Mossback’s Northwest: The tiny oyster that made Washington

The Pacific Coast’s only indigenous oyster, the Olympia, was eaten into near-extinction. It could be making a comeback.

Knute Berger holds an Olympia oyster, the only truly indigious oyster to the Pacific Coast. A local delicacy once fueled gold diggers in California and loggers in Washington. The Olympia oyster became a major industry, yet was so tiny you could hold it between your fingertips. (Stephen Hegg/Crosscut)

A local delicacy once fueled gold diggers in California and loggers in Washington. It became a major industry, yet was so tiny you could hold it between your fingers. Meet the mighty Olympia oyster.

In the mid-19th century, America was experiencing a kind of oyster mania. Oysters were cheap and plentiful on the East Coast. People ate oyster pies, oyster soups, roasted oysters, raw oysters, oyster stuffing. Those who crossed the continent brought their appetites with them. And what did they find in the West: an abundance of small native oysters eventually dubbed Olympias, or Olys.

If there was gold in them thar hills, there were oysters in them thar West Coast waters, too.

Native peoples already knew of them, of course. Their shell middens — those ancient repositories of debris left by Indigenous diners — reveal thousands of years of shells from clams and oysters eaten. The pioneers learned an old native tradition: When the tide is out, the table is set. And the oyster reefs were very accessible.

The small Olys were found in vast beds, most notably in Shoalwater — now Willapa — Bay, a calm-water estuary that was utopia for Olys. Oysterville is there, and came by its name honestly.

The California Gold Rush boosted demand for fresh oysters and oystermen began filling the holds of ships with them. Still alive, kept moist and cool in barrels or sacks, they arrived fresh. An estimated 90% of oysters consumed by the California gold rushers in the 1850s and ‘60s were Shoalwater oysters. Mark Twain was said to be a fan and consumed vast quantities. By the 1870s and ‘80s, they could be shipped throughout the West by wagon and rail. You could get fresh oysters in Denver; Butte, Montana; Spokane. Every classy saloon, and even the nonclassy ones, served fresh oysters along with whiskey or beer.

They became perhaps our greatest export. Pirates even tried to steal them. The Washington Territorial Legislature passed laws in the 1850s to protect the resource from outsiders, imposing huge fines on oyster thieves.

In 1885, Presbyterian church women in Portland, Oregon, published the Northwest’s first cookbook, the Web-Foot Cookbook. It is full of recipes but there is only one for a unique native Northwest species: It’s for fried Olympia oysters. It’s stuck between a recipe for Deviled Crab and Hollandaise Sauce for Salmon. You take Olys, put them in with a beaten egg and salt and pepper, squish half a dozen or so together to make a patty, roll them in cracker crumbs and fry in butter; serve with “cold slaw.” By 1880s, eggs and butter, cabbage and mayonnaise for “cold slaw,” as many called it, were readily available in the region, not like the days of the earliest inhabitants.

It’s a tasty way to do them.                                                                                                        

Unfortunately, the oyster farmers did not protect the Oly from insatiable consumer demand. The overharvest of Olympias led oyster growers to turn to nonnative oysters, like the Pacific. Eastern oysters were grown and could be shipped in too. Demand for oysters began to decline as other nonnative foods became more available—like chicken, beef and canned goods of all kinds.

Olys haven’t died out completely, but as the old oyster beds were exhausted, more commercial varieties — large oysters — replaced them in the market. You can get many kinds of oysters here today. Much of the Oly’s natural habit was lost to development and pollution. You can get them — some of the oyster companies that sold them back in the day are still in business, like Taylor Shellfish. They have a distinctive taste—often described as “coppery” — and are big enough to eat, though still diminutive, after about three years or growth. They also have the briny freshness of the Northwest.

If you like oysters, you owe yourself an Oly!

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.