Quahog shell with good purple Quahog shells with lots of purple make the best jewelry (naturally).
Here's why jewelry-quality shells are so scarce.

About the Quahog

Quahogs are hard-shelled clams found in estuaries along the Atlantic Coast, from Canada to Texas. Their name, "quahog," is a variation of "poquauhock," (po-qua-hock) the Native American name for this clam. In 1758, Linneaus gave the quahog its scientific (Latin) name, which includes the word mercenaria, because he knew that beads of quahog shell were used for currency in 17th century New England – and that "mercenaria," the Latin word for money, seemed appropriate.

Quahogs that escape natural predators (and the chowder pot) can live 60 years or more. They bury themselves in sand or mud at the bottom of a bay and feed on microscopic plankton, which they gather by siphoning water over their gills, where the food collects, and then moves to the clam's digestive system.

strannd wampum with turquoise

At one time, you could pay your tuition at Harvard College with quahog shell beads, known as wampum. Times have changed, and Harvard now accepts personal checks and credit cards – but not wampum (even for courses in history and marine biology). You can see from the beads, that the purple seldom goes all the way through the shell.

In the seafood business, small quahogs are known as "littlenecks;" larger ones are called " cherrystones;" and quahogs over four inches wide are called "chowders." Only large chowder quahogs have shells thick enough for making wampum.

All sizes, however, make delicious chowder. When Stu Tucker (who owns the Emporium) was growing up in North Kingston, along the shore of Narragansett Bay, his whole family would go out and dig quahogs, which provided free meals in tough economic times. (Quahogs, incidentally, helped save the Pilgrims from starvation.) Stu's mom (Ma Tucker) created a lot of ways to cook quahogs, including a prize-winning chowder recipe. Stu continues the family tradition with innovative dishes such as Quahog Chili, available at Duffy's Restaurant.

Rounding Up Loose Quahog Shells Stu's brother-in-law, who makes wampum jewelry, packs some escaping quahog shells back into their onion sack, which is the standard shipping container for quahogs.

Commercially, quahog shells are in high demand because they are used to make"stuffies," a mixture of bread crumbs, quahog meat, and spices packed into the shells and baked.

Fishing for quahogs can be hard work because you have to dig them out of the bottom of the bay. Recreational diggers wade out from shore at low tide, and standing in waist-deep water, use a long-toothed rake to dig them out. With practice, you can get quite good at sensing the difference between stones and quahogs – with the teeth of your rake, or with your feet (treading them out of the mud). When your feet identify a quahog, you reach down, or dive down, and pick it up. Commercial quahogers typically use large skiffs and rakes with handles up to 50 feet long, as shown below. You can see some rakes on the walls of the Quahog Emporium.

Fishing for Quahogs

Photos of these fishermen were made by Bruce W. Eastman, and provided through the courtesy of Bruce himself and the Rhode Island Shellfisherman's Association.

Emptying Quahogs from Rake

If you'd like to learn more about the biology of the quahog, one of the world's leading experts is Dr. Michael A. Rice, Professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island. His book, The Northern Quahog: The Biology of Mercenaria mercenaria, is an excellent source of information. And the folks who go out and make their living on the bay can give you a unique and practical perspective, from personal experience, right there in Wickford harbor.

More About Wampum...

Wampum is typically a long, cylindrical bead, not a disk bead, and much of its value comes from the work that goes into drilling the bead lengthwise, which is a lot harder than drilling a disk the short way, from top to bottom. Although undrilled pieces of quahog shell are often sold as wampum, especially on eBay, they're really pieces of shell, not wampum.

Only the Northern Quahog, whose original habitat was primarily between New Jersey and Maine, has purple in its shell. And purple is what makes the most-desirable wampum. The purple is due partly to genetics, and partly to habitat. Today, the Northern Quahog has been introduced to other places in the US (and world).

For the record, white wampum was also made from the central columns of whelk shells, which are also found in New England. Whelk (a snail) is softer and easier to drill, but it is never purple. Also, whelk columns are already cylinder-shaped (almost).. The whelk might be the secret to how Rhode Island's Narragansetts and other tribes produced as much wampum as they did. Much of the white wampum could have been whelk. However, the purple had to be from quahog.

Wampum's Native Heritage

The Narragansetts, according to Roger Williams, were virtual minters of wampum. Not only did their tribal lands include a vast habitat for the quahog, they were an industrious people who harvested the shell in the summer and made wampum in the winter. Their long-distance runners traveled hundreds of miles to get the best prices for their beads. They worked hard to make quality beads and bargained shrewdly to get the best price in a trade.

The Money Earring with wampum, dentalium shell, and white-heart beads. This earring design features three forms of "money." The wampum (purple) was used primarily on the Atlantic coast. The tapered white beads are dentalium shells, used by tribes on the Pacific coast. The red glass beads, are known as "white hearts" (because they are red on the outside of the bead, and white in the heart of the bead), and were supplied by European traders

Native Americans wore single strands of wampum as ornament. They also wore belts on which purple and white beads were woven into pictorial messages (sophisticated icons). Because purple shell was harder to find, and harder to work, purple wampum was worth twice as much as white.

It's easy to regard wampum simply as a form of money. However, this perspective is too narrow, because wampum had a much greater significance in Native American culture. Wampum involved social and spiritual values as well. This is another dimension to wampum that you can tune into, even today.

Native Americans made and used wampum before contact with Europeans. Apparently, it was the steel needle, which they obtained in trade, that let them drill the small, straight holes typical of wampum produced in the 17th century and later.

Knotting a Strand of Wampum Aptucxet Trading Post Stu's sister, Sandy, knots a strand of wampum at the Aptucxet Trading Post in Bourne, Massachusetts. This building is a replica of the original Pilgrim trading post, and it is built on the original site, where de Rasiere, a trader from New Amsterdam, introduced wampum to the Pilgrims. One of the best places to visit on Cape Cod, the trading post is located just over the Bourne bridge. Follow the signs from the bridge.