SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The rumors that a person could become rich by finding giant pearls in northwest Louisiana and east Texas began circulating in Shreveport in 1909, and though it sounds like a myth, the rumor was true.
A 1916 article in The Indianapolis News claimed there were millions of dollars worth of pearls in the bed of Caddo Lake in Louisiana and Texas. The Caddo Lake pearls were said to be of the highest quality, being of all colors and sizes, including white, pink, yellow, and gold.
But to a lot of locals around Caddo Lake, it wasn’t the beauty or the delicate colors of the pearls that got their attention. It was the monetary value.
“Teel and Allen discovered the first pearls. I don’t remember Ted but Mr. Allen had granulated eyelids. His eyes were red, and he looked like he was powerful drunk all the time. He wasn’t, but he was drunk a good deal of the time,” wrote Wyatt Moore in his book that recalled his long life on Caddo Lake, Every Sun That Rises. “Well, it became customary over there that if any of the gang found a pearl, he would carry four or five of his cronies to Shreveport, and they’d have a two-day party. They’d get down there and den up in the Belmont Hotel and range down in the St. Paul bottoms at night. That was before Prohibition, and they’d have a sure-enough big party with whoever it was’s pearl money till it was gone.”
According to The Indianapolis News, the most prized Caddo Lake pearls were the gold ones. It was estimated that for every cubic yard of mussels found in the lake, one pearl would be found, too.
History of Louisiana and Texas’ freshwater pearls
How long had the pearls been in Caddo Lake before they were discovered by those of European, Asian, and/or African blood? For decades, it seems.
Before the arrival of old-world cultures to the Red River Valley, freshwater pearls were used in Native American jewelry making, and mussel shells were used to create pottery.
A Phillips County, Arkansas, grave contained a pearl bracelet, and freshwater pearls were found in burial mounds along the White River. But when natives left the rivers, creeks, bayous, and streams familiar to them and stopped collecting the mussels and pearls, for whatever reasons, both mussels and pearls grew numerous until it finally dawned upon a generation of people, who were fairly new arrivals to North America, that pearls were literally laying at their feet.
By the mid-1800s, pearl rushes from New Jersey to the Mississippi River and Florida upward to the Ohio River Valley, attracted get-rich-quickers to waterways that still had public access. Men, women, and children all got in on the action. Because little up-front cost was required to invest in tools, both rich and poor people alike took to shores and banks of creeks, bayous, and lakes.
At first, when pearls were discovered in a region, you could walk into shallow water and pick them up with your bare hands. But as time passed, it became more difficult to find the precious organic gems.
The finding of pink pearls in Arkansas in 1888 attracted fishers of pearls and caused the Arkansas pearl rush. Shanties and tents cropped up on riverbanks, and thousands of mussels were destroyed in search of the round beauties. It’s even said crops went unharvested because even farmers searched for pearls instead of working their fields.
The same would happen to settlements on Caddo Lake in Louisiana and Texas in the early 1900s.
A 1938 article from The Marshall News Messenger mentioned a gentleman known locally as George Murata, though his name at birth was Sachihiko Ono Murata. Murata is said to have been instrumental in the Caddo Lake pearl rush after he moved to the region from Japan, where he had grown up in a culture that understood and appreciated pearls. Some say it was he who first found a pearl in Caddo Lake.
“I travel all over the world, just about, but once I get my feet in this Caddo water, I (knew) I’d never leave her,” Murata told Carolyn Ramsey in 1938. The article also mentions that during the great pearl rush, a person couldn’t walk fifty feet along the north shore of Broad Lake without coming upon a pearl hunter’s camp.
But when a dam was built on Caddo Lake at Mooringsport, La., the water rose so much that people couldn’t dig for mussel shells along the shore anymore.
Most pearl rushes in the United States occurred in the 1800s, but the pearl rush centered around Caddo Lake developed the region’s pearl culture in approximately 1910.
Those seeking their fortune hurried to the grounds of what was once called The Great Swamp, and nearly $100,000 worth of pearls (more than $3 million in 2023 purchasing power) were retrieved from Caddo Lake in 1912 alone.
Mr. Jeff D. Cox, Assistant State Fish and Oyster Commissioner in Texas during the pearl rush, said in the Indianapolis News (Dec. 21, 1916) that the state should take steps to regulate the pearl industry by assessing a tax on pearls and enacting other measures to conserve the mussels.
But the pearls themselves weren’t the only thing gained from the absolute pearl madness that swept slowly across the nation. A pearl button industry came in response to the byproduct of mussel shells that were initially thought of as trash. Buttons were stamped from the leftover mussel shells, and suddenly, anyone could afford pearls–even if they were only in the form of buttons.
A pair of brothers came to Uncertain, Texas during the great pearl rush, with their hopes set high on opening up a button factory. They found, instead, that Caddo Lake mussel shells were too thin-shelled for button production.
The brothers had a backup plan, though. Captain Danny Sullivan of Mudport Backwater Tours said the brothers opened a fish camp that they called Johnson’s Ranch.
Incidentally, Johnson’s Ranch is now considered the oldest inland marina in the entire state of Texas.
The pearl industry completely changed when cultured pearls began to dominate the market. Now natural, freshwater pearls aren’t perceived as valuable in the way they once were.
“Mussels are sifters. There was a miniature gold rush here of people looking for pearls,” said Captain Danny Sullivan of Mudport Backwater Tours in July 2023. And that’s where this article began.
Sullivan loves to tell tourists about the great Pearl Rush, the oil rush, the incredible wildlife in the ancient swamp, and the history of steamboats that traveled between Shreveport, La. and Jefferson, Texas, before, during, and after the Civil War. Sullivan loves to take others along on boat rides that defy the stereotype of what it means to be in Texas and show them the meaning of the words ‘government trench.’
Pearl hunting in Caddo Lake mostly ended by the 1930s, but are there pearls glistening on the shores of the lake today? Maybe there are, and maybe there aren’t.
Today, Caddo Lake is recognized as the largest Cypress forest in the world. In this era, publications that focus on ecology recognize that the most beautiful thing that can be taken from what remains of The Great Swamp is something called the photograph.
After spending just a little time on Caddo Lake, you’ll realize that the old swamp, with its incredible cypress trees and amber-colored water, is incredibly special. Massive trees and amber water, pearls along the shorelines, and a culture that must be experienced because it can’t be captured with mere words–these are all reasons that this ancient swamp is a priceless, hidden gem that humanity can’t afford to lose.