The Fourth and the Fifth

Fourth of July Parade, Oysterville c. 1900

Here it is the Fourth of July and I’m only on the fifth paragraph (out of 14) in my commentary on that “Oysterville” story that was in the Discovery Coast insert in the paper.   Actually, though, Paragraph #5 seems hauntingly appropriate for this the birthday of our country, the “Land of the Free.”

The California Gold Rush of 1849 (wrote the author) drew significant numbers of settlers of European descent to Oysterville.  Gold miners spent their earning [sic] on Willapa Bay oysters.  Settlers and the Chinook Peoples gladly filled schooners with oysters to be shipped to San Francisco.

To me, this paragraph seems a fine example of half-truths and innuendo. It is true that Oysterville, like other settlements in Oregon Territory, got its fair share of adventurers — some from Europe, some from the East Coast — who had become disillusioned in their quest for gold.  But there were also a number of people who had come west on the Oregon Trail and had turned north, rather than south, in their search for a new life.  My great-grandfather, R. H. Espy, was one of those.  So was I.A. Clark.  So was  Gilbert Stevens family.  And many others.

The Oregon Trail 1830s – 1869

According to the 1860 Pacific County Census (taken by Robert H. Espy), there were 201 individuals living in Oysterville, 23 of whom were born in Canada or Europe, 27 born in Washington Territory, and the remaining 136 residents were  from 15 of the (then) 33 United States.  Of those born in Washington Territory (1853 – 1889), all were children, most under seven years old.   I can’t help but think that the writer of Paragraph #5 quoted above was trying to give a different impression of Oysterville’s beginnings.

On to Paragraph #5’s second sentence.  Yes, when the miners took a break from hardtack and jerky and went into San Francisco for a little r&r (and, hopefully, to visit the assay office) they were likely to have enjoyed a good meal or two in the city’s gourmet restaurants.  Oysters on the half shell (from Shoalwater Bay — it was not named Willapa until 1892) were popular, especially among the miners who hailed from the Atlantic Coast.  There, oysters were the fast-food of the 18th and 19th centuries — a lot like hot dogs were in the 20th century.  California restaurateurs capitalized on that demand to the point that San Francisco Bay was soon stripped of its native oyster stock and the search was on for more.

The Louisa Morrison, Oyster Schooner

The nearest source was Yaquina Bay in Oregon Territory.  Next was Netarts Bay, due west of Portland; then Shoalwater Bay, and finally Puget Sound.  Oysters in the first two locations could meet only a small fraction of the demand.  Puget Sound was so far away that seafood frequently spoiled in transit.  “But…” as the Shoalwater Storytellers used to relate:  “…that bivalve thriving in a barely known estuary just above the mouth of the Columbia River… Yes, gourmets declare that the native oyster of Shoalwater Bay was just a taste of heaven locked between pearly shells.”

As for settlers and Chinooks “gladly” filling schooners with oysters to be shipped to San Francisco…  Yes, indeed!  I think I would have joined right in, had I been lucky enough to snag a job with one of the oyster companies in town.  A peach basket  filled with oysters brought a dollar in gold on delivery to a schooner anchored in Shoalwater Bay – a schooner which might hold up to 2,000 baskets.

It saddens me that our colorful history, told accurately by so many over the years, has now been reduced to a few misleading half-truths. And for no apparent reason. Happy Fourth!

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