In a race against time, locals are frantically trying to accumulate the funds to get this historic icon moved to a yet to be decided location.

So why the urgency? To move the Gay Head Lighthouse safely, there needs to be a 30′ circumference around the lighthouse to accommodate the heavy impact of the moving vehicles and machinery. Currently there is only 47′, and that is swifty eroding, according to a geological and engineering study performed 2012.

In order to move the 400 ton beacon the town of Aquinnah is applying for ownership from the US Coast Guard, and scrambling to raise over $3,000,000 for the project. The Save Gay Head Lighthouse Advisory Committee is well underway, hoping to raise 2/3 of the funding from private sources, and 1/3 from public events, as well as public and private grants. They hope to be able to move the Gay Head Lighthouse in late fall of 2014 to one of three spots. The final location will be chosen based on geological factors, and many other factors. If everything goes to plan the actual move should take about 1-2 weeks.


In 1796, thanks in large part to the whaling and shipping industries, Massachusetts State Senator, Peleg Coffin, put in a request to Congress to have a lighthouse installed on Martha’s Vineyard overlooking what is known as “Devils Bridge”, a shallow dangerous passage in the Vineyard Sound. By 1799 the Gay Head Lighthouse was constructed and helped many a sailor on their voyage. Just a short 45 years later, the lighthouse had to be moved back 75’. John Mayhew of Edgartown was in charge of the move, and the total cost at time was $396.75.


Due to weather and erosion, the original octagonal shaped building had to be replaced in 1885, to what is now the iconic brick building we know and love today. At that time, Gay Head was listed as the 9th most important lighthouse in our country. Because of this, and the timing of needing to be replaced it was the first United States lighthouse to receive a Fresnel lens, making the light the most visually powerful lighthouse yet.

In order to differentiate itself from the area’s two other light houses – one at Sankaty Head, and the other at Montauk Point- the Gay Head Lighthouse changed from flashing white to flashing three whites and a red in 1874.

Things remained relatively the same for many years with the lighthouse until 1954. With electricity starting to replace kerosene in the early half of the 20th century, it was only a matter of time until our beloved lighthouse was converted to an electric lamp.

Now we are at the end of a fabulous chapter of history for this iconic lighthouse. Within the next couple of months we will be turning the page to a new era of history for The Gay Head Lighthouse; one that hopefully will last another century.

To help save The Gay Head Lighthouse, please visit www.gayheadlight.org

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Wampum: A Vineyard Tradition

The beauty of Martha’s Vineyard is not only captured in the picturesque cliffs of Aquinnah or in a Menemsha sunset but also in the shell of a Quahog clam. Wampum, which was first created by the Wampanoag Tribe of Martha’s Vineyard, has held great historical significance to islanders and visitors alike. The deep purple beads and jewelry formed from shells are just another way the natural beauty of the island is being celebrated and preserved.

Cutting out disks of color from the shell created the beads and only a few beads could be formed from each shell. Originally, Wampum was used as a form of oral tradition among the tribe. Belts were created to help to pass on the history of the tribe and certain patterns had the potential to declare peace or initiate war.

Today, the beauty of wampum is captured in jewelry found in various stores around the island.  Whether you are buying your first piece of wampum jewelry, giving a gift or adding to your own personal collection, Wampum is a great way to take the beauty and history of Martha’s Vineyard home with you.

What is Wampum and Why is it Special to Martha’s Vineyard

Wampum, that beautiful, purpley, white bead, has very significant meaning and the shells it is made from are abundant on Martha’s Vineyard.

The term Wampum comes from a word “wampumpeag”, which in Narraganset, most literally means “white string of beads”.

Wampum beads are made in two colors: white, “Wòmpi”, beads from the whelk and purple-black ,“Súki”, beads from the growth rings of the Quahog shell.

It was originally used by Indigenious Americans, Native Americans and traders as a form of currency. In the year 1637 the Massachusetts General Court officially announced that 6 beads were equal to one penny.

Wampum was also commonly used to pay taxes. But Wampum was certainly used for more than just money. It was very symbolic and often used for engagements, marriages, ceremony and condolence ceremonies. The creamy white colored shell beads of the symbolized internal energies of peace, harmony, and contentment. In fact, the traditional wedding band of the Wampanoag is made of white Wampum.

Sadly, Wampum can no longer be used to pay taxes, but on Martha’s Vineyard, the jewelry created with Wampum by the Wampanoag Tribe is a treasured resource. While Wampum is available across the island, it’s worth the ride to Aquinnah, the home of the Wampanoag and the most beautiful Wampum designs I’ve seen.