During a gold rush, as the saying goes, best to sell pickaxes. But in the case of the San Francisco Gold Rush, pickaxes were in relatively good supply compared to protein. A dozen eggs might cost the rough equivalent of $90 today, as SFist wrote in a piece placing our rather expensive locale's current prices in historical context. And this week, a group of podcasters called the Kitchen Sisters took to NPR's Morning Edition to tell a particularly strange story related to those eggs: A massive rush to gather and sell ones laid by a nesting seabird, the common murre, on the forbidding Farallon Islands.
Those distant, uninhabited rocks are technically a part of San Francisco, but 25 miles into the Pacific. And yet brave, industrious, dare I say entrepreneurial folk — many of them Greek and Italian immigrants — formed the Pacific Egg Co., claiming the rights to the islands' eggs in 1851 and paddling out by rowboat to the Farallons.
The egg "war" was fought with a rival company or group of men who landed, perhaps unwisely, on the Farallons to get a piece of the action on June 3, 1863. “The guys at the egg company yelled out to them, ‘Land at your peril!’'" says local lore lover Gary Kamiya, who is among a few sources interviewed in the NPR segment.
Kamiya has written in the Chronicle of the incident in the past, as well as in his book, Cool, Gray City of Love. According to his account, one of the rival eggers and his men "spent the night drinking... they got themselves into an aggressive, alcohol-fueled state." Continuing from Kamiya's Chronicle summary of events, "The Egg Co. men shouted a warning and opened fire. When the interlopers in the boats returned fire, an Egg Co. man named Edward Perkins fell dead, shot through the stomach and heart... After a 20-minute battle they fled to their boats and sailed back to San Francisco.
Another source to the NPR story, Eva Chrysanthe, who maintains a blog on the subject of the egg war, has a bit to add. She's mined the story before, even producing a comic on the subject, and after giving the NPR segment a listen writes that "The actual political backdrop of the 'war' is far more interesting than you would glean from hearing the segment."
"1850's San Francisco wasn't just about bar-room brawls and desperadoes," writes Chrysanthe, "it was also about a significant amount of progressive political action on the part of the very ethnic group blamed most for the egging."
For that, you can turn to her account. Or, you can consult another whom Chryasthe cites. "Few would know about this story were it not for Susan Casey, the author of The Devil's Teeth. Ms. Casey widely revived the history from Peter White's account, with Ms. Casey placing a particular and penetrating focus on the actual letters sent by Lighthouse Keeper Amos Clift. Casey's rendering is how I myself learned the story."
Today, no thanks to egg plunderers who at one point reduced the common murre population of the Farallons to 6,000 from nearly 400,000, there is once again a healthy bird population among the islands. Demand for murre eggs dwindled after chicken farming in Petaluma took off. But with an increasing emphasis on duck and other eggs on trendy menus about town, maybe we haven't seen the last of expensive common murre eggs in San Francisco. I mean, I'd try them — I just wouldn't row out very far to do so.