The Egg War Of 1863 May Be One Of The Most Ridiculous Wars In History

Collecting eggs was dangerous even when people weren't shooting you with cannons. Image credit: New York Public Library (Public Domain).

In a long list of stupid wars (a list that contains an emu war and a war on squirrels), the most ridiculous might just be the Egg War of 1863, which saw murders, the destruction of an entire ecosystem, and gang wars taking place over some eggs.

In 1848, gold was found in Coloma, California, triggering over 80,000 people to head to California in 1849 alone, for what would become known as the "Gold Rush". Hundreds of thousands of miners poured through San Francisco every year until 1855 on their way to dig up something shiny. This sudden influx of people wasn't without its challenges, the main one being (stop me if I'm getting too technical) that people need food to live.

Protein was in particularly short supply, resulting in the price of eggs rocketing. Imagine the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta is talking about the $5 shake, but he's talking about a $60 eggs florentine and you won't be far from the truth: eggs were sold at around $1 each, or $30 in today's money. With egg prices so high, one person with an enterprising spirit and an "I honestly don't mind if I destroy an entire ecosystem if it means I can make a flan" attitude started looking at the Farallon Islands, off the San Fransisco coast.

The islands – once known as the Islands of the Dead – are largely rocky, treacherous cliffs, and (no offense to them) not worth visiting, were it not for the hundreds of thousands of birds inhabiting them. Not that you could pass any of the birds on the island off as a chicken, but their eggs were a possibility for hungry miners, and the protein-rich yolks kickstarted a different kind of gold rush. The murre apparently had the best eggs, in that they kind of tasted like chicken eggs, even if the whites of the egg remained translucent when cooked. That is, they tasted of chicken eggs until they went off, at which point they tasted of fish.

“An overripe murre egg is something never to be forgotten," as one fussy egg consumer said at the time. "It requires about three months to get the taste out of the mouth.”

Another advantage was how thick the eggshells were, as the birds had evolved to lay them onto hard rock, which made them difficult to smash on the turbulent journey home. The first eggers to make it to the island for egg season collected masses of eggs without having to fight off rival gangs, murderers, or the police. The only troubles they faced were deadly cliff faces made slippy with seawater and bird poop, neither of which proved fatal (for now – it would later claim lives as people fell off the cliff faces attempting to get to the eggs). 

They made a ludicrously large profit from the expedition that first year, and others soon caught wind of the idea. This is where the story gets ridiculous.

Rival gangs of eggers began heading to the island, and soon they were involved in a turf war like they were modern-day drug lords fighting over crack cocaine. The first group to claim the islands – the Pacific Egg Company – found themselves fighting with a group of Italian fishermen, among others. Over the next decade, the fights, which began as brawls, became more violent. 

There were stabbings and shootouts as the egg men tried to lay their claim to the eggs. On June 3, 1863, in a particularly violent incident, three boatloads of men approached the islands armed to the teeth. The Pacific Egg company warned them not to land, but the rival egg collectors ignored the request, favoring the option of brutal murder. They shot one of the egg company's men through the stomach, killing him, before five on the boats were shot themselves, and retreated.

The government stepped in when the courts began filling up with far too many egg-based crimes, handing a monopoly of the islands to the Pacific Egg company. This didn't solve the problem like they'd hoped, as the Pacific Egg company took up arms against the lighthouse keepers who also inhabited the island, and eventually banned them from collecting eggs of their own, making life on the island practically impossible for them. When they ignored the order, one of the lighthouse keepers was attacked.

All the while, the gigantic supply of eggs that had once been on the island every year was dwindling. As if massively over-harvesting the eggs of these seabirds wasn't enough, the first thing the eggers did upon setting foot on the island for a new season was to smash all the eggs in sight. This guaranteed both their place in hell, and that the eggs they collected the next day would be fresh. Around 14 million murre eggs were sent to San Francisco between 1849 and 1896.

On May 23, 1881, the US military forcibly removed the eggers from the islands, ending the decades of violence. However, it wasn't this that rescued the birds from their annual massacres, but the price of chicken eggs. Egging on the island continued, with the lighthouse keepers handing out licenses. However, with a lack of eggs on the island, and chicken farmers (far less violent than their murre counterparts) producing more eggs, it was no longer profitable to risk death on the "Islands of the Dead" in order to get eggs that sometimes tasted of fish.

After 30 long years, this particular "gold rush" ended and the egg war was over.

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