During the late nineteenth century, particularly between the years 1874–1877, farmers west of the Mississippi River were devastated by huge grasshopper swarms that transformed previously healthy farms and communities into wastelands. It is estimated that these plagues caused more than $200 million worth of agricultural damage, or $116 billion in contemporary value. This environmental disaster threatened the settlement of frontier places, many of which had been populated by the federal government's homestead policy designed to get agricultural lands into the hands of actual farmers rather than speculators. The agitation of these farmers led to the formation of a number of local groups to force the government to respond to the needs of so many suffering in the Midwest and Great Plains.
These plagues of locusts were the largest ever to hit North America and were the previous century's equivalent to the 1930s droughts and subsequent Dust Bowl. The Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, is a relatively small flying insect, measuring roughly 1.25 to 1.4 inches. Yet during the 1870s, they swarmed in the greatest concentration of insects ever recorded. One swarm measured 198,000 square miles, greater than the size of California, consisting of 12.5 trillion insects and weighing 27.5 million tons. The last congregation of these locusts was spotted near Manitoba, Canada, in 1902. These plagues are most famously depicted in fictional accounts such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.
These giant locust plagues formed from two unique environmental conditions coming together in the 1870s. Droughts marked the late 1860s and early 1870s, with 1875 being the driest year in recorded history to that point. Not only did these droughts cause economic hardships for farmers, but they also weakened their crops’ defenses and increased the nutritional value of the vegetation, causing sugar to concentrate in the leaves. The droughts suppressed fungal diseases that kept locust populations in check and accelerated their maturation. Thus, not only were more grasshoppers hatching, but they also were growing into adulthood faster, while the plants’ resistance to attack was lower.
These drought conditions were coupled with a unique Great Plains low-level jet stream, which meant plenty of wind and warm air. As one meteorologist noted, it was “one of the most prominent meteorological phenomena of the central United States” (Lockwood 23 ). A constant southerly wind allowed these olive-green insect swarms to congregate together, uniting to form massive swarms.
Moving up to 10 miles per day, the typical swarm consumed up to 50 tons of vegetation per day. The insects ate everything they could, from fabric and flesh to window blinds and paint. If remnants of human sweat were left on the wooden handles of farm implements, the bugs would eat these, too. Human beings and animals were often left bleeding with nicks on their throats and any exposed skin. Bats and small birds disappeared. Wells, ponds, and streams became undrinkable stews of dead locust bodies. The eggs and meat of chickens that ate these grasshoppers were inedible, giving off a “reddish-brown oil of a very pungent and penetrating odor” (Lockwood 3 ). Turkeys gorged themselves to death, while in contrast cattle and horses starved to death with little or no grains or grass left to sustain them. The smell of millions of dead locusts was almost unbearable. Farm families often faced starvation and economic ruin. In contemporary terms what would be known as a “fire sale” was called “grasshopper prices.”
The grasshopper plagues created difficult situations for farmers who lost their crops and were left with nothing but dead locusts. In their aftermath, these swarms left not only total devastation but also egg pods that would hatch the next year. A single square inch of soil could contain 150 eggs. As one Minnesota farmer estimated, “940,896,000 eggs to the acre, or the nice little pile of 6,586,272,000 on seven acres of my farm” (Risjord 121 ). These pods ensured that the cycle reoccurred the next year. To survive, many farmers had to eat the creatures that had destroyed their livelihoods. While the Ute, southern Paiute, and Shoshokos Indians had consumed grasshoppers as a part of their diets, white settlers in the region learned to fry them with butter, salt, and pepper.
Not only were farmers and townspeople of the region affected by the swarms, railroads were brought to a standstill in places. Trains killed so many bugs that the rails became too oily for anything to run on them, especially in areas that had steep grades. In Texas it was reported, “The cars for about ten days were so much obstructed on the Texas Central line as to necessitate their stopping occasionally to clear the track of the grasshoppers” (Irwin).
Most farmers and public officials realized that they could not battle these creatures on their own and needed government support if they were going to continue farming in the Midwest, especially the frontier areas. With huge groups of refugees and armed mobs stealing food and supplies, something had to be done. As a committee appointed to look into the matter in Altona, Missouri, noted, “We must have aid, or many will be compelled to abandon their crops. We have not seed to plant with, or the money to buy. The condition of our country is truly alarming. People have become discouraged; many are talking of leaving their homes; some are living on bread and water. Unless we get assistance from some quarter, many are bound to suffer” (Irwin). This appeal to the government was especially important as many settlers had been lured by the appeal of free government land under the Homestead Act or other land deals that gave Americans incentive to risk moving into these areas.
Things were at a crisis point. Farm ownership in Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Kansas fell by 50 percent in the 1870s as a legion of families moved away, their farms decimated by the grasshopper plagues. As a Missouri newspaper editor noted,
The owners having paid out all their money, sold everything they could get along without, and mortgaged their farms to get money to carry their stock through the winter and plant their crops, now are left with nothing to eat, their stock have starved to death, and they have no money, and no means of raising any by loan or mortgage, to buy food or to get away from here to more favored sections of the country. (Savage 235 )
When the locust swarms first appeared and slowly rolled across the Midwest and the Great Plains states, they caused the greatest damage in Kansas and Nebraska. The states’ responses at first were inadequate and inconsistent. Farmers and local townspeople formed relief committees and began to put pressure on state legislatures to act. Minnesota and Missouri were the first to pass legislation to pay bounties for locusts. The St. Paul legislature commissioned $5 per bushel of eggs and $1 per bushel for nymphs. Kansas, Minnesota, and Nebraska all passed bills authorizing townships, counties, and districts to have the right to conscript able-bodied men into forced labor to combat the pests. Various states passed relief measures to provide food allotments and seed grants for the next year. Yet the demand was greater than the funds allocated.
As the state governments of this region continued their appeals, Congress agreed to amend the Homestead Act to allow farmers whose crops were destroyed to leave their homestead for up to six months. General E. O. C. Ord, who sat on the Nebraska Relief and Aid Association board, passed out surplus army rations and clothing to settlers in Nebraska and Kansas. Finally, in 1875, Congress reacted by approving $150,000 in food and clothing and another $30,000 for seed distribution. It is estimated that 107,535 people received aid: 700 tons of pork, 1,000 tons of cornmeal, 150 tons of bean and sugar, 100 tons of coffee and tea, and 40 tons of salt were handed out.
The next year in October the governors of the affected states, university professors, and experts in entomology met in Omaha, Nebraska. Everyone there agreed that the federal government was the only institution large enough to address the crisis and that funds should also be approved to set up an entomological commission to outline methods for controlling locusts.
Within a few weeks, Congress approved a three-man committee, which was the first time funds had been directed at scientific research to address a national crisis. The committee urged effective pest control methods be applied, dispelled several myths such as the strange efforts to eradicate the pests, and urged the digging of ditches; that funds be released for bounties; that agricultural crops in the area be diversified; and that pesticides, particularly Criddle mixtures (developed by Norman Criddle specifically in response to the grasshopper plagues), be used to combat the swarms. While no one really knows why, the swarms of Rocky Mountain locusts quietly vanished until the species went extinct at the turn of the twentieth century.
Trevor Jason Soderstrum
See also: Agricultural Issues, Regional ; Drought ; Environmentalism ; Homestead Act (1862) ; Kansas, Populism in
Irwin, Lyndon N. “Grasshopper Plagues and Trains.” http://www.lyndonirwin.com/hoptrain.htm . Accessed January 3, 2013.
Lockwood, Jeffery A. Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
Risjord, Norman K. A Popular History of Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2005.
Savage, Candace. Prairie: A Natural History. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2011.