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Shoalwater Bay oysters begin feeding San Francisco in 1851.

HistoryLink.org Essay 7850 : Printer-Friendly Format

In 1851, oysters from Shoalwater (later Willapa Bay) begin feeding San Francisco. The oyster business will flourish in the bay until the 1880s and will be an important cause of settlement in the area.

Native oysters were an important part of the diet of the Chinook and Chehalis, whose villages ringed Shoalwater Bay. They traded oysters to the early explorers as early as 1849 and 1850. The bay has the perfect environment for oysters. The vast tidal flats are exposed twice a day at low tide, allowing for easy harvesting. The beds are then naturally flooded at high tide to feed and protect the oysters. A market for Shoalwater Bay oysters was created when, in 1849, the California Gold Rush created an enormous mass migration to the West. Many of these immigrants were Easterners who craved oysters.

In the summer of 1851, Charles J. W. Russell saw an opportunity to export Shoalwater Bay oysters to San Francisco. He employed Native Americans to help clear and rebuild an old portage trail. This trail had been used in their seasonal migrations between Shoalwater Bay and the Columbia River. Using this route, Russell transported oysters overland and then shipped them out of Astoria to San Francisco.

Captain Christian Fieldsted was the first to sail directly into Shoalwater Bay. His schooner Two Brothers took several shiploads of oysters to San Francisco, one of which spoiled in a thunderstorm off Point Reyes. The second schooner to enter Shoalwater Bay was the Sea Serpent. It took on a load of oysters and delivered it successfully to San Francisco. The Robert Bruce next entered Shoalwater Bay, but burned to the water due to an action of the unhappy cook.

The survivors of the Robert Bruce became the Bruce Boys who worked the oyster trade from what became Bruceville and then Bruceport on Shoalwater Bay. Later, others worked oysters out of Oysterville across the Bay, creating intense competition. Eventually, two marriages between the two groups brought them together. They ended the rivalry and formed a joint company.

Many schooners began transporting oysters from Shoalwater Bay to San Francisco. The Native Americans would harvest the oysters and load the ship and would receive one gold dollar (later $1.50) for each bushel. This same bushel would be sold in San Francisco for $7.00. A schooner carried 1,200 to 2,000 baskets. Any larger a load and the oysters on the bottom would not survive the one- to two-week journey. Over the years, the prices first rose, and then, as the market declined, fell.

By the 1880s, eastern oysters took over the San Francisco market. Shoalwater Bay oysters declined due to over-harvesting, and local oystermen began looking for new markets and new oysters to seed and grow in the bay.

Douglas Allen, Shoalwater Willapa (South Bend, Washington: Snoose Peak Publishing, 2004), 25-30, 165-172; Lucile McDonald, Coast Country: A History of Southwest Washington (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1966), 59-64; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "The schooner Robert Bruce burns in Willapa Bay, leading to the settlement of Bruceville (later Bruceport), on December 11, 1851" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 7, 2006); Bill Long, “Oysterville, Uncovering a Forgotten Past,” Dr. William Long’s website accessed July 4, 2006 (http://www.drbilllong.com); “Captain Christian Fieldsted Arriving in San Francisco, 1849 First Attempted Oyster Growing in San Francisco Bay,” California Pioneers of Santa Clara County website accessed July 10, 2006 (http://www.mariposaresearch.net).

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Related Topics: Maritime | Agriculture |

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Oyster sloop, Shoalwater Bay, 1890
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)

Bay Center, Willapa Bay, ca. 1889
Photo by Charles Haskins Townsend, Courtesy UW Special Collections (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)

Map of oyster beds in Willapa Bay, 1889
Map by Charles Haskins Townsend, Courtesy Report of the Commissioner (United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, 1889-1891), UW Special Collections (Freshwater and Marine Image Bank)

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