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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.

Aquinnah, It’s Worth The Drive

It’s true, it’s a long haul all the way to the cliffs of Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) on Martha’s Vineyard, but it pays off. Breathtaking views of the ocean, a tiny little island town, beaches for miles, a 212 year old lighthouse and, of course, the cliffs, swirls of red and orange clay cascading down into the beautiful Atlantic ocean.

The little town atop the cliffs is most commonly referred to as The Aquinnah Circle. In the summertime and fall the circle is full of little souvenir shops that sell adorable island treasures, especially Wampum bracelets, necklaces and earrings.

Also in the circle you can find the delicious Aquinnah Restaurant.  Operated and run by two Wampanoag families, the restaurant is open from mid-April to mid-October. A favorite breakfast is the Tomahawk special, which consists of two homemade fish cakes atop poached eggs, covered with salsa and melted cheddar cheese. They also serve lunch, a variety of sandwiches, burgers and delicious salads. Dinner entrees consist of a large array of island seafood including scallops, mussels, striped bass, shrimp, lobster and much more.

If you’re looking to stay in Aquinnah, try the Outermost Inn. Run by the island’s own Taylor family (yes, as in James)!  For more information visit their website.

Aquinnah is most popular in the summertime while it is busy and bustling, but even in the offseason a long walk on the beach in one of nature’s most beautiful island locations is dynamic.

If you choose to rent a house up-island in Aquinnah, we have many to choose from, like this:

Expect quiet, amazing sunsets and sweeping views.