Historic Arkansas pearl rush
Pearlers camp (Courtesy of the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies)
The rivers of northeast Arkansas once teemed with freshwater mollusks capable of producing pearls, which led to a huge "pearl rush" in the region in the late 1800s.
The mussels had not been harvested on a large scale since American Indians dwelled along these rivers; this gave the animals -- and the pearls within -- time to grow. 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.
Indians used pearls to indicate elite status through adornment and burial practices. Burial sites in Campbell, Mo., and Spiro, Okla., revealed large quantities of freshwater pearls heaped in baskets or large shell vessels. A grave near present-day Helena-West Helena contained a pearl bracelet, and Sallie Walker Stockard's 1904 "The History of Lawrence, Jackson, Independence and Stone Counties of the Third Judicial District of Arkansas" mentions freshwater pearls found in burial mounds along the White River. As far back as the early 1700s, the geographical area now known as Arkansas was mentioned as a premier pearling location. Daniel Coxe chronicled his travels through present-day southeastern United States and witnessed American Indians roasting freshwater mussels
for food and finding pearls -- although the heat from the fire ruined them.
In the mid-1800s, a pearl rush began in northern New Jersey when a shoemaker found a pearl that fetched a small fortune. This discovery set off a frenzy from New Jersey through the Ohio River Valley and down the tributaries of the Mississippi River. It was a time when land had not fallen under the wide and restricted private ownership that would, today, prevent people from accessing waterways. With few tools needed to harvest the mollusk, men, women and children of all socioeconomic levels joined the hunt for treasure. At first, the mussels were so abundant that people could just walk into shallow water and pick them up with their bare hands.
In 1888, a 27-grain, pear-shaped pink pearl was taken from the White River. In 1895, on the same river, a survey party found $5,000 worth of pearls. This predates the 1897 date generally attributed to the first pearl find by Dr. J. Hamilton Meyers of Black Rock. News of the discovery of that stunning, 14-grain pink pearl set off the Arkansas pearl rush. Northeast Arkansas became famous as a great spot for pearling.