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The Great Caddo Lake Pearl Rush

It wasn’t as big as the Gold Rush of 1849, but Caddo Lake, which spreads across the Texas-Louisiana border, experienced a miniature rush of its own in the early 1900s. The discovery wasn’t gold, but pearls—freshwater pearls in the lake’s mussels.

The 1909 discovery is credited—depending on which source you read—to Japanese cook George Murata (Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1959), who had hired on with an oil-drilling crew, or to a couple of local fishermen who had decided to use the mussels’ flesh as bait for their trotlines (Jefferson: Riverport to the Southwest by Fred Tarpley, 1983). According to the latter source, some of the mussels the fishermen opened came with unexpected hard, round, white bonuses.

Whoever discovered them, fortune hunters flocked to the lake as word of the pearls spread. Camping out for weeks at a time, they looked for pearl-bearing mussels. Because the searchers got down on all fours to root through the shallows where the mussel beds were located, they were dubbed “pearl hogs.”

Some of those “hogs” were successful. A 1913 U.S. Bureau of Fisheries bulletin reported that in 1912, the value of pearls taken from both the Louisiana and Texas sides of the lake was $99,200. That is roughly equivalent to $1.9 million in today’s dollars.

The building of a dam several years later near Mooringsport, Louisiana, covered the mussel beds with deep water, bringing the pearl rush to an abrupt halt.

Caddo Lake is not the only Texas site of pearl-bearing freshwater mussels. Divers with annual permits from the state currently harvest a small number of pink, purple, and lavender pearls from mussels in the Concho River near San Angelo.

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