And not this, either.
I’ve been thinking about Indian Money…and the fact that I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I took it for granted growing up and it has turned out to be so obscure that even a web search doesn’t turn up more than a couple of relevant sites.
Back in the rolling Piedmont hills, on red clay roads between broomsedge fields and scrub pine woods edged with honeysuckle and blackberry briars (not to mention redbugs and tree frogs), you could go for a walk, and if you looked carefully, you might find the weathered brown cubes…some smaller than a crowder pea, and a few as big as a persimmon. I have no idea if farm kids were stumbling across these stones in Eastern North Carolina…or out here beyond the Blue Ridge.
Everybody called it Indian Money, and we’d collect the cubes in an old milk carton with the top cut off. As far as I know, I don’t possess one piece of it anymore. But back then, it was a curiosity, though it was far from rare.
Eventually, we’d learn the story about how the cubes formed. (And it was at least as good as any of the many tales about the "fairy crosses" of staurolite, said to have formed from the tears of the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears. That’s one version, Longstreet Highroad Guide to the North Carolina Mountains, by Lynda McDaniel has much more on those rather similar minerals shown to the right here.)
Indian Money had been a crystal of another mineral before it took its present form. It was actually limonite pseudomorphus after pyrite.
Delmer G. Ross, writing about the McCoy Mountains [California] Limonite Cubes, explains it just like I’d heard it explained long ago:
Pyrite, also known as fool’s gold because it has tricked many into believing it was the real thing, is iron sulfide, an iron ore. Under the proper conditions, though, pyrite can become iron hydroxide, or limonite. Its external appearance remains essentially the same, but the composition has been altered. Pyrite cubes have become limonite cubes, which have also been called "Indian Money" because people believed that the strangely shaped rocks could only have been shaped by man’s hand, not by nature.
I have no idea what became of that dusty milk carton. There’s a remote chance that I could go through a couple of boxes of fossils and artifacts I’ve stored away and find a cube or two. And there’s an even more remote chance that I could go back to some Stanly County farm, look down at the red clay and pick up a handful of Indian Money. But once upon a time, it really did happen like that.
There was always something fascinating about Indian Money. Something metaphorical. It was not some unchanging essence that took on new forms. On the contrary, Indian Money managed to maintain the same form while evolving into something of an entirely different composition.