Peter Takes on History
May 23, 1881
The Farallon Islands Egg Wars
In 1848, when the Mexicn American War ended and the territory of California joined the United States, only 200 people lived in the tiny settlement of San Francisco. In 1849 the city’s population ballooned to 25,000 thanks to the California Gold Rush. The precious metal had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill and the City by the Bay became the staging area for prospecting. From 1849 to 1855 San Francisco was the fastest growing city in the world! Newcomers rushed in from Australia, Asia, South America and every other state and territory in the union!
It’s tough to approach the city from the east. You gotta cross the Sierra Nevadas, the Santa Cruz mountains and the Diablo Range, before descending into the city but thousands did.
Thousands more arrived by sea, often abandoning their ships in their rush to stake claims. At one time there were 500 abandoned ships in San Francisco Bay! But they didn’t remain abandoned for long, repurposed as storeships, saloons, casinos, brothels, homes and hotels.
On land San Francisco becomes a teeming, squalid tent city populated by the earnest, the unscrupulous, the adventurous and the entrepreneurial!
Mostly men. Seventy men for every woman.
Some fortunes were made mining gold, others were made mining the miners. Levi Strauss became wealthy supplying the gold diggers with dry goods including especially rugged work pants. Another entrepreneur created an enduring legacy by selling liquor and more famously, chocolate. His name was Domenico Ghirardelli.
There was plenty of money to go around. Between 1849 and 1852 $7.25 billion dollars worth of gold was found. So, there was lots of money ... but little else. Food was actually scarce. Farmers couldn’t keep up! For example, chicken eggs were selling for $1 a piece, the equivalent of $30 a piece today! That little distortion in the market led to one of the most unusual chapters in American History; the Farallon Egg Wars.
In the turbulent, treacherous waters twenty-six miles west of San Francisco, The Farallon Islands, known to local mariners as “The Devil’s Teeth,” are a craggy outcropping of forbidding granite cliffs surrounded by reefs populated by great white sharks. But the Farallons are also the home of the largest seabird rookery in the contiguous United States. So, eggs!
The war started after a pharmacist named Doc Robinson and his brother-in-law Orin sailed to the Farallon Islands, filled their skiff with eggs and, though half of the eggs broke on the trip home, managed to sell the remainder for the equivalent of $103 thousand dollars.
News of their exploit touched off 30 years of conflict between armed bands of “eggers” who alternately claimed the islands and kicked each other off. There were fist-fights, gun battles, cannon fire, egg pirates! Men died! Even when the US government claimed the islands and built a federally operated lighthouse on the islands, gangs attacked the lighthouse keepers. It wasn’t until this day in history, May 23, 1881, the United States military finally forcibly evicted the last of the eggers from the islands.
Now, you might guess, judging by the demand, those seabird eggs must have been absolutely delicious! Turns out no. The primary egg the eggers collected were from the Common Murre, a tall black and white bird, akin to penguins that lay speckled eggs about twice the size of hen eggs. The whites of Murre eggs, even when fully cooked, remain clear, the yolk a deep red-orange and, unless absolutely fresh, they have a fishy aftertaste.
So then you might ask, as I did, why didn’t enterprising speculators import chickens and start big chicken farms? That question led me to an article called “Poultry Farming in 19th Century California.” (I read ‘em so you don’t have to folks)
Turns out the answer lies in scalability. A half dozen chickens in a backyard coup is fine; you toss them seeds and scraps, they find bugs. But try feeding thousands! Chickens eat the same thing people do: grains and corn, already expensive and scarce in San Francisco. Seabirds feed themselves. Plus, chickens are plagued by viruses. Before antibiotics, large scale chicken farming just didn’t work!.
So it took nearly 30 years for the market forces and farming methods to make chickens and eggs available. Or eggs and chickens, you know, depending …
In the meantime the Common Murre rookery was devastated. It’s estimated 14 million eggs were taken. Even today, though it's coming back, their population hasn’t returned to pre gold-rush levels.
We have the Gold Rush to thank for helping shape the state of California and for making Petaluma, California, 39 miles south of San Francisco, the self proclaimed “Egg Capital of the World.”