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1840s: Hunger For Gold And Galapagos Tortoises

Gold prospectors in El Dorado, Calif., circa 1848-1853.
Library of Congress
Gold prospectors in El Dorado, Calif., circa 1848-1853.

The legendary Gold Rush of the late 1840s was a game changer in American history.

The promise of overnight wealth — and the industries that rose up around the wealth-seekers — lured legions of people from all over the world to Northern California and to cities and towns along the Pacific Coast. But there were other Gold Rush ramifications — economic and environmental — as well.

For example: the wholesale taking of tortoises from the Galapagos Islands by sailors and fortune seekers on their way to and from California.

Tortoise Soup

Gold-hunters traveled to California by a variety of ways, explains Cyler Conrad, an anthropology student at the University of New Mexico who has studied the era. The most popular route was by sea. Many of the seafarers sailed past the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.

"Like the whalers before them," Conrad writes for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, the gold-minded mariners "found Galapagos tortoises easy to capture, high in number and enormously tasty."

In his research, Conrad has discovered stories of ships that would gather great amounts of the giant reptiles. "One example of many," he writes, "describes the schooner Roe arriving in San Francisco during March 1851 with over 25,000 pounds of terrapin from the Galapagos. Another example from May 1855 describes the schooner WA Tarlton arriving from the Galapagos with 580 terrapin onboard. This account suggests that terrapin entrepreneurs were more interested in the economic benefit of tortoises than their comfort, as 580 terrapin would have made for a cramped quarters on a schooner."

The huge animals brought huge prices, Conrad reports. And restaurants throughout the region offered them on menus.

Even naturalist Charles Darwin, who famously visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, proclaimed that "young tortoises make capital soup."

Downsides And Upsides

What were some of the other results of the Gold Rush? we asked Conrad. "One of the primary impacts that still resonates," he tells NPR, "is the environmental degradation wrought upon the San Francisco Bay Area and San Joaquin Valley. Native wild animal populations were almost entirely wiped out for some species, such as tule elk, or were heavily over-exploited for others, such as native Pacific oysters. Mercury contamination in water and soil is still prevalent throughout this region, a long-lasting effect of gold mining."

Surely, there were positive effects, as well.

Yes, he says. "California became a state, and for the first time an outlet to the Pacific, and the rest of the world, was opened on our Western shores. Americans began to flock west, and rapidly new states, new industries and new economic growth occurred. The Gold Rush had a direct influence on the establishment of San Francisco, and more generally California, as a hub for international commerce and trade."

Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.