The Great California Egg War Of 1863
Updated: Sep 5, 2019
By now, I’m sure you’ve all heard of the San Francisco gold rush starting in the mid 1800’s. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and it sparked the dreams and imaginations of hundreds of thousands of gold hunters all looking to make their fortunes. Between 1848 and 1855 over 300 000 people flocked to California from all across the globe hoping to strike it rich. Every single day more and more ships wove their way into San Francisco’s harbour and soon the city itself was growing faster than any other city on earth.
No-one could have foreseen this sudden influx of humans, each of whom needed constant feeding. The problem was that the agriculture industry in the area didn’t grow quite as quickly as the population did and so was put under severe strain in just a few months.
Farmers struggled to produce enough food to feed everyone and the price of food skyrocketed. Meat and protein in general was hard to come by and staples like eggs became particularly scarce. So much so in fact, that at its peak, their price rose to one dollar per egg, which in today's terms is up around the $30 dollar range, just for a single chicken egg.
It got so bad that grocery stores were placing “Eggs Wanted” adverts in local newspapers, one of which read: “Wanted. Butter and Eggs for which the highest price will be paid.”
And so began another rush in California, brought about by the first. While many people rushed inland to seek their fortunes in gold, an enterprising few chose to start another rush, but this time offshore, and in a rather unusual location.
Take a boat out and sail roughly 40km west of the Golden Gate Bridge and you will come across a small 211 acre archipelago. Here you will find giant granite outcroppings, worn down by millennia of rough weather and strong waves, forming a dramatic string of incredibly inhospitable islands known as the Farallones. And it was here that the Great Egg Rush of the mid 1800’s would take place.
The Farallones, while being incredibly inhospitable to humans are a place where seabirds and marine life thrive. These islands have long been known to the Coastal Miwok tribe who had their own special name for the islands. They called them, The Islands Of The Dead.
It was here, on these auspicious craggy outcroppings that the egg hungry San Franciscans would find the largest seabird nesting colony anywhere in the United States. Each and every breeding season hundreds of thousands of these seabirds would flock to these cliffs to lay their eggs. Hundreds of thousands of nests, all full to the brim with eggs of every size and colour imaginable.
Scaling the cliffs without falling or injuring yourself made the exercise difficult and dangerous enough, but even just getting to these islands was a perilous journey in and of itself. The islands are completely isolated and the waters around them are filled with Great White Sharks and overly curious seals who would often jump into and tip over smaller canoes.
Then, upon reaching the islands themselves there are no discernible shorelines upon which to land, one writer commenting that the islands looked like a piece of the moon had fallen into the sea. Small boats would be smashed upon the rocks if not navigated correctly and those that made it struggled to find decent foothold to climb up onto flatter ground as the waves beat at their boats.
So the question we have is, why would these men put themselves through such hell just for a couple of eggs. Well, one writer sums it up like this: “Early on, some shrewd settlers began to realise that there was more money to be made mining the miners themselves, than there was in mining the gold fields.”
The first real egg entrepreneur was a pharmacist by the name of Doc Robinson. He enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, a man named Orin, and they both set sail for the Farallones. They barely made it ashore and after a perilous climb up steep cliffs, they raided as many nests as possible of the local seabirds known as Murres. Getting them back to San Francisco however was yet another struggle. The seas were rough and if there's one thing we know about eggs is that they’re not built to withstand a lot of jostling about. After almost losing their boat to the rough seas, Doc and Orin unfortunately lost around half of their haul of eggs just on the ride back to port. Safely back in San Francisco and the brothers set about selling off the eggs they had left. Even having lost half of their cargo they still managed to pocket around $3000. Even having made all of that money, the trip had brought them both near death too many times and they both swore never to return to the islands.
But word of their expedition, and the money they made from it, spread quickly around town. Within a few days the Farallone islands were crawling with egg hunters all intent on making their own fortunes from the speckled blue eggs.
In the early days “egging” on the islands was incredibly dangerous and many men either died or were severely injured after slipping on the guano covered rocks, or falling to their deaths from the steep cliffs above. Even worse for the men though, was that while they were hanging on tightly, hundreds of feet in the air, they were often attacked by entire flocks of angry seagulls, pecking and scratching at their faces, as the birds tried desperately to protect their nests.
This went on for two years until in 1851, six men sailed to the islands and claimed exclusive hunting rights to them under the newly formed Pacific Egg Co. Rival egg hunters were furious and weren’t prepared to take this lying down. A group of Italian fishermen were legally granted access to the island by the United States Topographical and upon landing on the shore a fight broke out between the rival camps. To further complicate matters, the US federal government made full claim to the islands in order to build a lighthouse upon them. The feud for control of the islands would eventually devolve into a brutal decades long power struggle.
But it was still early days in the battle to gain control and San Francisco still needed its eggs. Rival factions set up in different parts of the islands and come each May, when the birds would flock to the islands the boats would set out to start their season egg collection. The most sought after of the eggs was that of the Murre, a seabird with a striking resemblance to a penguin except with the ability to fly (albeit not exceptionally well). The reason for their eggs popularity was that they were the most similar to chicken eggs but were double the size. The only problem with Murre eggs was that if they were in any way stale or overripe they gave off an incredibly fishy aftertaste with one commentator writing: “an over ripe murre egg is something never to be forgotten…it requires about three months to get the taste out of the mouth.”
Because of this the eggers who reached the island first would smash every egg on the island in order to guarantee that when they went up the next day the eggs that they found could only have been freshly laid.
As each year rolled by the egging season became increasingly crowded and increasingly violent as bitter rivalries sprang up between different groups. Gangs formed on the islands and what little land there was being split up into strictly enforced territories. If someone from a rival gang was found collecting in another gangs territory they were dealt with in such a way that they were usually never seen or heard from again. Brawls would break out at the bottom of cliff faces, and would often result in multiple stabbings and even shootouts. When police visited the islands in 1860 they reported that they had found Quote: “Enough weapons to start a small war.”
The fighting spilled over into the sea and it became common practice for bigger boats to wait offshore for small boats to leave the island with their haul of eggs. The bigger boats would swoop in and hijack them, stealing their cargo and leaving the men from the small boats either dead or set adrift in the ocean with no oars. As tensions grew, boats began fitting small cannons to their sides to ward off attacks and for the occasional opportunistic moment to take another boat captive.
The federal government started sending in workers and lighthouse keepers to build and maintaint their lighthouses on the islands. The construction threatened the livelihoods of the eggers and at night they would sneak onto the construction site and tear down the previous days work. The government did little to stop this and the attacks became more and more brazen as lighthouse keepers began to be threatened with death if they didn’t leave the islands immediately. Within a few months the head keeper told his superiors that the lighthouse keepers and the eggers were now in a full blown war. Nothing was done, however and just a few weeks later an assistant keeper was assaulted and eventually killed by an angry mob of eggers.
But this was just a shadow of things to come.
Tensions kept mounting and by the time 1863 rolled around, the emotional powderkeg was ready to explode. As spring swept across the country an army of Italian fishermen made several attempts to take full control of the Farallone Islands. Each time they tried they were turned back by the US Coast Guard, but not before arresting the trespassers and taking away their weapons. The commander of the ragtag Italian fishing army was a man named David Batchelder and he and his men refused to give up the fight to secure the lucrative nesting grounds.
On the 3rd of June, 1863 he and his men sailed out once more to the islands. This time they were met on the edge of the shore by a large group of armed men from the Pacific Egg Company, the group who, in their minds, had already laid sole claim to the islands.
The foreman of the Pacific Egg Company, a large and imposing man named Isaac Harrington, warned the Italians that if they landed, there would be trouble. David Batchelder shouted back that they’d come ashore “even in spite of hell.” That night the Italians stayed in their boats however and began drinking more and more, singing songs and taunting the men on shore. One by one they drifted off to sleep and when dawn broke they decided that, even though they were deeply hungover, this was the best time to try and come ashore.
This would prove to be a big mistake.
As the boats came alongside the makeshift pier a line of Pacific Egg Company men raised their guns and issued a warning one last time. The Italians either didn’t hear them or chose to ignore them and within a matter of seconds gunshots rang out, echoing off the steep granite cliffs. The men fell back into their boats, scrambling to get away from the hail of bullets and pushed off into deeper water. Men scrambled over the rocks towards them firing their weapons and suddenly had to take cover as the Italians started firing back at them with their boat mounted cannons. For 20 mins, smoke and thunder filled the air along with the cries of men either struck by gunfire or slipping on the rocks underfoot.
As the smoke cleared and the Italians had retreated outside of gunshot range, one Pacific Egg Employee was dead and 5 boatmen were wounded, one of whom had been shot in the neck and died a few days later.
This confrontation finally sparked the government into action and they worked to legitimise the egg trade from the Farallone Islands. They handed full control of the islands egg hunting practices to The Pacific Egg Company in the hopes that things would die down. And they did for a short while until the company become increasingly confrontational with the local lighthouse keepers. Not only did they ban and then attack the keepers as they sought to harvest just a few eggs for their own consumption, but the company began the systematic killing of the local seal populations and rendering of their carcasses into oil.
This was the last straw for the government and on the 23rd of May, 1881 the US military forcibly removed them and their entire operation from the island. Local fisherman would still make the trip across to the islands every so often to raid the nests, but as the 1800’s were drawing to a close the final nail in the coffin came for the Farallone egg raiding industry.
Just a few miles north of San Francisco an enormous chicken farming operation began, sending the price of eggs plummeting by almost 70%. This made the dangerous egg harvesting operation on Farallone no longer a lucrative endeavour. Within a few years, harvesting on the island had stopped altogether, and the Farollones would eventually become a bird sanctuary trying to ensure the survival of the seabird population after 50 years of decimation.
All in all, over the almost 50 years of egghunting that took place on the islands, approximately 14 million murre eggs were sent back and sold to hungry San Franciscans. And while many will remember this time for mans unquenchable desire for gold, history will never forget their desire for the golden yolks of the eggs that lay just a few miles offshore.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.