The Insect that Caused & Paused U.S. Human Migration

Historical context is everything when it comes to understanding your ancestors and what motivated them to migrate from one place to another. For instance, what would cause a pioneering family to undertake a perilous journey from the East to settle in the burgeoning Great Plains, just to abandon their new homestead a short time later and return to where they originated. 

Emigrants at the Gates P.O., Custer County, SD, Library of Congress

If your ancestors were homesteaders in one of the Great Plains states or territories, this article might explain what motivated them to stay, return or move further westward.

If you were faced with the situation described in this article, what would you have done? 

Homesteaders

The Homestead Act of 1862, end of the Civil War, and building of the transcontinental railroad all contributed to a great Western migration. Many veterans and other settlers headed westward in search of a new life consisting of homesteading, farming and ranching. 

Upon arrival, these pioneers faced years of back-breaking work plowing the prairie land, clearing rocks and removing stubborn tree stumps. They built their own homes and worked tirelessly to feed their families and livestock, and earn a meager living. 

The Drought

By 1874, hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Great Plains states had been claimed and was being farmed or grazed. It looked to be a promising year for farmers and ranchers. During the spring and early summer months, there was plenty of rain, a necessity for crops and grasses. It was an optimistic period, the crops were healthy, lush and growing well. One could say it was “the calm before the storm.”

Cattle in cornfield ruined by drought and grasshoppers. Near Carson, North Dakota; Library of Congress

Then things began to change when the rains stopped. The intense summer sun and unusually high temperatures began to bake the ground — a drought was setting in. The grasses were starting to wither and cattle huddled near the water troughs, when the creeks began to run low. 

The Invasion 

By early July, a time when corn stalks should be standing at least “knee high,” the farmers were starting to feel a lot less optimistic. They were envisioning another disappointing harvest due to the drought conditions. They had no idea what lay ahead would be a complete annihilation and unimaginable devastation of their homesteads.  

This photo is of an actual locust swarm that occurred in East Africa in 2020. It illustrates how one would have looked liked in 1874; however, the one that happened in 1874 contained trillions of locusts. Source

Then the invasion started, the sunlight began to dim and then darkness swept over the sky. Some likened it to a snowstorm as the locusts began to fall from the sky with their wings glistening in the sun; others described it as the coming of night

Trillions of Rocky Mountain locusts descended on the Plains in a path so wide and long it extended from Canada to Texas. The swarms were so massive they literally blocked out the sun for hours.

Image: Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus; Annual Report of the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of Minnesota, July 1902-June 1903.

The locusts, roughly 1.4 inches long, gnawed on nearly any organic material: crops, first to the ground and then the roots; wool from live sheep; the very clothes on people’s backs; grain stored for livestock; every blade of grass; leaves and bark off the trees; wooden tool handles; vegetable gardens; paper goods; harnesses off horses; and paint off from wagons and fences. 

The Insanity 

The settlers tried in vain to combat the plague. The locusts covered the landscape, several inches deep on the ground and several feet deep against the fence rows. The sounds the locusts made were both deafening and maddening. At first it sounded like hail as the locusts fell from the sky. Then there was the constant whirring and rasping as they moved about, accompanied by the persistent, loud crunching sound as they ate ravenously. 

Source: Library of Congress

Multiple accounts from survivors of the locust plague tell of family members who suffered emotional breakdowns, temporary insanity or hysteria due to what they witnessed and fact they could not escape the pests, they crawled everywhere and infiltrated every nook.

They beat against the houses and swarmed the windows, eating the curtains as they hung. To go outdoors, the men cinched their pant legs tight with baling string to keep the insects from crawling up their pants. Families wore sheets or blankets and scarves to step outside their cabins. 

Inside their homes, the locusts would devour anything in the cupboards that was not stored in a metal container or crock, eating through flour sacks and wooden barrels. They landed in the food while cooking and eating. They would get on the bedding and crawl on the occupants as they slept.  

Failed Attempts to Crush the Invaders

The settlers tried a variety of methods to try to deter the locusts, minimize the damage to their crops and personal property, and eliminate those on the ground. Below is a list of some of the strategies they employed.

  • Building large bomb fires to create lots of smoke (but the massive number of locusts snuffed out the fires).
  • Raking and shoveling the locusts into piles and burning them.
  • Exploding gunpowder charges in their fields.
  • Striking them with wood planks. 
  • Stomping on them.
  • Building smokescreens.
  • Blasting swarms with shotguns to try to scare them away.
  • Covering their gardens with quilts and sheets, which the insects promptly ate.
  • Building hopper dozers, a device made of an iron scraper smeared with coal tar and pulled on runners by horses over the infested fields. 

Unfortunately, their futile acts of desperation were no match for the invasion. Nothing would be spared.   

The Aftermath

Throughout their months long migration, the locusts would stay in one area from a few days to a week eating everything in their path; and then leave as they came in a swarm in the sky. 

Not only did they destroy the vegetation, the locusts left behind their smelly excrement, which turned ponds and creeks brown; and contaminated the water, making it unfit for human or animal consumption. Livestock, chickens, ducks, and geese resorted to eating the dead locusts, but it left their stomachs bloated and meat inedible. 

The 1874 locust infestation moved from north to south, spreading from the eastern slope of the Rockies into parts of the Canadian Prairie provinces, the Dakota Territory, Minnesota, western Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, the Indian Territory, eastern Colorado Territory, southeast corner of the Wyoming Territory, and Texas.

The swarm consisted of an estimated 12.5 trillion insects that covered approximately 198,000 square miles, causing $200 million in crop damage.

Facing Starvation and Poverty: To Stay or Go

Farmers had counted on their 1874 crop to provide the seed for their next year’s crop, to feed their livestock, and to purchase provisions to make it through the coming winter. But, it was all gone. It was estimated that only one in 10 families had enough provisions to last through the coming winter. 

Kansas pioneers, photographer F.M. Steele; Library of Congress

To avoid starvation, many desperate homesteaders either borrowed money from relatives, or returned East or moved farther west. It put a temporary halt to migration into the Great Plains. Particularly hard hit was Kansas, they lost one-third of its population. 

The federal government exempted the homesteaders hit by the plague from residency requirements, which enabled some families to briefly leave their land and work elsewhere, without losing their homestead claim. Some would return later to their farms.

Those Who Stayed

For those that refused to be defeated or had no means to leave, a plea went out across America to help the impoverished souls. The nation responded by sending money and supplies. The railroads provided free transportation for food supplies and cars full of grain to reach the settlers.

During the winter of 1874-1875, the U.S. Army conducted a large-scale relief effort and distributed rations, blankets, coats, shoes, and boots to suffering families in the remote areas of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, the Colorado Territory, and the Dakota Territory. 

Abandoned log cabin near Gheen, Minnesota, photographer Lee Russell

In the spring of 1875, the millions of locust eggs laid the previous summer began to hatch. Farmers feared the worst, but a late hard frost and snowstorm killed most of the nymphs, allowing farmers time to plant their crops. 

Extinction

In subsequent years, the Rocky Mountain locust population began to decline until it became extinct. The last reported sighting of a living specimen was in 1902 in southern Canada. Why this species became extinct remains somewhat of a mystery; however, the most recent scientific research by Jeffrey Lockwood, Professor of Entomology in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Wyoming, and his team, theorize that the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries and their forest wintering grounds, thus dooming the species.  

References

Related

Harvest Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota 1873-78, by Annette Atkins
The Locust Plague in the United states: Being More Particularly a Treatise on the Rocky Mountain Locust or So-called Grasshopper, as it Occurs. Practical Recommendations for its Destruction, by Charles Riley

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