We have all heard of the Great Gold Rush of 1849.
Have you heard about the Great Pearl Rush of the 1880s?
on Black River, Arkansas;
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What: The Pearl Rush of 1888-1903
“In the 1850s, a New Jersey shoemaker found a large pearl inside a mussel pulled from a New Jersey river. The valuable pearl was sold to Tiffany & Co. for $1500. The find inspired others to scour freshwater rivers and lakes, hoping to find more gems. The hunt for pearls moved south, and in the early 1880s, more pearls were discovered in Arkansas. The discovery set off the Arkansas pearl rush which produced more than $2.5 million in pearls annually before the mussel population began to dwindle around 1905.”
Where: Northeast Arkansas
“Shanty towns sprung up along the Black and White rivers filled with hopeful pearl hunters. Buyers traveled from New York and San Francisco. Local shop owners and farmers could not find enough workers as the population had gone pearl-hunting crazy. Some hunters were serious and well equipped while digging wells, building homes, and raking pearls from their boats. Others took family vacations and went pearl hunting for fun. Hundreds upon hundreds of mussels were killed in the search for pearls and usually went to waste. By 1905 the Pearl Rush wound down, but the blank button industry was spurred along by the discarded and ample amounts of mussel shells in our state, until the 1940’s and the advent of plastic buttons.”
When: Before the age of “cultured pearls.”
“In an era before cultured pearls, these gems only occurred naturally, growing inside a freshwater mollusk or saltwater oyster, and the rarity of this occurrence made them precious.”
- “The mussels had not been harvested on a large scale since Native Americans dwelled along these rivers, giving the animals—and the pearls within—time to grow.”
- It took few tools and not even a boat to engage in the adventure of pearling.
- Over time, more and more boats were used to rake mussels out of deeper waters.
- Underwater diving gear also became another method for searching for pearls.
- Thousands of oysters and mussels were cracked open (and destroyed) to find pearls.
- Families from New York To California would spend their vacations pearling.
- The button industry began making “mother-or-pearl” buttons from the oyster and mussel shells.
- Peal buttons were not affected by the heat of a pressing iron.
- Prize Pearls:
“The largest pearl found was in Iowa. It was 210 grains, nearly an inch in diameter.
In 1966 a black pearl was found as large as a shoe button, also in Iowa, from the Cedar River. It sold for $1200.00. . . .
A farmer in Illinois found $2000.00 worth of pearls while cleaning his pig pens. His pigs had been fed on mussels. . . . .
In Arkansas, I believe to this very day, there is a contingent of families about 1500 strong who still go pearling.”
- Someone in your family may have a piece of jewelry that contains Arkansas pearls!
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Key Biblical Concepts:
- searching & finding
- sell all
- Matthew 13:45
- pearly gates
- gate of one pearl
√ Long before the Arkansas pearl rush, the value of pearls was part of Bible history. In the Lord’s parables about the kingdom of God, “the Pearl of Great Price” was told. A pearl merchant, seeking that singular, unique pearl of beauty and worth, found it, and he sold all that he had to buy it. . . .
√ The largest pearl that will ever be found will have been so large that it was made into a gate of the eternal city.
Other Information & Links:
“While Pearls Unique [a major pearl supplier] sometimes buys newly-found river pearls, it relies heavily on a storehouse of loose ones amassed by a Newport businessman, the late Ralph Sink, during the 1920s and ’30s.
“Mr. Sink owned a button factory here and had access to some of the finest pearls being harvested from the river,” Holmes explains. “He bought pearls by the teacup during a period when most people had lost confidence in the market.”
After holding the pearls some 50 years, Sink sold most of his collection to another Newport businessman, Bill Pratt. An enthusiastic friend was eager to help manage the venture.
“I knew nothing about the industry, but became fascinated after seeing my first White River pearl,” Holmes recalls. “I truly wanted to be part of the plan to re-open a local market.”
Established in 1985, Pearls Unique contracts with silver and goldsmiths in Arkansas and other states to create special mountings for their pearls. Some earring designs are crafted in the Newport shop. Holmes and Coe learned the business quickly and now lecture and present programs about Arkansas pearls.
Natural pearls are rarely found perfectly round, like the popular human-assisted cultured pearls. “With all their different shapes and colors, freshwater pearls work beautifully for one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry,” Holmes said. Colors range from creamy white to peach, pink, gold, lavender and shades of blue.”
Single pearls could command a premium price if they met the specifications a jeweler required to form a matched string of pearls or earrings. One Arkansas pearl buyer recalled selling a single pearl to a French jeweler for $1,500. It was the final pearl needed to complete a necklace. The finished string of pearls had a value of $200,000!
The pearl rush also gave birth to a robust shell button industry. In the late 1890s, thousands of mussel shells were shipped by rail from Arkansas to Iowa, where button factories turned them into beautiful mother-of-pearl buttons. By 1900, button factories were operating in Arkansas, popping up along northeastern Arkansas rivers. Factory workers gathered mussel shells and placed them in hot water to open them. They removed the meat, graded the shells, and then cut them into button blanks. By the end of WWII, plastic buttons put most shell button factories out of business.
“With the coming of the railroads to the City in 1897, the river trade once so important to Pocahontas (Pocahontas, Arkansas) decreased until it was no longer a major factor by 1920. The river served as another important resource from the late 1800s until about 1910. Pearls were found in the abundant fresh water mussels of the Black River. Then began the Great Black River Pearl Rush. A tent city of pearl prospectors from all over the world lined the banks of the river for about 7 years, south into the next county. During the first 7 years of the Great Pearl Rush, the equivalent of $7,000,000 in today’s dollars in pearls was taken from the river. As vast numbers of mussels were being taken from the river, local entrepreneurs soon learned a use for the huge piles of mussel shells piling up locally. Soon seven pearl button factories operated in the City. Button blanks from the shells were sent to New York City to be crafted into fine pearl buttons. This industry flourished here until the 1940s when plastic buttons that would stand the rigors of laundry and ironing were developed.
“Then, in 1899, The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review of Chattanooga reported: “Engineer Hall, in charge of the Government survey of the Clinch and French Broad rivers, while in the city a few days ago for the purpose of leaving the results of the Clinch River survey with Major Kingman, had a number of highly interesting and amusing things to relate in regard to the pearl fisheries in the Upper Clinch River.
Little experience, no capital required to hunt pearls
“Mr. Hall stated that the populations along the banks of the Clinch are greatly excited over the finding of several large pearls the past year that brought good prices, as well as a large number of other stones of lesser value. As a result farming and husbandry have, to a certain extent, been abandoned by the Clinch River people for pearl hunting.”
The ‘Book of Pearls’ account picks up the thread: “Many [Clinch River] pearls reportedly brought $100 or more. The fact that little experience and no capital were required for the business drew large numbers of persons. Vivid and picturesque accounts published in the local papers reported hundreds of persons as camping at various points along the streams, some in tents and some in rough shanties, and others going from shoal to shoal in newly built houseboats.
“They were described as easy going pleasure loving people, the men women and children working hard all day, subsisting largely on fish caught in the same stream, and dancing at night to the music of a banjo around the camp fires that line the banks.”