Source - The Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review

The year 1897 witnessed a very widespread outbreak of the pearl mania, which extended through large areas previously unaffected by it, reproducing in the most marked form all the manifestations before seen elsewhere—the excitement seizing upon the whole population; the abandonment of the ordinary forms of steady labor; the flocking of thousands to the rivers and streams to gather Unios; the wholesale destruction of the mussels until the locality was "cleaned out;" the extravagant ideas of the value of the choice pearls obtained, and the disappointment of multitudes, who imagined that every irregular nacreous concretion that they had found was a valuable treasure.

The chief center of this excitement was Arkansas, which had never known it before. Thence it has extended west into the Indian Territory, and north into Missouri, while Georgia and portions of Tennessee have been largely affected. The press notices of all these, often highly sensational, led to more or less activity in other parts of the country. As the season was well advanced before the subject attracted much attention, it seems probable that the year 1898 will witness an unexampled furore of pearl hunting and that the shells will be practically exterminated for years .to come throughout much of the Mississippi Valley.
he portions of the State where the excitement has been most marked are the following: (1) A region of small "lakes," i. e., expansions of streams, situated chiefly in the southeastern part of While County, between White River, Cypress Bayou, and the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad; thence the excitement spread all up and down the valley of White River and its tributaries, passing into (2) the northeast portion of the State, along Black River, Cache River, and the great lakelike expanse of the St. Francis; (3) along the valley of the Arkansas and its tributaries from Little Rock eastward, and especially westward, to and into the Indian Territory, including mountain streams in Crawford County to the north and the valley of the Fourche to the south; (4) in the southern part of the State, along the Ouachita, Saline and Dorcheat rivers. Without entering into minute details, these may be regarded as the chief pearl districts, but in various other parts operations were carried on to a greater or less degree.

In one respect these Arkansas discoveries were novel and peculiar. A large proportion of the best pearls were found not by opening the shells, but lying in the mud of the shores or at the bottom of shallow waters. Often, indeed, they were found in or upon the soil at some distance from streams or lakes. This peculiar occurrence is partly explained by the wide extension of the waters in flood times over the low regions of the State and by the shifting of streams and isolation of "cut-offs;" but the facts indicate further that under some circumstances, probably of agitation by floods and freshets, the loose pear's are lost or shaken out from the Unios. A local impression prevails that the mussels "shed" them at certain seasons.

The fact that the pearls thus found were generally round and well formed; the aggregation in repeated instances of several or many near or together, and the non-occurrence of shells with them at these places—all point to the washing out of loose pearls from the Unios and their distribution by floods and freshets. So marked a feature, moreover, is their occurrence in the mud of the lakes and bayous that it is even proposed to employ steam dredges to take up the mud and pass it through sieves or other similar devices in the expectation of finding therein the pearl product of many generations of shells.

Some of the more striking incidents of this mode of occurrence may be noted as follows: One of the latest announcements, in October, was that Mr. J. W. Mcintosh, of Lonoke- County, while diguing post-holes in the bed of Cypress Bayou, three miles south of the town of Beebe, White County, found a number of pearls, some as large as a "44 caliber Winchester ball," at a depth of of feet below the surface. The pearls were lying together, but with no shells. Mr. Mcintosh had refused a handsome offer for them, but was at last accounts still at work on his land. Another instance is that of a fisherman picking up a dozen pearls in a very short time by simply reaching over the edge of his boat as it lay by the shore of Walker Lake and taking them up from the bottom. Mr. T. J. Sharum, of Walnut Ridge, Lawrence County, which was the central trade point for the pearl hunting along Black and Cache rivers, emphasizes the fact that the pearls taken from the mussels were chiefly from young shells; hence it is believed that the old ones lose or "shed" them, and some propose to use a road scraper next season to take up the mud and obtain the pearls that have accumulated in it. Many other accounts are given of pearls found on or in the soil, or in the mud, from the first main discovery in White County to various parts of the State.

Arkansas pearls were by no means unknown before, but they had not attracted any attention. On the contrary, they had been picked up for years by the country people and used merely as playthings and "luck stones" among the children, with no idea of their value. Some, indeed, had been gathered and recognized, but the discoverers had kept quiet about them to avoid creating a "rush." Some 20 years ago pearls had been found by a party of men who were cutting cedar poles on White River; in 1888 a brilliant pear shaped pink pearl weighing 27 grains was found by a fisherman on White River and sold to Judge E. S. C. Lee, of Augusta, Ark., who had it mounted as a scarf pin and has worn it ever since; in 1805 a surveying party on White River obtained pearls to the value (it is said) of $5,000; and country lads of the region have pearls in their possession up to 50 grains in weight, which they have picked up from time to time and used as marbles.
Other accounts of separate origin are reported from several points. An inmate of the Confederate Soldiers' Home, near Little Rock, while on a leave of absence, obtained some pearls on the Saline River; finding them to be valuable, he applied for an extension of furkjugn; and soon the story got abroad, and the furore began all along that stream. At the other end of the State, on Black River, a farmer while fishing opened a shell for bait, and found a pink pearl; this was late in July. A local jeweler gave him $25 for it and sold it in St. Louis for $200. The craze broke out in consequence, and the Black and Cache Rivers were soon lined with pearl hunters. About the middle of September, Mr. J. M. Pass, a well known planter, while fishing in Dorcheat Lake, Columbia County (the southwestern part of the State), opened a few mussels as an experiment, and obtained four good pearls; one of these he sold for $125, and the usual excitement arose through the entire neighboring region.

In these ways the pearl hunting mania was started, and spread from stream to stream. So complete was the absorption of the people in this pursuit, that the local papers at various points reported much difficulty and apprehension on the pearl hunters.