The Cultural History of the Olympia Oyster by Ed Echtle


Oyster Table at Percival LandingFor millennia, the  native people of Puget Sound relied on the Olympia Oyster as a key part of their food supply.  Its abundance in South Sound gave the Squaxin people a valuable asset to share and trade with their neighbors and allies throughout the region.

When American settlers arrived on Puget Sound in the mid-1800s, they also depended on shellfish as a staple food.  Very early on, Olympia Oysters became an export product, allowing the development of one of Washington’s most enduring industries.

Despite early overharvesting, environmental threats and political controversies, the Olympia Oyster remained an important cultural icon that continues to symbolize the area to the present.  Its importance to the diverse peoples and natural environment of Washington throughout history makes its story key to understanding this place.

Natural History

1948 map of Olympia Harbor, NOAAIce Age glaciation over thousands of years shaped the inland waterways that comprise Puget Sound. When the last glaciers receded 11,000 years ago, the many channels left behind filled with seawater, allowing shellfish and other marine life to populate the inlets. Olympia Oysters are found from Alaska to Baja California.1 The numerous shallow bays of South Puget Sound provide...

The numerous shallow bays of South Puget Sound provide ideal habitat for Olympias. In the mild climate, spawning begins in May and continues through August.2 Despite their small size, Olympia Oysters require several years to reach full maturity and may live as long as fifty years.3

Olympia Oysters are sensitive to environmental factors and mainly grow below mean low tide where they are always covered with water. They require clean water to thrive and naturally occurring temperature extremes sometimes damage them.4 If frozen while tide is out in winter, oysters may float to the surface as a mass on an incoming tide resulting in a large die-off and a feast for gulls.5

Native Uses

Lester and Johnny John 1880-1920, Washington State Digital ArchivesLocal native peoples referred to the Olympia Oyster as "Kloch Kloch". Ancient piles of discarded shells throughout south Puget Sound show the Olympia Oyster has always been a key part of native peoples’ diet in this region. At what is now Olympia, a Squaxin village called bəsčətxwəd meaning “a place that has bears” existed well into the 1850s. Located on the original shoreline on what is now...

Located on the original shoreline on what is now Columbia St, one early settler described it as, “…about a dozen one-story frame cabins … covered with split-cedar siding, well ventilated, but healthy.”6

For millennia, the south end of Steh-Chass, later called Budd Inlet by whites, was very shallow, and low tide exposed vast mudflats teaming with shellfish, much like neighboring Noo-She-Chatl (Henderson Inlet), Squi-Aitl (Eld Inlet) and T’Peeksin (Totten Inlet).

Although its original source is unclear, a saying used throughout the Pacific Northwest is, “when the tide is out the table is set,” referring to the abundance of food contained in the tidelands.

The Squaxin people who lived on the inlets gathered mussels, clams and oysters and granted harvesting rights to other tribes in exchange for access to food-gathering sites they controlled. Scattered along the shores of Steh-Chass/Budd Inlet were seasonal villages, used by visiting Chehalis, Duwamish, Nisqually, Skokomish, and Suquamish, among others. Tribes from east of the Cascade Mountains also travelled to South Sound to gather shellfish, trade, and strengthen family and social bonds, a tradition that continues today.7

American Settlement

Oyster shucking 1909, Washington State Historical SocietyWhen American settlers first arrived in late 1845, it was too late in the season to plant crops so they relied heavily on shellfish. Andrew J Chambers, who arrived in 1847, recalled oysters were critical to settlers’ survival their first winters here.8 Thomas Prather recalled that in 1853, “There was a big band of Indians camped on the west side, coming to this side in canoes for the purpose of...

bartering fish, oysters and berries for sugar, flour, bacon and calico.”9

The importance of shellfish to American relocating to Puget Sound is also reflected in the song, “The Old Settler” written by Olympia Mayor Francis Henry in 1874. It catalogues the hardships faced by settlers, but concludes with the verse:

No longer a slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams,
And I think of my happy condition,
Surrounded by Acres of Clams

By 1854 settlers increasingly encroached on traditional native food gathering resources. In December, Washington’s first territorial governor Isaac Stevens concluded the first of several regional treaties at Medicine Creek, a few miles east of Olympia. Stevens appointed representatives from among the natives and grouped smaller bands under new tribal designations. The Squaxin Tribe was formed out of several smaller bands that lived along South Puget Sound inlets. In exchange for their agreeing to allow American settlement, the Governor guaranteed natives’ right to continue gathering food “in common” with American settlers in their “usual and accustomed places.”10

However, by late 1855 some Western Washington natives angered by the treaty terms attacked settlers and fought US troops and volunteer militiamen into 1856. Settlers in Olympia built fortifications and banished all natives from the town. Many Squaxin people spent the conflict in an internment camp on Squaxin Island, just north of Olympia. After the war, natives returned to Olympia to work and trade, but new town laws prohibited their residence in city limits. Afterwards they resided in nearby camps along the shores of Budd Inlet and continued to provide labor and trade gathered foods with American settlers.

Early Oystering in Washington

Delivering oysters to the steamship, ©The Susan Parish Collection/Shadow Catchers The first people to offer oysters for sale were natives. George Blankenship recalled native women harvested oysters in the mud flats around Olympia for sale or trade for clothing or other household goods.11 Gathering took place at low tide, day or night. Some natives built fires on sleds with iron tops to provide light and warmth as they harvested.12 Pioneer Olympia merchant Gustave Rosenthal recalled, “… oysters were sold only by Indian women, carrying a basket of a quarter bushel on their backs, supported by a strap across their foreheads.”13  Others remembered native women sitting along streets in Olympia with hand-woven baskets filled with oysters for sale. After the advent of automobiles and highways, some natives sold shellfish in hand-woven traditional baskets to tourists on the steps of the State Capitol building.14

Early Chinese immigrants also took up small-scale oyster harvesting, in competition with natives. Chinese arrived in Olympia by the early 1850s. Barred by whites to work in direct competition with white male labor, oyster gathering was one of the few opportunities available to them. Competition with native oyster harvesters led to an informal agreement between the two groups: Chinese gathered Oysters in the tide flats south of Fourth Ave while natives gathered to the north.15

The first large-scale export of oysters from Washington began at Willapa Bay, on the Washington coast. During and after the 1849 California Gold Rush, demand for oysters in the boomtown of San Francisco created a thriving trade. While Olympia Oysters were small, (2400 shucked oysters per gallon,) they were prized for their unique “coppery” taste and became a traditional food for celebrations of financial success.16

At Willapa, natives worked for American entrepreneurs, providing the main source of labor in the oyster beds.17 However, the “oyster boom” at Willapa soon led to overharvesting and a need for regulation. The first Washington Territorial Legislature passed laws in 1854 requiring permits for harvesting unless the harvester was a resident of Washington, and later banned all harvest by nonresidents.18

Puget Sound Industry Beginnings

Oyster Bay Claims 1893, Washington State Digital ArchivesInitially oysters growing in south Puget Sound were too remote to survive transport to California by sailing ship. As settlement of the northwest continued, demand for oysters increased in the region, especially in Seattle and Portland. By the 1860s entrepreneurs looked at South Puget Sound oysters as the next great extraction industry. To promote the idea, local press...

To promote the idea, local press referred to the tidelands as “oyster mines.”19

The first known commercial export of Oysters from South Sound was by Adam Korter, from Oyster Bay in Totten Inlet, but the effort failed to generate much interest.20 Olympia merchant Gustave Rosenthal began buying oysters from native women in 1868 for sale to restaurants around Puget Sound with better results.21

By the 1870s enough people were engaged in oyster harvesting that the Territorial Legislature passed a measure granting exclusive use of up to ten acres of oyster beds to applicants in order to prevent “claim jumping” by competing harvesters.22 The ability to secure legal claim, if not ownership, encouraged oyster harvesters to make improvements on the tidelands. In 1878 AB Rabbeson, RP Shoecraft  and TC Van Epps founded the Olympia Oyster Company, the first incorporated oyster company on Puget Sound.23 Later that year Joseph Gale, AJ Smith and David Helser came to Oyster Bay from Olympia and established an oyster business.24 Just two years later, local producers shipped $100,000 of local oysters to Portland Oregon via the recently completed railroad.25

The rapid increase in harvesting on South Puget Sound inlets led to a sharp decline in the natural oyster population as early as 1881. Oyster growers quickly realized they had to regulate the harvest before oysters disappeared from local waters. That year Gale, Taylor, Smith and ten others, founded the Puget Sound Oyster Association (PSOA) to coordinate the industry. PSOA oversaw the restoration of oyster beds and advocated practices to better maintain the oyster population.26

After Washington achieved statehood in 1889, the legislature passed the “Callow Act” allowing the purchase of oyster tideland from the state. The state required purchasers to file a survey and map of their land with their application. After 1918 the state also established “seed grounds” or reserves where harvest was banned to maintain spawning stocks.27 These measures further protected the investments of growers in their oyster beds spurring growth in the industry.28

Oystering Families

Earl G, John and Earl Brenner Jr., The Rise and Decline of the Olympia OysterThe physical demands and round-the-clock schedule of oyster cultivation and processing made early shellfish enterprises family affairs. Squaxin families were among the first to enter the rapidly industrializing oyster business. The Charley, John, Jackson, Kettle, Krise, Simmons, Slocum, Tobin and Wohaut families not only harvested oysters on Eld, Totten and Little Skookum Inlets...

The Charley, John, Jackson, Kettle, Krise, Simmons, Slocum, Tobin and Wohaut families not only harvested oysters on Eld, Totten and Little Skookum Inlets west of Olympia, they also filed official land claims as soon as they were able and constructed culling houses, floats and other structures and developed contracts with shippers as the industry developed.29

The small numbers of white settlers engaged in the early oyster business on rural Eld and Totten Inlets fostered interdependence between white and native families and intermarriage was common. Adam Korter began his oyster business with his native wife in the early 1860s. Joe Gale, another founder of the industry, married Katie Kettle, a member of a prominent Squaxin family. English immigrant Harry Weatherall married Sallie, a Squaxin woman. Married couples worked in partnership and in some instances native women were able to control land themselves.30 In the case of Katie Gale, courts awarded her and their children ownership of half their oyster claim after a divorce from Joe.31 However, after oysterman Harry Weatherall died, Sallie was unable to convince courts they were legally married and his relatives inherited their claim.32

Others taking out early oyster claims on South Sound inlets included SK Taylor, Jesse Bowman, AS Ruth, William H. Kneeland, David H Helser, J Y Waldrip, Charles Brenner, Simmons, CN Allen, CR Talcott, John Blass, AD Simmons, WJ Doane, JJ Brenner, and EN Steele; also, J. H. Deer, Dan & Dennis Hurley, Thomas O'Neil and AL McDonald.33 While not all lived on the bays, those who did comprised a tightly-knit community bound together through economic interdependence, marriage and other social ties.

“Famous Oysters”

Crane’s Café in Olympia 1950, ©The Susan Parish Collection/Shadow CatchersHow oysters found the length of the Pacific Coast of North America acquired the name “Olympia Oysters” remains unclear. While restaurants featuring local oysters in Olympia date nearly to the earliest settlement, it wasn’t until Captain Woodbury J Doane’s Oyster House opened in Olympia in the 1880s that “Olympia Oysters” gained wide notoriety.

Born in Maine, Doane went to sea as a young man. He arrived in California in time for the 1849 Gold Rush, but soon returned to work on steamboats in British Columbia during the Fraser River Gold Rush. After Doane relocated to Olympia, he opened his Oyster House Restaurant on the southwest corner of Fifth and Washington. Initially Doane and his sons raked, processed and cooked the oysters themselves; later he employed Chinese cooks.34 By the 1890s Doane’s Oyster House garnered a wide reputation as a must-visit eatery due his widely praised “Oyster Pan Roast.”

While Doane was outgoing and jovial, he kept his oyster pan-roast recipe a closely guarded secret. Some suspected Doane’s Chinese cooks were responsible for the recipe, enhancing the oysters with techniques and seasonings unknown to Doane.35 In one interview, Doane admitted his “secret” was the addition of an “imported sauce.”36

Doane’s Oyster House became popular among legislators who discussed political affairs over plates of oysters. Several attempts by other Washington cities to remove the Capitol from Olympia for themselves were countered by “pro-Olympia” Oyster feeds, conducted throughout Washington by local boosters. Earl Steele gave this account in 1957:

[The location of the capitol] was put to a vote of the people and the contest became very spirited. The people of Olympia got their heads together and planned a campaign; they arranged for public meetings in many of the most populated points in Eastern Washington, supplied themselves with a goodly quantity of oysters and the battle was on. Their arguments why the Capital should remain in Olympia were many and forcefully stated, but the clinching argument was the oyster dinner following the meeting. They created a warmth and friendly spirit and the oysters were so well liked that much publicity was given, not only to the merit of the arguments, but to the merit of the oysters. Olympia won the election, and the oyster dinners were given the credit."37

The practice led some in the press to dub the Oyster Olympia’s “succulent lobbyist.”38 Steele believed this campaign, along with Olympia being the largest town close to the most productive beds, led to the name.39

However, an earlier account by pioneer oysterman Joseph Gale adds another layer to the story of how the Olympia Oyster got its name. To promote sales early in the industry, Gale stated, “…we sent 50 boxes to San Francisco and found nobody knew anything about them. At first they wouldn’t sell. Then we hired men to go into restaurants and call for Olympia Oysters and thus worked up a field for them.”40

Industry Growth

The JJ Brenner Oyster Company in 1914, Washington State Historical SocietyWhile small-scale processing happened at the oyster beds, companies including the JJ Brenner Oyster Co, Olympia Oyster Company and the Olympia Packing Co. built processing plants in Olympia, nearer to railroad and the port for shipping.41 The first, opened by Brenner in 1893, was located along Fourth Avenue west of downtown.42 Others soon followed...

The first, opened by Brenner in 1893, was located along Fourth Avenue west of downtown.42 Others soon followed choosing sites near Brenner’s and close to the recently completed Northern Pacific railroad station.43 Built before filling created land north of West Fourth Avenue, these structures were built on pilings, allowing boats to offload oysters directly to the processing plants.

Increasing demand for oysters and unusually cold winter weather led to growers to adopt the “French Parking System” in 1895 to protect oysters from extreme weather conditions and maximize production. They built dikes and terraced the tideland to keep water on the oysters even at low tide, minimizing the risk of freezing in the winter months. Growers also diked and bedded tidelands that had no natural oyster populations, creating artificial beds.44

In 1909 the Olympia Oyster Investment Co., Inc., was incorporated by W. H. Kneeland J. Y. Waldrip, O. C. Hanson and became the largest oyster company in Washington State.45 That year also saw Olympia Oysters shipped as far east as Chicago.46 Olympia Oyster growers also mounted an exhibit for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Worlds’ Fair in Seattle, which included a scale model of oyster beds and processing facilities on South Sound.47

Harvest and Processing

Oystermen and shell piles ca. 1915, ©The Susan Parish Collection/Shadow CatchersThe process of harvest and processing oysters changed little in more than a century. Oyster harvest takes place in nearly all weather conditions and much of the work is still best done by hand.48 In a 1974 interview Dick Helser, whose father began working oyster beds in 1878, described the harvesting process as cold, wet and exhausting, as harvest took place at low tide, day or night.49

To begin, harvesters position floats over oyster beds at high tide, then fork oysters into the float after the tide recedes. When high tide returned, they poled the floats to culling houses anchored in the bay.50 Oysters were then transferred to “sink floats” described as “an upside down float containing two feet of water to keep the oysters fresh.”51

Cora Gingrich Chase described the process:

From the sinkfloat they were forked into a wheelbarrow, rolled into the culling house, up a plank, and dumped onto the culling table. All day long the cullers sorted out the large oysters, knocking off smaller oysters, barnacles and debris with a culling iron (a thin piece of metal, easily grasped.) and dropping the marketable oysters into a five-gallon kerosene can, then raked the cullings down the hopper at the edge of the table. The cullings were forked onto a float and bedded by forking them into the water over the ground from which [they were] taken up.52

Pioneer oysterman JJ Brenner also described oyster processing in 1908:

The much-sought bivalve is raked from its bed by tongs, and all sizes, ages and kinds are thrown in a heap at the bottom of a float. From this they are gathered into piles for assortment, the cull and young oysters being thrown back upon the beds and the marketable oysters put up into bags containing 115 pounds each. After the oysters are gathered, sorted and sacked they are shipped to Olympia; where they are turned out to the openers to be shucked and put up for the market. They are opened into quart measures and placed into pans to be washed. They are then put up in tubs, pails and cans and shipped.53

Early producers sometimes rowed their oysters to Olympia from their oyster beds. By the late 1800s steamboats plied the waters between Shelton and Olympia carrying passengers, freight and mail, stopping in the bays to take on passengers and cargo. Later, as the oyster industry developed, a number of boats built specifically for this purpose took over transporting oysters to processing. After gas and diesel powered boats appeared on Puget Sound in the early 1900s, the larger  oyster firms built and operated  their own launches called “tenders” to ferry oysters to town and workers to the bays.

The grueling work took its toll on laborers; drowning, exposure and injury impacted the workforce on occasion. In 1914, Chinese immigrant Locke Mai lost his life falling from an oyster float at Henderson Inlet.54 While working on an oyster scow at Mud Bay, Y Watanabe slipped overboard and drowned when his oyster boots filled with water.55 County records list the names of others who lost their lives working the oyster beds as well.

Asian Labor & Families

Joe Miyagi ©The Susan Parish Collection/Shadow CatchersAs the oyster industry expanded, need for outside labor increased. Like other industries, oyster producers turned to Chinese contract laborers beginning in the 1880s. In Olympia, several Chinese contracting companies including Hong Hai, Sun Wo, Hong Yek Kee and Quong Yuen Sang acted as brokers between companies and the laborers. During harvest these laborers resided...

During harvest these laborers resided in float-houses and bunkhouses near the oyster beds.

While documentation of individual names are few, they do appear occasionally in records. Tom Kee worked as foreman for Joseph and Katie Gale’s oyster beds.56 Cora Gingrich Chase, who lived on oyster bay in the early 1900s, recalled hearing Chinese men sing to pass the time as they worked.57

After congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law limiting immigration of “unskilled” laborers, the oyster industry turned to  Japanese immigrant labor.58 Initially hired through the same Chinese contractors, they eventually developed their own contracting networks and worked throughout the oyster industry. By the 1930s Japanese Oyster workers were the dominant labor force in the oyster beds and culling houses.59

As early as 1920 there were  approximately twenty Japanese families residing at Mud Bay and Oyster Bay.60 Many Japanese came intending to stay permanently, and began families. These families also worked collectively in the oyster business. A few made inroads as leaders in the industry: in 1935 the Yoshihara family in Mason County incorporated the West Coast Oyster Company despite laws forbidding land ownership by Japanese non-citizens.61

Changing Fortunes

Land grading at Oyster Bay, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW5780By the late 1800s, increased population and new industries around Budd Inlet impacted the Olympia Oyster population on Budd Inlet. Sewers drained directly into the bay and industrial waste made shellfish in Budd Inlet unsafe to eat.62 Meanwhile, extensive harbor dredging operations from the 1890s onward further decimated shellfish populations.

Even in the relatively unpolluted waters of the other inlets, unsustainable practices negatively affected oyster populations. Initially, harvesters took the best oysters and simply dumped young oyster “culls” on beach.63 Further, removal of shells degraded habitat necessary for oyster reproduction.64 Over  time, harvesters adopted more sustainable practices, but other challenges followed.

The reduction of the Olympia Oyster populations led the industry to introduce non-native oysters to meet demands. As early as the 1890s, growers transplanted the Eastern Oyster to Willapa Bay. Larger and faster-growing than the Olympia Oyster, it was introduced to Puget Sound as well. In 1899 oyster growers also attempted to transplant Pacific Oysters  from Japan. After several failed attempts it began proliferating locally by the 1920s, further displacing Olympia Oysters.65

Additionally, new species of predators arrived with the transplanted oysters including the Oyster Drill Snail. The comparatively slow growth of Olympia Oysters, coupled with its susceptibility to these new threats further accelerated the Olympia’s decline.66

In 1927 a wood pulp mill for paper production opened at Shelton. Soon after, waste “liquor” sulfites dumped into Puget Sound damaged shellfish populations in nearby inlets, especially the sensitive Olympia Oyster. Oyster growers sued the mill in 1931 and courts ordered the mill to dump its waste inland.67 However, sulfites continued to wash into Puget Sound. Public protests by oyster growers in Shelton against the mill were opposed by millworkers who pelted them with fruit.68

The prominence of the oyster industry made its leaders prominent community leaders as well. In 1932 pioneer oysterman Earl N Steele was elected Mayor of Olympia.69 During his term in office, the historic US Frigate Constitution visited Olympia as part of a tour of the Pacific Coast to raise funds for its preservation. The large celebration at Olympia included specially minted “Oyster Money” for use in town by visitors in the form of oyster-shaped tokens. Oyster Money was  legal tender in Olympia during Constitution’s ten-day visit.70

By the end of the 1930s, the Olympia Oyster’s waning numbers, small size and sensitivity to pollution made it a tiny part of shellfish production on Puget Sound. However, rapid changes brought about by war and recovery in coming years set the stage for its return.

WWII and After

Shortly after Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor naval base at Hawaii, US authorities barred all people of Japanese ancestry from the west coast. The War Relocation Authority sent Japanese at Olympia and Oyster Bay to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California. During the war, the oyster industry hired white women to replace Japanese workers in the culling and opening plants.

Unlike their male counterparts, women were paid by the piece, with no benefits or overtime pay.71

War with Japan also ended the import of Pacific Oyster seed from Japan.72 After the war, the oyster beds were in poor repair, due to the lack of experienced workers to tend them. Local oyster growers recruited experienced Japanese oyster workers to come to Olympia. Several families answered the call, including the Abo, Kajihara, Kanda, Marikawa, Sato and Yoshimura families; many continue their residence in the area to the present.73

Refrigerated trucks and better roads led the JJ Brenner Oyster Co and the Olympia Oyster Co to build new processing plants near their beds at Oyster Bay in the 1950s, leaving the aging Olympia plants derelict.74 The 1924 Olympia Oyster Co culling house became the Olympia Oyster House restaurant, remaining in business almost continuously since.75

The 1950s saw increased official attention paid to industrial pollution across America. A Federal Report listed Puget Sound as 6th most polluted waterway in US.76 In 1953 a mysterious ailment nearly ended the remaining Olympia Oyster production.77 Conditions in South Puget Sound inlets began to improve after 1957 when the pulp mill in Shelton shut down. Almost immediately, South Sound shellfish populations showed signs of recovery.78

By the 1950s, canned oysters from Asia entered the American Market, driving down prices. To compete, American oyster growers refocused their efforts on the fresh oyster market.79 They renewed attempts to create a hatchery system and finally developed a successful hatchery at Quilcene, now [2013] the largest in the world. The oyster industry, in collaboration with the State of Washington, also developed hatcheries at Totten Inlet and elsewhere on Puget Sound.80

Despite the renewed growth and stability in the local oyster Industry, commercial yields of Olympia Oysters in Washington State dropped by more than 98% between 1881 and 1961.81 Reliance on larger and hardier Pacific and Eastern oysters made marketing Olympia Oysters a low priority. However, Olympia Oysters retained their cachet as a status food, and a small “boutique” market kept it part of production. In the 1970s scientists finally developed the first reliable hatchery methods for Olympias, setting the stage for its future return to wider use.82

By the 1970s, popular support for cleaning up industrial pollution in America swelled. In 1972 the US passed the Clean Water Act, requiring the monitoring of industrial waste flowing into waterways.83 Additionally, environmentalists began examining the effects waste from failing septic systems and runoff from household chemicals, leading to legislation managing these issues as well.84 The oyster industry’s understanding of the effects of pollution on oysters made them leading advocates for measures promoting clean water.

Changing Tides

Hanging oyster growing system, ©The Susan Parish Collection/Shadow CatchersAs the industry grew, many native tideland owners’ families sold off their oyster beds to larger companies. However, natives continued shellfish gathering to supplement their incomes. Over the ensuing decades, property-owners increasingly blocked their access to natural beds on privately-owned tidelands.

By the 1950s and 1960s, northwest native peoples increased political agitation for enforcement of the 1850s treaties’ guarantee of “equal access” to gather food in “usual and accustomed places.” Northwest tribes engaged in a series of “fish ins” and other acts of civil-disobedience to demand their rights.

In 1974 Federal Judge George Boldt affirmed the treaty-guaranteed equal access to resources for natives.85 In response to the ruling, native entrepreneurship in seafood industry again bloomed. Locally, the Squaxin people purchased the existing Harstine Oyster Company and renamed it Salish Seafoods, developing shellfish farms along the shores of South Sound inlets in tidelands harvested by their families for centuries.86

In 1994 the courts agreed the treaties guaranteed equal access to naturally-occurring oysters on privately-held tidelands as well.87 Rather than fight the law, natives and the oyster industry forged a partnership where all parties shared responsibility for managing and harvesting shellfish. Since that time industrial shellfish producers increasingly work in cooperation with tribes to ensure protection of environmental conditions needed to sustain oyster proliferation.

Stewardship and the Return of Olympia Oysters

Booklet illustration, Washington State Historical SocietyIn recent decades, new influxes of immigrant workers filled the need for seasonal labor in the shellfish industry formerly the domain of Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Southeast Asians fleeing economic and political oppression in the 1970s and 1980s became an important workforce in the industry. More recently, Hispanic workers have become a key part of the shellfish industry...

More recently, Hispanic workers have become a key part of the shellfish industry labor pool and many now live and raise families in Mason and Thurston Counties.88

In the 1990s scientists as well as environmental advocates recognized the importance of Olympia Oysters as a “keystone species,”  an important indicator of Puget Sound’s overall environmental health. Gradually, researchers developed a greater understanding of its crucial role in maintaining appropriate habitat for other marine life, as well as providing an important food source for diverse aquatic species..89

With that recognition, a collaborative effort between many stakeholders, including the Squaxin, Skokomish, and Suquamish tribes, as well as oyster growers and the State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife began efforts to reestablish Olympia Oysters. Drawing on surviving “remnant populations” found in isolated tidelands, the effort has spawned renewed populations of Olympia Oysters.90

In the 21st Century Olympia Oysters are  making a comeback. At present, they remain a small part of shellfish  production as other species still generate greater profits. But many tideland farmers make an effort to keep and grow Olympias as a connection to place and history. “For them, it’s a labor of love,” says Bruce Brenner, great-grandson of oyster pioneer JJ Brenner.91

The Olympia Oyster’s deep connection with the history of Olympia and South Puget Sound cements its status as a distinctly northwest food. Understanding its uses through time, its cultural significance, and the environmental stewardship that led to its ongoing recovery offers numerous lessons in public and private resource management and changing environmental values. If the lessons take hold, it may remain the case that, “when the tide is out, the table is set.”

  • 1Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 2Kincaid, “Oyster Culture in Washington” in Transactions of the Pacific Fisheries Society at its Second Annual Meeting, 1915. Seattle, The Society, 1916.
  • 3Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 4Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 5Frank Mossman, “Early Days in Mason County” in Told by the Pioneers; Tales of Frontier Life As Told by Those Who Remember the Days of the Territory and Early Statehood of Washington Volume II, Works Progress Administration, 1938, 217.
  • 6Hubert Howe Bancroft and Frances Fuller Victor,  History of Washington, Idaho and Montana, 1845-1889.  San Francisco:  The History Company, 1890,  55.
  • 7Llyn DeDanaan, email correspondence with author, 21 December 2012.
  • 8Chambers, Andrew Jackson, and Margaret White Chambers. Recollections. Fairfield, Wash: Ye Galleon Press, 1975., 25-26.
  • 9Blankenship, Georgiana Mitchell. Early History of Thurston County, Washington: Together with Biographies and Reminiscences of Those Identified with Pioneer Days. 1914., 136.
  • 10Clifford Trafzer, “Washington’s Native American Communities” in White, Sid, and S. E. Solberg. Peoples of Washington: Perspectives on Cultural Diversity. Pullman, Wash: Washington State University Press, 1989, 10.
  • 11Blankenship, Lights and Shades, 85-86.
  • 12Frank Mossman, “Early Days in Mason County” in Told By the Pioneers, Volume II, 217.
  • 13Blankenship, George E. Lights and Shades of Pioneer Life on Puget Sound. Olympia, Wash: [s.n.], 1923., 197.
  • 14Karen Johnson, personal communication with author, 25 January 2013; Squaxin Museum Display.
  • 15Budd Inlet originally extended to Tumwater.  A dam on 5th Avenue built in the early 1950s created Capitol Lake .  Steele, Earl N. The Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster. Elma, Wash: Fulco Publications, 1957, 9.
  • 16Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 17Bancroft, Hubert Howe, and Frances Fuller Victor. History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845-1889. San Francisco: History Co, 1890, 347.
  • 18Bancroft, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845-1889, 347.
  • 19“Oyster Mines” Puget Sound Herald, 13 May 1859.
  • 20Prosser, A History of the Puget Sound Country, 256; “Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 153.
  • 21“G Rosenthal Tells of Pioneer Times” Olympia Record, 20 June 1918; Blankenship, Lights and Shades, 197.
  • 22Bancroft, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845-1889, 347.
  • 23Rathbun, John C. History of Thurston Co., Washington. Olympia, Wash: [s.n.], 1895., 73; Newell, Gordon R. So Fair a Dwelling Place: A History of Olympia and Thurston County, Washington. [Olympia, Wash.]: G.R. Newell, 1985., 83; Newell, Gordon R. Rogues, Buffoons & Statesmen. Seattle: Hangman Press, 1975, 82; “Thurston County Oyster Industry,” The Coast, 1909, 153.
  • 24Prosser, William Farrand. A History of the Puget Sound Country, Its Resources, Its Commerce and Its People: with Some Reference to Discoveries and Explorations in North America from the Time of Christopher Columbus Down to That of George Vancouver in 1792, Vol. I. New York: Lewis Pub. Co, 1903, 286; “Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 153; Chase, Cora G. The Oyster Was Our World: Life on Oyster Bay, 1898-1914. Seattle: Shorey Book Store, 1976., 11.
  • 25Bancroft, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana: 1845-1889, 348.
  • 26“Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 153-54.
  • 27“Thurston County Oyster Industry,” The Coast, 1909, 154; Gordon, David G., Nancy E. Blanton, and Terry Y. Nosho. Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Northwest's Love Affair with the Oyster. Seattle, Wash: Washington Sea Grant Program, 2001., 60.
  • 28“Thurston County Oyster Industry,” The Coast, 1909, 153.
  • 29Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 15-16.
  • 30Llyn De Danaan, “Tideland Tales” Columbia Magazine, v21, No 3, (Fall 2007): online at, accessed 28 November 2012.
  • 31Chase, The Oyster Was Our World, 83.
  • 32“Picturesque Character of State Passes” Morning Olympian, 26 June 1913.
  • 33Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 16.
  • 34Locke Suey Kay, aka Charley Kay worked for Doane as a teenager.  He later worked at the Hotel Olympian and opened Kays Café in 1941.  Author interview with Bill & Toy Kay, 1997.
  • 35“Memory of Doane’s Oyster Pan Roast Still Lingers” Morning Olympian, 1 November 1922.
  • 36“Olympia Oyster Chat” Tacoma Daily News, 2 November 1897.
  • 37Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 32-33.
  • 38Stevenson, Shanna. Olympia, Tumwater, and Lacey: A Pictorial History. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Co, 1996., 54.
  • 39Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 33.
  • 40“Olympia Oyster Chat” Tacoma Daily News, 2 November 1897.
  • 41“Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 154.
  • 42Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 50.
  • 43Bruce Brenner, interview with author, 23 January 2013.
  • 44“Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 155; “Olympia the Center and Sole Shipping Point of the Great Oyster Industry” Olympia Record, 29 July 1909, 10.
  • 45“Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 154.
  • 46“The Famous Olympia Oysters” Morning Olympian, 30 October 1910.
  • 47“Olympia the Center and Sole Shipping Point of the Great Oyster Industry” Olympia Record, 29 July 1909, 10.
  • 48Chase, Oyster Was Our World, 10.
  • 49“Bivalves” in How the West Was Once: A History of West Olympia. Olympia: Jefferson Junior High School, 1974, 22-25.
  • 50Frank Mossman, “Early Days in Mason County” in Told By the Pioneers, Volume II, 218.
  • 51Chase, Oyster was our world, 10.
  • 52Chase, Oyster was our world, 10.
  • 53“Thurston County Oyster Industry” The Coast, March 1909, 154.
  • 54“Recover Body of China Boy Drowned at Oyster Beds” Olympia Record, 21 July 1914.
  • 55“Heavy Boots Drag Japanese to Death” Olympia Record, 21 July 1917.
  • 56Tom Kee’s father was Chinese and mother was native Umatilla from Oregon.  Llyn De Danaan, “Katie Gale’s Tombstone” Oregon Historical Quarterly, v106, n4, 650.
  • 57Chase, Oyster Was Our World, 21.
  • 58Smith (ed.) How the West Was Once, 23.
  • 59DeDanaan, personal communication with author, 28 December 2012.
  • 60DeDanaan, “Mountain of Shell”.
  • 61DeDanaan, “Mountain of Shell”.
  • 62“Thurston County Oyster Industry,” The Coast, 1909, 153.
  • 63Frank Mossman, “Early Days in Mason County” 218.
  • 64Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 65Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 67.
  • 66Bruce Brenner, interview with author, 23 January 2013.
  • 67Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 68Chase, Cora G. The Oyster Was Our World, 14.
  • 70Stevenson, Olympia Lacey Tumwater, 186.
  • 71DeDanaan, “Mountain of Shell”.
  • 72“PCSGA Chronology”
  • 73DeDanaan, “Mountain of Shell”.
  • 74Steele, Rise and Decline of the Olympia Oyster, 51.
  • 75“Olympia Oyster Company Packing and Storage Building” WA DAHP Historic Property Inventory Report No 34-873.
  • 76“PCSGA Chronology”
  • 77“PCSGA Chronology”
  • 78Tristan Peter-Contesse and Betsy Peabody, Reestablishing Olympia Oyster Populations In Puget Sound, Washington Washington Sea Grant Program, 2005
  • 79Gordon, 146-47, Bruce Brenner, interview with author, 23 January 2013.
  • 80Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 132.
  • 81Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 82Jacqueline White, Jennifer L. Ruesink* And Alan C. Trimble, “The Nearly Forgotten Oyster: Ostrea Lurida (Olympia Oyster) History And Management In Washington State” Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol. 28, No. 1, 43–49, 2009.
  • 83Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 129.
  • 84Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 130.
  • 85“Federal Judge George Boldt issues historic ruling affirming Native American treaty fishing rights on February 12, 1974” online at, accessed 6 December 2012.
  • 86 accessed 8 January 2013.
  • 87“Mason County -- Thumbnail History”
  • 88Bruce Brenner, interview with author, 23 January 2013.
  • 89Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 140.
  • 90Gordon, Heaven on the Half Shell, 141.
  • 91Bruce Brenner, interview with author, 23 January 2013.