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Finnish Oystermen on Shoalwater Bay

Merle A. Reinikka

The Finns of Pacific County, Washington, are well-known for their contributions to the logging and salmon-fishing industries of Southwest Washington, dating back to the late 1870s.

Another notable industry in that location has been oyster farming. Since before 1870, Willapa Bay has been a rich commercial source of oysters. Many early-day immigrants "struck it rich" there by establishing homestead claims and harvesting oysters. Originally, it was called Shoalwater Bay, probably because of its shallow tidelands upon which the oysters flourished.

The 1870 U.S. Census lists ethnic groups at Oysterville and Bruceport, across the bay, engaged in oyster farming: Belgian, Norwegian, Prussian, Scottish, Danish, Swedish - but no Finnish. Finns were frequently known to be included in early census figures as Swedish and Russian immigrants, as their homeland was not yet recognized as a free nation.

A 1900 edition of the "South Bend Journal" documents the existence of two Finn sailors who became oystermen, however. One of them was born in northern Finland in 1839, and ran away to become a cabin boy at age 13. His captain chose to simplify his Finnish name and christened him Peter Peterson. Life at sea brought him across the Atlantic and around the Horn to San Francisco. Peterson returned to San Francisco in 1868 and began working his way up the West Coast. His arrival in Shoalwater Bay led him to a job with Espy & Co. of Oysterville, Washington. By 1882 he had saved up to go into business for himself at Bay Center, and was known to be involved in oyster farming as late as 1900.

A January 6, 1887, Astoria, Oregon, news item mentioned the accidental death of 21-year-old August Peterson, of Raahe, Finland. He had died enroute between Bruceport and Bay Center, when his "dinkey" (small rowboat) capsized in a squall. August's father was listed as a longtime resident of Oysterville, so it is likely that he and Peter Peterson were related.

Another Finnish oysterman in that locale was a former sailor, Zach Tarbell of Bay Center. Tarbell was acquainted with many major cities of Europe, Australia and South America, by the time he arrived in the U.S.A. in 1885. At the young age of 25, he had also survived two shipwrecks off the West Coast. Tarbell met and married Miss Addie F. Mills of Bay Center. He acquired 80 acres of productive oyster beds, and his annual shipments reached about 1,200 baskets. Tarbell's love of sailing apparently remained with him. His 35-foot sloop, "Undine", built in 1897, won the following four Astoria Regattas.

Published by Finnam Newsletter, January 1992

© Merle A. Reinikka

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