The Egg War of 1863, which saw murders, the devastation of an entire ecosystem, and gang warfare over some eggs, could just be the most ridiculous of a long list of foolish conflicts (a list that includes an emu war and a war on squirrels). Gold discovered in Coloma, California, in 1848, prompting nearly 80,000 people to flock to California in 1849 alone for the “Gold Rush.” Until 1855, hundreds of thousands of miners passed through San Francisco on their way to find something sparkling. This rapid flood of people presented a number of issues, the most significant of which was (pardon me if I am becoming too technical) the fact that humans require food to survive.
Because protein was in such a limited supply, the price of eggs skyrocketed. Imagine the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta is talking about a $5 shake but is actually talking about a $60 eggs florentine, and you’ll be close to the truth: eggs were sold for roughly $1 each, or $30 in today’s money. With egg costs at an all-time high, one ambitious soul with an attitude of “I honestly don’t care if I ruin an entire ecosystem if it means I can create a flan” began looking at the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco.
The islands, formerly known as the Islands of the Dead, are mostly craggy, hazardous cliffs that would not be worth seeing if it were not for the hundreds of thousands of birds who call them home. Not that any of the island’s birds could be mistaken for chickens, but their eggs were a viable option for hungry miners, and the protein-rich yolks sparked a new kind of gold rush. Even though the whites of the eggs remained translucent when cooked, the murre had the greatest eggs, in that they tasted like chicken eggs. That is until they went bad, they tasted like chicken eggs, and then they tasted like fish.
“An overripe murre egg is a memory that will last a lifetime, “as one picky egg eater put it at the time.”It takes around three months to get rid of the taste in your tongue.”
Another benefit was the thickness of the eggshells, which had developed to be thick because the birds had evolved to lay them on hard rock, making them tough to crush on the tumultuous ride home. The first eggers to arrive on the island for egg season did so without having to contend with other gangs, murderers, or the police. The only dangers they faced were slippery cliff faces rendered slippery by seawater and bird dung, neither of which proved lethal (for the time being – lives would be lost later as people plunged down the cliff faces attempting to reach the eggs).
They made a enormous profit on the voyage the first year, and word quickly spread to others. This is the point at which the story becomes absurd. Rival egger gangs began arriving on the island, and they quickly became embroiled in a turf war, much like modern-day drug lords fighting over crack cocaine. The Pacific Egg Company, the first to claim the islands, came into conflict with a group of Italian angler, among others. The fights, which had started as brawls, became more violent over the next decade.
As the egg men attempted to lay claim to the eggs, there were stabbings and shootouts. Three boatloads of men reached the islands armed to the teeth on June 3, 1863, in a particularly violent event. The Pacific Egg company urged them not to land, but the competitor egg collectors rejected the warning, preferring to kill them brutally. They killed one of the egg company’s men by shooting him in the stomach before shooting five of the boats’ crewmembers and fleeing.
When the courts were overburdened with egg-related offenses, the government intervened, giving the Pacific Egg Company a monopoly over the islands. This did not solve the problem as they had intended, as the Pacific Egg Corporation took up arms against the island’s lighthouse keepers, banning them from harvesting their own eggs and making living on the island nearly difficult for them. One of the lighthouse keepers attacked after they disobeyed the command.
Meanwhile, the massive amount of eggs that had once been available on the island each year was rapidly depleting. As if severely over-harvesting the eggs of these seabirds was not bad enough, the eggers smashed all the eggs insight as soon as they arrived on the island for a fresh season. This ensured their spot in hell as well as the freshness of the eggs they would gather the next day. Between 1849 and 1896, approximately 14 million murre eggs delivered to San Francisco.
The US troops forcibly evicted the eggers from the islands on May 23, 1881, putting an end to decades of warfare. However, it was the price of chicken eggs, not this, that saved the birds from their annual slaughter. The lighthouse keepers proceeded to dole out licenses as the egging on the island continued. However, with a scarcity of eggs on the island and chicken farmers (much less violent than their murre counterparts) producing more eggs, it became unprofitable to risk death on the “Islands of the Dead” for eggs that occasionally tasted like fish. This particular “gold rush” ended after 30 years, and the egg war has done.