Charles Russell of Shoalwater Bay, Washington Territory, shipped the first native oysters to San Francisco in 1851, and for the next 25 years the dollar-sized delicacies were in constant demand in the city called "Baghdad by the Bay." Restaurateurs, saloonkeepers, and the private chefs of the social elite would pay premium prices for the tiny oysters, said to be "just a taste of heaven locked between pearly shells."
In 1854, the year of Oysterville's founding, a peach basket filled with oysters fetched a dollar in gold when delivered to a waiting schooner in Shoalwater Bay. Within a year, Oysterville was shipping 50,000 such baskets annually to San Francisco and double that number three years later. Oysterville's oyster business flourished. But it hadn't started out that way.
According to R. H. Espy's account, a few days after he and I. A. Clark arrived that April of '54 in what would soon become Oysterville, they went across the bay to Bruceport for supplies. While there, they lingered for a bit to pick a few oysters.
"The boys at Bruceport objected and made us as uncomfortable as possible. There were then there Morgan, Winant, the storekeeper, and few others. Garretson was then returned to San Francisco and some had gone East," Espy recalled in later years. "They thought the entire bay belonged to them far as oysters were concerned."
Espy and Clark, not holding much truck with that point of view, returned to Oysterville and began gathering oysters on the west side of the channel, picking by hand and using their old canoe. The Bruce boys wasted no time in crossing the bay to tell these Johnny-come-latelies that they had better quit, threatening to run them out and dispose of their boat.
And, in fact, twice their canoe was stove in the bottom, and twice Espy and Clark patched it and continued their picking, transporting their oysters to shallow water for safekeeping. There, the friendly local Indians helped them cull the best to be delivered to the first schooner that should arrive from California.
In early May when sails were seen crossing Leadbetter Bar, Espy and Clark paddled boldly across to Bruceport to meet the schooner. They were accompanied by every available Indian canoe, each loaded to the gunwales with oysters. However, the Bruce boys lay in wait with their own canoe fleet.
The battle that ensued provided great entertainment for the schooner crew who, after dropping anchor, gathered along the deck to egg on the combatants. Eventually, Oysterville's canoes were overturned, their oysters were dumped, and the defeated newcomers high-tailed it back home - eyes blackened, ribs and shins bruised, but spirits undaunted. The next day was a repeat performance.
The Oystervilleans decided to change strategies. While Clark, the Indians, and a growing number of newly arrived fortune hunters continued gathering and culling, Espy made his way to Montesano. There he hired "old Dad Simmons" to make him a 22-foot clinker-built boat - constructed in lapstrake style much like clapboard house siding. It could carry twice as many oysters as a canoe of the same length. Espy named the boat Stuffy and for a time it served as flagship of the Oysterville fleet.
It was not long, however, before Stuffy disappeared in the night and then showed up later in the midst of the Bruce boys' armada. (It is my personal opinion that the seeds of desire for his future employment as sheriff and, subsequently, justice of the peace were sown in Espy's subconscious during that particular episode of the oyster hostilities.) Law and order had not yet arrived in Shoalwater Bay, so there was no authority to whom Espy could appeal. But if Espy was anything, he was stubborn.
He returned to Dad Simmons and, with the last of his savings, arranged for construction of another clinker boat half again the size of the pirated Stuffy. Perhaps the Bruce boys found the immensity of the new boat daunting. Or, perhaps they were beginning to understand that both Oysterville and Espy were here to stay, no matter what. Somehow, the rival oystermen made peace of sorts with one another.
However, it was up to the fairer sex to cement the relations with the rival oyster groups. And, in particular it was the young women of Oysterville's Crellin family who did so, through the bonds of matrimony.
The Crellin family consisted of mother, father, four daughters, and five grown sons, two of whom, John and Tom, began shipping oysters from Oysterville in 1858-59. Their principal rival was John Morgan of the Morgan Oyster Company of Bruceport. When John lost his heart to Sophia, one of the Crellin girls, the two companies joined forces and became Crellin & Company in 1863-64.
Before very many years had passed, two of Sophia's sisters entered into the holy state of matrimony with two of the partners in Crellin & Company's major rival - Espy & Company. Susan Crellin married Isaac Doane and Matilda Crellin married Henry Gile. Doane and Gile, along with Espy and three other men, had formed their oyster firm in 1866. With Crellin sisters in both major oyster camps, cooperation was assured and it was not long before hostilities on Shoalwater Bay became a thing of the past. More or less.
Editor's Note: Sydney Stevens is the great-granddaughter of R.H. Espy who, with his partner I.A. Clark, founded Oysterville in 1854. Members of the Espy family have lived continuously in Oysterville since that time and, through the years have amassed an interesting collection of anecdotes and memories. We offer them here as a salute to Oysterville's sesquicentennial year.