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The Pearl Rush of Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake. Photo: Maciej Kraus/Flickr

Natural pearls are a rarity today, but a hundred years ago, before British biologist William Saville-Kent first developed the technique of pearl culturing, natural pearls were found in many parts of the world and it was the only kind of pearl people wore.

For thousand of years, divers retrieved natural pearls from wild oysters in the Indian Ocean in areas such as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Mannar. The pearl fisheries of the Persian Gulf, in particular, were the most famous and valuable in the world. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the Chinese hunted extensively for seawater pearls in the South China Sea. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they discovered that around the islands of Cubagua and Margarita, some 200 km north of the Venezuelan coast, was an extensive pearl bed. Pearls harvested from these beds were gifted by Philip II of Spain to his wife Mary I of England.

In the Americas, Native Americans harvested freshwater pearls from lakes and rivers in Ohio, Tennessee, and Mississippi. Marine pearls were found in the Caribbean and waters along the coasts of Central and South America. During colonial times, slaves were employed as pearl divers off the northern coasts of modern Colombia and Venezuela. The waters being searched were known to be shark-infested, and many unlucky slaves lost their lives to shark attacks. But those fortunate to discover a great pearl could sometimes purchase his freedom.

In 1905, Sachihiko Ono Murata, a Japanese immigrant, who once served as chef aboard a U.S. Navy ship in the Pacific fleet, settled on the north shore of Caddo Lake—a large dragon-shaped lake on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Caddo Lake is famous for its cypress forest, which is one of the largest in the United States. It is also the largest freshwater lake in the state of Texas, and has been a favorite fishing and vacation spot among citizens from that section of the country for many years. Murata loved the lake’s cypress trees and found a job cooking for workers on the oil rigs that dotted the lake.

One day, while preparing a mussel to use as catfish bait, Murata discovered a small pearl. This was nothing new. Occasionally, young men would find pearls inside mussels which they would gift to their heartthrobs. Later that same day, or perhaps, a few days later, Murata discovered a second pearl. Not much interest were attached to these casual finds, until Murata found a way to sell them. Rumors flew that he sold the pearls to Tiffany & Co. in New York for $1,500 each. To give you an idea of the amount of money that was, a typical Texas farmer made between $300 to $600 a year. The promise of a pearl or two drove thousands of people from nearby settlements, who set up tents on the shores of Caddo Lake. Some brought their families with them. Others came alone, and went back and forth to their homes.

Caddo Lake pearl hunters

A group of pearl hunters on Caddo Lake.

The water in the lake was waist deep or chest deep, and most pearl hunters found it convenient to wade barefoot in the water, picking up mussels from the mud with their toes. Others used fishing tongs, which allowed them to look for mussels during the colder winter months and in the deeper regions of the lake. Most of the pearls fetched only $20 or $25, but one Mrs. Jeff Stroud of the Lewis community sold a whopper for $900. It was the most expensive pearl sold at the lake. Another lucky fisherman, George Allen, received $500 for one pearl.

For three summers, pearl hunting was so lucrative that commercial fishermen on Caddo gave up fishing entirely, and devoted their entire time to mussel hunting. However, not everyone was lucky. Some toiled for weeks without finding a single pearl, and left in disappointment. Still there was enough pearls in Caddo Lake to encourage hunting, and at one time there was as many as 500 tents around the lake and up to 1,000 men would be on the lake each day.

It is difficult to estimate how much pearl the lake yielded, because many did not publicize their find to avoid jealousy. Others, exaggerated their fortunes. Some think as many as one million dollars worth of pearls were marketed.

Caddo Lake

Caddo Lake. Photo: Louis Vest/Flickr

Unlike many boom towns that grew around the Gold Rush of California or the oil wells in Pennsylvania, the community in Caddo Lake never organized into anything more than a few hundred vacation camps. The lake was free to all and no body lay claim to any special spots on the lake or on the beach. The community got along surprisingly well with no fights or bickering or quarrelling. This was because time was precious, and few pearl hunters wasted time in idle. With no church to go to, they worked even during Sundays. This was a time when working on Sunday was considered a sin, but luckily there was no preacher in the camp.

Pearl harvesting in Caddo Lake continued till 1913, when a dam was constructed downriver at Mooringsport, causing the lake levels to rise, making the lake too deep for wading fishermen. The pearl craze ended and the Caddo fishermen went back to fishing, while others returned to their homes.

Freshwater mussels still thrive in Caddo Lake, now a protected State Park, but no collecting is allowed.

References:
# Katherine Williams, https://www.jstor.org/stable/30235720
# Texas Co-op Power, https://www.texascooppower.com/texas-stories/history/caddos-gems
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_hunting

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