59 School Street, Box 1310, Edgartown MA 02539 - 508.627.4441
Martha's Vineyard Museum MV Museum

EOD2015

1780–1785

Unknown Wampanoag artist; Matthew Mayhew (1723–1799)

Leather, laid paper, ink


Rarely is the mystery and complexity surrounding the relationship between two peoples at one point in time so tightly bound into one small object as it is in the Thunderbird Daybook. A mere thirteen-by-eight inches and twenty pages, this book contains a record of the transactions of Matthew Mayhew's store on South Water Street in Edgartown from 1780 to 1785. One of more than 165 business account books in the Museum's archives, it is unique because of the design impressed into its hide cover.

Though the book had been in the archives for many years, it was not until 2002 that an observant curator noticed the subtle image of a Thunderbird extending from back to front on the cover. The Thunderbird, an ancient American Indian deity, is a giant eagle-like being. It causes thunder by flapping its wings, throws lightning bolts from its eyes, and is seen as a guardian spirit of Indian people. Thunderbirds were important to many tribes across North America, and this is one of the finest examples from New England yet found.

Why was this carefully trimmed and decorated piece of hide used to bind an account book? Though most of the Wampanoag on the Vineyard were practicing Christianity by the 1700s, traditional knowledge survived (and survives to this day), so the existence of this artwork is no surprise. But how did it come to be on the book? Was it bartered for goods by one of the Wampanoag customers recorded in the volume? Scientific testing confirms that the cover is cowhide and it dates from the same time as the rest of the book. The other questions remain to be answered.