They called themselves pearlers. Those inclined to ridicule odd behavior called them water hogs, for their habit of rooting around in the mud of the Caddo Lake shallows on all fours.
That rooting started because of one man: Sachihiko Ono Murata. Folks called him George just because. As you may have guessed, he was no Dutchman. But the fact that he hailed from the land of the rising sun was about all anyone knew about George.
George was working as a cook on an oil rig one day in 1909, cutting up Caddo Lake mussels to use as bait for catfish that would be used to feed the roughnecks. In one of those mussels George found a pearl.
Something in his mysterious past had taught him a few things about pearls and word soon got out that George had sold his bivalve bauble to Tiffany’s for $1500.
The rush was on. But it was a different kind of rush. No Sutter’s Mill shenanigans or Klondike claim jumping. The pearlers came in family units and seemed to be in it as much for the fun of the hunt as for the potential of striking it rich. They set up tent camps in the hills around Potter’s Point, fifteen miles from Jefferson. As many as five hundred tents peppered the landscape at the peak of the rush.
The men and boys gathered the mussels The women and girls opened them, searched the slimy innards for treasure, and took care of the camp. Even if no pearls were found, a night of cool lake breezes and campfire comradery was reward for the day’s work.
The Pearlers of Potter’s Point
A pearl buyer, known only as Dr. Owen, set up housekeeping across the lake at Morningside, Louisiana. Every morning he’d put across the lake and open for business under a big tree. Lucky pearlers were paid in gold or silver, on the spot.
Average pearls brought $25 or $30 ($700 to $840 in today’s dollars.)
Rare specimens would have Dr. Owen forking over $500 to $1000 (that’s $14k to $28k to your debit card.)
The most valuable pearls were found in washboard mussels. The ones the pearlers called “white eyes” produced pink pearls, and buttermilk mussels laid down wine-colored nacre.
It seems the pearlers genuinely had a good thing going. Even what could have been a big problem – all that clam meat rotting in the sun – was quickly solved to everyone’s satisfaction. A local farmer fattened his hogs on it. You have to wonder what taste it imparted to the hams.
The Caddo Lake pearl rush came to an end as quickly as it started. In 1912 Uncle Sam raised his dam at Mooringsport, Louisiana. Soon the prime mussel beds where under as much as ten feet of water.
The farmers went back to their farms and the fishermen went back to their trotlines. George Murata opened a fish camp, which he ran until his death in 1946. He called it “The Jap’s Camp.” That couldn’t have been good for business during the war.
The Caddo Lake pearl rush, however, was not the first in the history of Texas.
In 1650, Captain Diego del Castillo led an expedition from Santa Fe to what is now the San Angelo area and reported finding pearls in the Concho River. When the Spanish governor got the news, he sent Diego de Guadalajara along with thirty soldiers and a couple hundred Christianized Indians to bring back as many of those pink and purple fresh water gems as they could find.
The haul was underwhelming, but they did return to Santa Fe with two hundred freshly captured Indian slaves.