When California Went to War Over Eggs

As the Gold Rush brought more settlers to San Francisco, battles erupted over another substance of a similar hue: the egg yolks of a remote seabird colony

South Farallon Island - Gathering the eggs of the Murr
Detail of photograph by Eadweard Muybridge Courtesy of New York Public Library via Wikicommons

It was the aftermath of the California Gold Rush that instigated the whole hard-boiled affair.

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 triggered one of the largest mass migrations in American history. Between 1848 and 1855, some 300,000 fortune-hunters flocked to California from all over the world in hopes of finding gold. Ships began pouring into the San Francisco Bay, depositing an endless wave of gold-seekers, entrepreneurs, and troublemakers. As the gateway to the goldmines, San Francisco became the fastest growing city in the world. Within two years of the 1848 discovery, San Francisco's population mushroomed from around 800 to over 20,000, with hundreds of thousands of miners passing through the city each year on their way to the gold fields.

The feverish growth strained the area’s modest agriculture industry. Farmers struggled to keep up with the influx of hungry forty-niners and food prices skyrocketed. “It was a protein hungry town, but there was nothing to eat,” says Eva Chrysanthe, author of Garibaldi and the Farallon Egg War. “They didn’t have the infrastructure to feed all the hungry male workers.”

Chicken eggs were particularly scarce and cost up to $1.00 apiece, the equivalent of $30 today. “When San Francisco first became a city, its constant cry was for eggs,” a journalist recalled in 1881. The situation became so dire that grocery stores started placing “egg wanted” advertisements in newspapers. An 1857 advertisement in The Sonoma County Journal read: “Wanted. Butter and Eggs for which the highest price will be paid.”

The scramble for eggs drew entrepreneurs to an unusual source: a 211-acre archipelago 26 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge known as the Farallon Islands. The skeletal string of islets are outcroppings of the continental shelf, made up of ancient, weather-worn granite. “They are a very dramatic place,” says Mary Jane Schramm of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. “They look…like a piece of the moon that fell into the sea.”

Though the islands are inhospitable to humans—the Coast Miwok tribe called them ‘the Islands of the Dead’—they have long been a sanctuary for seabirds and marine mammals. “I can’t overstate the dangers of that place and how hostile it is to human life,” says Susan Casey, author of The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks. “It’s a place where every animal thrives because it's the wildest of the wild, but it's a tough place for humans.”

Still, the Farallones had one feature that appealed to the ravenous San Franciscans: they hosted the largest seabird nesting colony in the United States. Each spring, hundreds of thousands of birds descended on the forbidding islands, blanketing their jagged cliffs with eggs of all colors and sizes.

“It is a really different place during the egg season. It’s cacophonous. There is just this din of birds that goes on 24 hours a day,” says Casey. “The whole island is filled with birds. It looks like it has been frosted with white.”

In 1849, or so the story goes, an enterprising pharmacist named ‘Doc’ Robinson hatched a plan to profit off the egg shortage. He and his brother-in-law sailed to the Farallones and raided the nesting grounds. Despite losing half their haul on the rough ride back to San Francisco, the pair pocketed $3,000 from the sale of the remaining eggs. After barely surviving the white-knuckle trip, the men swore to never return. But word of their success traveled fast and almost overnight, the islands were crawling with “eggers.”

The task proved far more dangerous than the standard Easter egg hunt. To reach the rookeries, the eggers had to scramble over guano-slicked rocks, scale sheer cliffs, and fend off clouds of rapacious gulls. Even with the help of handmade crampons, fashioned from rope and rusted nails, accidents and injuries were common. In 1858, the Daily Alta California reported that an egger, “missed his hold while robbing a gull’s nest over the edge of a precipice, and, falling, was dashed to pieces on the rocks below.”

egg collectors
Egg collectors on the Farallons Courtesy of Islapedia

The eggs of the common murre—a sharp-billed seabird with black and white coloring—were the most desirable. They had a thick pear-shaped shell that ranged in color from grey to turquoise, with speckled markings as individual as a fingerprint. Rumor had it that if an egger spent too much time on the Farallones, he’d start seeing his name spelled out on the splattered shells. Most importantly for the entrepreneurs, murre eggs were as edible as chicken eggs, but double the size. Still, they weren’t a perfect replacement. Fried murre eggs had a strange and unappealing appearance. “I must confess the sight…can scarcely be called appetizing,” wrote one visitor, “the whites, though thoroughly fried, still transparent and the yolks of a fiery orange colour, almost red.”

Even worse, stale murre eggs had a strong, fishy aftertaste. In the words of one commentator, “an over ripe murre egg is something never to be forgotten…it requires about three months to get the taste out of the mouth.” As a result, the eggers inaugurated each harvest season by smashing all of the murre eggs on the islands, thereby ensuring the collection of freshly laid eggs. This annual sacrifice notwithstanding, approximately 14 million murre eggs were sent to San Francisco between 1849 and 1896.

“The common murre eggs were an important source of protein for the forty-niners and they commanded a high price,” says Schramm. “Entrepreneurs systematically plundered all of the eggs they could gather because they were very valuable. They were sort of the other gold in the gold rush.”

With murre eggs selling for a dollar a dozen, the poaching industry grew too lucrative for friendly competition. “Of course there was an egg war,” a journalist later commented, “the prize was too great not to be struggled for.” In line with the land-grabbing mentality of the time, six men sailed to the Farallones in 1851 and declared themselves owners by right of possession. They formed the Pacific Egg Company, which claimed exclusive rights to the nesting grounds.

The monopoly was vehemently challenged by rival eggers, including a group of Italian fishermen, who were granted access to the islands by the United States Topographical Engineers. To complicate matters further, in 1859, the federal government appropriated the islands for a lighthouse. All of these conflicting claims festered into a brutal, decades-long power struggle over the Farallones.

The egging season became increasingly violent. In the words of one commentator, the eight weeks between May and July devolved into “an annual naval engagement, known…as the egg war.” Brawls broke out constantly between rival gangs, ranging in brutality from threats and shell-throwing to stabbings and shootouts. In 1860, police officers discovered “two parties, armed to the teeth, in possession of different parts of the island, and breathing defiance against each other.”

The fighting was not confined to the islands; boats transporting eggs were hijacked regularly. According to the San Francisco Examiner, there were “many a bitter and fatal encounter between larger parties of rival claimants…in boats mounting small cannon[s].” Back in San Francisco, the courts were barraged by a dizzying variety of egg-related cases that included charges of petit larceny, trespassing, property damage, resisting an officer, and manslaughter.

The endless turmoil threatened lighthouse operations, but the federal government made little effort to evict the eggers or quell the violence. Local authorities pleaded with Washington to intervene, but the distant bureaucrats failed to grasp the severity of the conflict. As a result, the keepers stationed on the Farallones were left caught in the crossfire.

In 1859, the Daily Alta California reported that eggers were “breaking up the Government roads” and threatening lighthouse keepers with the “pain of death.” Then, in May 1860, an armed mob took control of the islands and forced the keepers to leave. By June, the head keeper claimed “the Egg Company and Light Keepers are at war.” Just a few weeks later, an assistant keeper was assaulted.

The accumulating tension exploded into a full-blown melee in 1863. That spring, an army of Italian fishermen under the command of David Batchelder made multiple attempts to seize the Farallones. Each time, the United States Revenue Cutter Service — a predecessor to the Coast Guard — arrested the trespassers and confiscated their weapons. But Batchelder and his men refused to surrender the lucrative nesting grounds without a fight.

On the evening of June 3, 1863, the fishermen sailed out to the Farallones once again where they were met by a group of armed employees of the Pacific Egg Company. Issac Harrington, the company’s foremen, warned the men to land “at their peril.” In return, Batchelder shouted that they'd come “in spite of hell.” The Italians spent the rest of the night drinking on their boats and taunting the men on shore.

At dawn, the bleary-eyed fleet attempted to land and the employees of the Pacific Egg Company opened fire. For the next 20 minutes, the rocky peaks reverberated with the thunder of gunshots and cannon blasts. By the time the Italians retreated, one Pacific Egg Company employee was dead and at least 5 boatmen were wounded; one of whom was shot through the throat and died a few days later.

The gruesome battle shocked the government into action. Rather than banning egging altogether, they granted the Pacific Egg Company a monopoly over the trade. Thus, the ravaging of the rookeries continued for decades, decimating the once-robust seabird colony. “Essentially it was the wildlife that lost the war,” says Schramm.

The tenuous truce was short-lived. The Pacific Egg Company’s defiance of government authority infuriated the representatives of the Twelfth Lighthouse District. Tempers flared in 1879, after the company began rendering seals and sea lions into oil, a gruesome process that involved vats of boiling blubber and mountains of fly-ridden carcasses. This unsanctioned action filled the air with the stench of burning flesh and a thick cloud of smog that obscured the lighthouse signal.

Over the next few years, the company became increasingly confrontational. First, they demanded the removal of the fog horn—a necessary safety measure—because the sound scared the birds away. Soon after, keepers were prohibited from gathering eggs for personal consumption — a long-standing tradition and critical food source. The final straw was when an assistant keeper was attacked for collecting eggs. On May 23, 1881, the United States military forcibly evicted the Pacific Egg Company from the islands.

Farallon islands egg picker
Full stereograph captured by Eadweard Muybridge of egg collectors on South Farallon Island Courtesy of New York Public Library via Wikicommons

After 30 bitter years, the Egg War was finally over — for the humans at least. The company’s downfall opened the trade to lighthouse keepers and independent fishermen, who upheld the summer tradition of raiding the roosts. But their victory was short-lived, for the eggers soon faced an even greater adversary: chicken farmers. In the late 1800s, a poultry industry was established in Petaluma, just 38 miles north of San Francisco, which decreased the demand for murre eggs. In response, the price dropped from a high of $1 a dozen to “thirty cents a dozen at the beginning of the season to five cents per dozen toward the close.”

In addition, murre eggs were becoming increasingly scarce. After four decades of unregulated plunder, the population on the Farallones dropped from an estimated 400,000 to 60,000. “After awhile there was a diminishing return because the murre population took a big hit,” says Casey. “The equation just stopped making sense economically.” Indeed, the annual egg yield thinned from over 500,000 in 1854 to a mere 91,740 in 1896. “It just wasn't worth going out there any longer," says Schramm. "the industry shut itself down in that respect, out of sheer greed.”

Today, the Farallon Islands are home to a seabird sanctuary with a thriving—albeit still recovering—common murre population.“Trying to recover a species is a huge and sometimes daunting task,” explains Schramm, “we are still only at a quarter of the pre-gold rush common murre numbers.” The Egg War may have faded from public memory, but its legacy continues to shape life on the Farallones more than a century later.

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