Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

September 28, 2008

A Cape Cod Quahog Query

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 4:36 pm


NOTE: This is the second entry of what I hope will be a series of entries sent from the road. I guess you could call this my “Wandering Naturalist Series.”  My punctuality will depend completely on internet access along the way and the amount of daylight.  I have no doubt that nature will provide ample material.


Our arrival on that sandy spit of land called Cape Cod coincided perfectly with the arrival of Tropical Storm Kyle.  I guess you’d call this one a sow-wester in local lingo. Sporadic heavy rains and high winds have rendered this shoreline wilder than usual, but the long beaches were accessible between bouts of “weather”. On one of my brief ventures out onto the open sand to do some beachcombing, I encountered a whole bunch of rockweed, a forlorn looking immature Herring Gull (see here), and a single Quahog.  Although the rockweed and gull were interesting enough, it was the Quahog shell that caught my fancy.

  First of all, in this land of wonderful names such as Mashpee, Wellfleet, Barnstable, and Wampanoag, the very name of Quahog fits in nicely with the terrain. They are also variably known as cherrystones, little rocks, and chowders but ‘round these parts the common name is usually pronounced plainly as “Ko-hog.” Clammers, rakes and mesh bags in tow, wander out onto the tidal flats to collect them during low tides. The Quahogs are steamed and eaten whole or chopped up to include in clam chowder (thus the reason behind one of the common names).This large clam is a common offshore resident and the dead shells frequently wash up or are used to pave parking lots. The most distinctive identifying feature of the inedible portion of this marine clam is the rich purple inner edge of the shell. 

  Natives, such as the Wampanoag, have long collected these clams to eat. To this day there are ancient piles of shells weathering out of the sands of the Cape that date back to prehistoric times. Their shells were equally as valuable for making wampum, however. These beads were cut from the purple mother-of-pearl portion.  White beads were also rendered, but the colored ones have always been the most valuable due to the small amount of available purple real estate on each shell. 

   Again, I find myself making a direct connection back to the Great Lakes region with this find. It seems the further away I get, the closer I get to home. Wampum beads, made from Quahog shells, were extensively used to construct the Wampum belts once used by regional tribes to record treaties and other great events.

  The Wyandot who settled in the Detroit River region in the early 1700’s, maintained a large number of wampum belts as records of their history. Many other tribes did the same. They obtained the treasured beads used in their construction through trade networks with the eastern nations (this was long before EBay).

  I have seen several purple wampum beads that were recently uncovered at the former site of the 18th/19th century Wyandot village of Brownstown at the mouth of the Detroit River. Quahogs are exclusive to the northeast coast, so I know those Michigan beads originally came from shells collected around this distant place.

  Can you see how simple it is to take something as simple as a pretty beach shell and turn it into a lynchpin of history?  It was, after all, just a Quahog cast up on a lonely beach until we stopped to listen to it.


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