Friday, October 14, 2022

The Great Egg Wars of the Farallon Islands 1849 - 1896

Pile of murre eggs at the Farallon Islands, circa 1870s.

While in Monterey, California, with my wife on a well-deserved week of rest and recuperation a little over a month or so ago, we decided to do "the tourist thing" and take in the sights, try the various restaurants, drive around as much as $6 a gallon of gas would allow us, and kick back at the ocean for a while. At one point during our trip, I found myself thinking about how certain places make me think of certain things.

For example, back in 2016, while my wife and I visited Yosemite National Park, I remember thinking about the fairly short-lived Mariposa Indian War. The reason that I call it "short-lived" is because it officially started in December of 1850 and was essentially over by July 1851. When I returned home, I immediately set out to write about it.

I remember writing about how "with the discovery of gold, the California Trail was forged. It actually forked off of the Oregon Trail and headed southward into California. With the trail open, hundreds of thousands of gold seekers, settlers, and other opportunists, crossed that trail over the Sierra Nevada mountains and into Northern California. At that time, California consisted of a large number of different Indian tribes and Californios. Californios were the descendants of Spanish California.

By the end of May 1849, it's estimated that tens of thousands of settlers of every nationality had entered California. Many have the notion that those gold seekers were all Whites or all Americans from back East, but that wasn't the case. While the majority may have been from the United States, thousands of miles away, many were from places such as Europe, Mexico, Latin America, South America, Australia, China, and even Hawaii.

Just within a few years, California's non-Indian population swelled from some 14,000 in 1848 to well over 200,000 by 1852. And while some Indian tribes actually joined in and took up mining, many Indians opted to work for mines, and some of the Indian tribes had the idea that they 'could more easily supply their wants by stealing.'

The fact is, with the influx of miners and settlers, there was a marked depletion of natural game. Because folks shot up all of the game, to survive, local Indians learned that horses and mules were viable substitutes for the missing game. Of course, the problem was that horses and mules were valuable property of the miners and settlers. Soon, raids for supplies and food became common on both sides. Normally, those raids consisted of things being stolen -- not killings."

As I wrote about the huge influx of people into California, I remember thinking about how the lack of available food was one aspect of the California Gold Rush that most don't think about. And while people want to hear stories about stagecoach robbers like Black Bart, killings, hangings, vigilantes, and the extreme violence of the Old West, most don't think about the negative impact of food shortages and the horrible consequences that it had on everyone, including the local tribes during the California Gold Rush. Crime involving the theft of food was huge at the time.

While in Monterey with my wife, we watched the seals and sea lions, the otters, and the many different seabirds. The pelicans formed winged formations that were reminiscent of World War II warplanes on patrol. As they peeled off and dived into the sea from high above the ocean, they looked so much like a squadron of Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers going in for the kill.

I was glad to see what's known as the "Common Murre." To this old Marine, who, by the way, spent my fair share of time at sea while in the Corps, I've always thought that the murre is an interesting seabird.

What makes them so interesting? Well, first of all, they spend most of their time at sea. They spend eight or nine months of each year continuously at sea. While that's longer than most Sailors stay at sea, they have something very in common with Sailors in that when they come ashore -- it's to mate. Of course, in the case of the murres, it's on rocky cliffs on shore and tiny islands off the California coast.

But more than that, I find it extremely interesting that they are some swimming fools. It's true. Their short wings are perfect for diving and "flying" underwater. And believe it or not, it is said that they are actually more maneuverable underwater than they are in the air. Also, something that might surprise you, they can dive to almost 200 feet down for fish. And no, although they resemble penguins, they are not related to them.

As for their mating habits which may or may not be akin to Sailors, murres breed in colonies at high densities. They nest in pairs and may nest right next to another pair of murres. Yes, actually in contact with their "neighbors." As for their nest, they don't make a nest as we think of when we think of other nest-building birds. Their "single egg is incubated on a bare rock ledge on a cliff face." Imagine that.

One place along the Pacific Coast of California that the murre has used as a breeding ground for untold millennia or more is the small group of rocky islands off of San Francisco known as the Farallon Islands also known as "the Farallones." The tiny group of islands and sea stacks are only about 200 acres in size, but seabirds of all sorts love the place. They are located approximately 25 miles off the coast from San Francisco.

So about now you're probably wondering what those seabirds have to do with the lack of available food during the California Gold Rush. Well, with people arriving in California during the Gold Rush in droves, and food becoming so scarce, people started raiding the murre's nests. Yes, the early newcomers to San Francisco started regular trips out to the tiny cliff faces of the Farallon Islands to harvest murre eggs. Obviously, this proves the old saying to be true, "When you're hungry, you'll eat almost anything."

How hungry were they? Well, believe it or not, the birds and their eggs were in big demand. In fact, while dark and quite oily bird meat was consumed, their eggs were what folks were after. They were harvested in huge numbers.

Those who would board boats from San Francisco to go to the Farallones to harvest murre eggs became known as "Eggers." So how many eggs were harvested? Well, here's another believe it or not. Eggers are believed to have taken at least half a million eggs a year from the Farallon Islands in the mid-19th century to feed the folks in San Francisco.

If that sounds too hard to believe, imagine this, one man actually ended up doing time in San Quentin over killing someone over the harvesting of murre eggs. His fate had to do with what became known as the Great Egg Wars of the Farallon Islands.

What was that about? Imagine that you have murre eggs that sell for $1 per dozen? That's probably not enough money today to make you go out of your way to find murre eggs for sale. But, what do you think would happen if people found out that murre eggs sell for almost $40 a dozen? Yes, there would be a scramble to gather and sell them.

And really, that was the case. Since $1 in 1849 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $38.55 today, selling murre eggs was a very lucrative enterprise. At the time, because murre eggs fetched $1 per dozen, and there was so much money to be made from selling them to a desperate public clamoring for more eggs, the great California egg rush was on. Of course, as with any endeavor of that sort, there is going to be competition, rivalries, and clashes.

California's Farallon Islands' rocky craggy cliffs make up the largest murre breeding colony of rooks in the contiguous United States. And as I said before, that nesting area for those seabirds is only used when they show up to mate. Remember, the murre, a seabird very similar to a seagull or a penguin, for the most part, lives on the sea. They only come ashore during mating season, which is between May and August to mate. So obviously, that's when the eggs are there. And yes, that's when the Eggers fought for control of the islands.

By 1850, a group of Eggers launched the Farallon Egg Company which was also known as the Pacific Egg Company. It is interesting to note that by 1854, a half-million eggs were harvested from the Farallon Islands each year. While harvesting was bad enough, the Eggers smashed the murre eggs on the first day of the season. That was so that they would know which eggs would be fresh for the taking.

Clashes broke out. As the years went by, more and more clashes took place. This went on for years until the Pacific Egg Company claimed exclusive harvesting rights to the Farallon Islands. They were so serious about claiming those murre eggs that they hired armed guards to keep rival egg poachers at bay.

Things got so heated that even the federal government was told to stay off those islands. That came about right after a couple of ships carrying goods and people to San Francisco during the Gold Rush wrecked on the islands' rocky shores. To fix the problem, the federal government decided to build a lighthouse on the islands. When the government sent a construction crew to build the lighthouse, they were initially turned away by the Pacific Egg Company's armed guards. In one report dealing with the building of the lighthouse, it said that even after the construction crews finally made it ashore to build the much-needed lighthouse, Eggers fought with the construction crew and then later fought with the lighthouse keepers. In more than one case, the Eggers drove the lighthouse keepers off the islands.

When a ship's Captain by the name of David Batchelder and his crew repeatedly tried to go ashore, they were turned away. And since the eggs were seen as treasure, Capt. Batchelder was determined to get them. While he and his crew were turned away once, on June 3rd, 1863, he returned with three ships loaded with 28 armed men. Waiting for them was a private security force also armed and ready.

While the headlines of what was taking place in the East and down South during the Civil War took precedence of what took place off the coast of San Francisco, the story goes that first there were insults hurled between those on the ships and those ashore. Then Capt. Batchelder's ships pulled away. Then whiskey was added to the mix. After a while, Capt. Batchelder and the other three ships returned to resume their effort to go ashore. They did so in full force while opening fire on the guards. Of course, the egg company security guards returned fire.

What took place during the 20-minute gun battle would definitely qualify as a "Firefight" today, And yes, this wasn't a 30-second shooting in a small lot. This was one of the lengthier gun battles to ever take place in the Old West. Capt. Batchelder's crew and three ships with 28 armed men were facing off against about ten of Pacific Egg Company's armed security guards.

An egg company security guard by the name of Edward Perkins was one of the first struck by gunfire. Though he was killed, it's believed that Perkins was able to return fire even after being shot. As for the egg company's other security guards, they reportedly shot five of the "invaders" to successfully make them retreat to their ships. It was reported that the Captain of one of the ships was actually shot in the throat during the skirmish. That ship's Captain died two weeks later.

As for Capt. Batchelder? He and four members of his crew were later arrested. He and one of the crewmen ended up going to trial for manslaughter. During the trial, the Pacific Egg Company security guards one by one recounted what took place during the lengthy gun battle. While it would definitely qualify as a "Fire Fight" today, that was one of the lengthier gun battles to take place in the Old West.

The security force's foreman Isaac Harrington corroborated the accounts from his men while placing full blame on Capt. Batchelder. He said, "Perkins was shot during the first volley. He fired a musket first, subsequently drawing a revolver, fired two shots after he was struck, and then fell back and expired. The fatal shot came from a boat under Batchelder’s command. I am positive that the first shot came from the boats."

Found guilty of manslaughter, his appeal failed, David Batchelder was sentenced to a year at San Quentin for the manslaughter death of Edward Perkins. Batchelder was given number 2692, and he was received at San Quentin on February 26, 1864. The prison register listed him as 36 years old, born in Massachusetts, with a whale tattoo on his left forearm. His occupation is listed as Seaman. He was released after serving nine months of his one-year sentence.

By the mid-1860s, domestic chicken egg production increased and soon murre eggs were replaced. No longer was there the need to gather the murre eggs. By the mid-1870s, chicken ranches sprang up in places like the town of Petaluma just north of San Francisco. It is interesting to note that Petaluma soon became known for its chicken processing industries. And yes, there was a time when Petaluma was known as the "Egg Capital of the World," even to the extent of having the nickname "Chickaluma". Another bit of trivia is that Petaluma is the place where the egg incubator was invented by Lyman Byce in 1879.

As for the Pacific Egg Company of San Francisco and the Farallon Islands, by 1881, U.S. Marshals had to forcibly evict that company and all of its personnel from the islands. And while the demand for murre eggs had almost died away completely, the federal government had guards posted there just to stop poachers from gathering eggs there. And finally, by the early 1900s, there was a complete ban placed on all egg gathering on the Farallon Islands. That ban was put in place through a presidential executive order signed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

As for the murre seabird, it is said that prior to the Gold Rush there were close to 1 million murre seabirds. In the 1980s, only about 40,000 murre seabirds could be found on California's Farallon Islands. Imagine that.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. That's gotta be ridiculous, Tom. A 47-year war over eggs? Geez. That's much longer than the life of a goldfish! But it is interesting. A war over eggs. Imagine this. It's nine in the morning. You're hungry. You can smell your wife's cooking. The familiar aroma of bacon, sausage, chili peppers, buttermilk, sourdough biscuits, cornbread, a glass of cider maybe, and then you just HAVE to go ahead and do it. You just HAVE to ask about the ONE thing your country is right now fighting over. You never thought this would happen. But you ask anyway. "Honey, where are the-SMACK! Eggs?" Yep, you guessed it. The love of your life has just hit you with an egg. I mean, why ask what's for breakfast when you've got it all over your face, right? You never thought it would come to this. It's like the potato famine of Ireland. (I guess if I ever go there I won't ask about the fries). LOL Or even the El Paso Salt War. (I really don't have a joke for THAT one). You go to your neighbor's house and you ask, "Hey John, what's with this war on eggs?" He tells you, "I don't know, James. Seems like just last week we had enough for everybody, but now we don't have enough for anybody!" That's gotta hurt. A war over eggs. Guess I won't be having any eggnog. But then again, I've NEVER had eggnog. LOL


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