The great ‘Egg War’ of California
- Following the California Gold Rush, eggs became scarce in the state.
- The Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco provided an alternative, however — murre eggs.
- Although a perilous journey, tensions grew between “eggers” and the government, almost leading to insurrection.
Often when people become accustomed to a certain commodity, and that commodity becomes scarce, it leads to conflict. Tea, opium, and spices are just a few of the many examples where losing access to a product, whether it’s because of unstable trade agreements, or simply the consequence of dwindling resources has led to an all-out war.
In the mid-1800s, a scarcity of eggs during the California Gold Rush led to a series of events that historians imaginatively refer to as the “Egg War.”
It all began on Jan. 24, 1848, when a man named James W. Marshall struck gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. This led to the largest gold rush in US history, which brought approximately 300,000 people to California in the span of just a few years. San Francisco, in particular, grew at an astounding rate.
It had a population of around 1,000 people at the beginning of 1848, but before 1850 rolled around, that number had exploded to a whopping 25,000. Naturally, these people all needed to eat, but farmers in the area were having a hard time keeping up with demand.
Chicken eggs were so highly sought after that the cost for one egg rose to $1.00. Even by today’s standards, that’s pretty expensive for an egg, but back then it was the equivalent of around $30.00, which is just ludicrous. Because of this, people began to seek alternative sources of protein, and they soon found what they were looking for.
About 25 miles off the coast of San Francisco lies the Farallones, a small group of islands that together cover just over 200 acres. Although hardscrabble and minute, these islands were visited by hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year, mostly murres, who would lay their eggs along its craggy shores. Murre eggs have an unusual appearance.
They are much larger and pointier than chicken eggs and tend to feature squiggly black lines, dots, and smudges across a background that can range from pure white to dark turquoise. They look more like someone’s contemporary Easter egg project than a naturally occurring pattern.
Despite their unusual and varied appearance, murre eggs are very much edible, and thus their golden centers became almost as enticing as actual gold to local entrepreneurs
The doctor is in
The first such business enthusiast was a man named Doc Robinson. Robinson was an aspiring actor and Yale graduate from Maine.
Arriving at San Francisco in 1849, he quickly realized that getting a hold of some eggs would fetch him a pretty penny, so he and his brother-in-law decided to sail across to the Farallon Islands in search of something to sell.
Upon their arrival, the brothers loaded their boat up with as many eggs as they could carry. They lost half their clutch on the rough journey back, however, and Robinson earned enough money to open a pharmacy in San Francisco, thus earning the nickname “Doc.”
Even though they had found a lucrative source of income, the pair only ever made one trip to the Farallones, being put off by how dangerous it was.
While Robinson would go on to become a well-known actor and satirist in San Francisco, until dying of a fever in 1856, others who were more willing to risk their lives took up the mantle.
Throughout the 1850s, hordes of “eggers” looking to gather murre eggs would journey out to the Farallon Islands. In 1851, a few of these eggers started a company, which would become the Pacific Egg Co., and they claimed to have exclusive rights to the islands.
Not your typical egg hunt
Collecting eggs from the Farallon Islands was a dangerous affair. Getting there could be a challenge in itself. It involved navigating potentially turbulent waters, often in very small boats.
It was difficult to find a spot to get these boats ashore, and moving around the island was made treacherous by the slick coating of bird feces covering the ground. The topography of the islands wasn’t exactly inviting either; after all, their name comes from the Spanish word farallón meaning “steep rock” or “cliff.”
On top of all this, the murres didn’t take too kindly to having their future offspring stolen for food, and would often swirl and attack the men as they gathered the eggs.
When the eggers showed up in May each year, they would spend the first day smashing every murre egg they could find. That way, when they returned, they could be sure every egg was fresh.
The men wore clothes with specially designed pockets to make it easier for them to gather and carry eggs. By 1854, more than 500,000 eggs were being collected from the islands each year.
Although the Pacific Egg Company still claimed exclusive rights to the island, groups of rival eggers were granted access to the island by the United States Government. This often led to conflicts around the island during the summer months, as various factions vied for their piece of the murre egg pie.
Shedding some light on the situation
During this time, a lighthouse was also being built on the islands in response to the massive increase in ships stopping at San Francisco.
Lighthouse workers were often bullied by the boisterous crews of eggers. To make matters more complicated, in 1859, the government appropriated the island for use of its lighthouse.
As a professor of history, political science, and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California, Philip J. Ethington, points out, the complications didn’t end there.
There was also “Extreme instability in the state, not only due to the civil war of the ’60s but in 1863 there was a biblical drought. It was just horrific: It killed 100,000 cattle. There was also a plague of locusts, and there was even a smallpox epidemic,” said Ethington.
The drought, Ethington continued, followed a period of extreme flooding, which was equally devastating.
In 1863, a breaking point in the rising tensions surrounding the Farallones was reached. A group of armed fishermen tried and failed multiple times to overrun the island, but each time they were arrested by what would later become the US Coast Guard.
Eventually, the fishermen were able to circumvent their blockers and attempted to make land.
Employees of the Pacific Egg Company, who had the advantage of being on the island already, managed to fight them off, but not before one of them was killed. Five of the fishermen were wounded, and one died of his injuries a few days later.
Who won the Egg War?
The confrontation spurred the US government to grant the Pacific Egg Company a monopoly over the Farallon islands, although this turned out to be the beginning of the end. In the following years, the company made more and more unreasonable demands.
They called for the removal of the fog horn, a crucial safety measure, and banned the lighthouse keepers from gathering eggs to feed themselves. In 1979, they leased to another company, allowing them to hunt seals and sea lions to make oil.
In 1881, the US military removed them from the island.
Not long after, large swathes of chicken farms were established in the nearby city of Petaluma. The murre egg industry was already suffering, due to the bird populations having been completely decimated, and with the new chicken industry driving egg prices down once more, it was no longer worthwhile to collect murre eggs.
Today, the Farallon Islands are closed to the public. They are part of a National Wildlife Refuge and are visited only by researchers.
Even more than a century later, the seabird populations are still only a quarter of what they were before the 1850s. In the end, there were no clear winners in the California Egg War, but it’s fair to say the birds who found themselves in the middle of all this would be counted among the losers.