Gathering in Rivers and Streams main content.

Gathering in Rivers and Streams

Part of the Pearls exhibition.

American "Pearl Rushes"

Although some Native American cultures prized the freshwater pearls found in the mussels of the Mississippi River drainage basin, most European-Americans did not recognize the value of these pearls until the mid-1800s. Interest in the gems would typically increase following the discovery of a single, highly valuable pearl in an unexpected location. People taking part in these "pearl rushes" sometimes found additional pearls but often wiped out entire populations of freshwater pearl mussels in the process.

European Freshwater Pearls

Throughout history, the European Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) has been harvested for its pearls, particularly in northern Europe. Scottish pearls were especially prized; indeed, historians believe that Julius Caesar may have invaded Britain in part to gain access to the pearl beds of the Tay and Isla rivers in Scotland. Pearl fishing was also common in the rivers and streams of Germany, France, Austria, Norway, Sweden and Russia. In 19th-century Germany, pearl mussel beds were considered property of the German crown and were carefully guarded by a highly regulated contingent of pearling officers.