Pharaoh Had It Easy

“They are awful!” wrote General Alfred Sully in a dispatch to headquarters. “They have actually eaten holes in my wagon covers and in the tarpaulins that cover my stores!”

The General’s outrage was evoked during a march across the Dakota Badlands in 1864. “A soldier on his way here,” the report went on, “lay down to sleep on the prairie in the middle of the day—the troop had been marching all night. His comrades noticed him covered with grasshoppers and awakened him. His throat and wrists were bleeding …”

Fortunately, General Sully’s encounter with the insects was a brief one. It was merely an unpleasant foretaste of the plague of Rocky Mountain locusts—or grasshoppers, as they were more often called—which was to blight the Great Plains area from Manitoba to Texas and from the Rockies to the Mississippi. These modestly proportioned but insatiable creatures suddenly materialized in overwhelming numbers during the spring of 1874, ravaged the countryside for four successive summers and then, without so much as a wave of their antennae, mysteriously vanished. Originally identified as Caloptenus spretus, and now known as Melanoplus spretus—one of four gluttonous and migratory species known to the North American continent—this grasshopper was occasionally seen in small numbers during the remainder of the century, but not a single live specimen has been reported since 1904.

Had it not been for the sudden easing of the plague, the course of civilization in the Great Plains might very well have been changed, for at its peak billions upon billions of grasshoppers were rendering agriculture of any sort impossible. There is little dispute that in outright intensity this plague of the mid-seventies stands unrivalled in the history of the North American continent. The Mormon crickets may have been equally as damaging over a restricted area, and no doubt the boll weevil has, in its time, created comparable economic loss. But for dramatic impact, neither of these is in a class with the Rocky Mountain locust.

Though archaeologists have discovered Indian relics embellished with representations of grasshoppers, and New Englanders were complaining of locust plagues as early as 1743, probably the first recorded instance of trouble with the notoriously destructive Rocky Mountain locust was reported by a Captain Jonathan Carver. In 1766, while exploring the region west of the Great Lakes. Captain Carver took the word of the Indian inhabitants that “the Locust is a septenniel insect, as they are only seen, a small number of stragglers excepted, every seven years, when they infest these parts and the interior colonies in large swarms, and do a great deal of mischief.”

The famous Canadian fur trader, Alexander Henry the Younger, who settled near the present site of Pembina, North Dakota, observed in a journal entry dated June 25, 1808, that “Swarms of grasshoppers have destroyed the greater part of … my kitchen garden, onions, cabbages, melons, cucumbers, carrots, parsnips and beets. They had also attacked the potatos and corn, but these were strong enough at the root to sprout again.” “The very trees,” he added more menacingly, “are stripped of their leaves.”

A decade later the settlers of the Red River valley received an even more convincing preview of the plague to come. A number of farmers were driven from their land, which the grasshoppers left “as barren as though swept by flame.” Having devoured the crops and defoliated the trees, the insects turned to a diet of bark.

With starvation in prospect, the leaders of the colony at Pembina spent six thousand dollars to send a relief party overland to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi, to purchase food. More than three months later the mission returned, paddling three Mackinaws full of wheat, oats, and peas. The first locust-relief expedition had followed a devious water route of hundreds of miles, and manhandled their heavily laden boats over lengthy portages with roughhewn wooden rollers.

The following year the locusts, who had abandoned their seven-year cycle (if indeed they ever maintained one), came back to plague the Pembina settlement. As the years passed, reports of locust incursions grew in frequency and scope, doubtless because there were more humans present to voice complaint, as well as more cultivated fields to attract the interest of the six-legged raiders. It appears, however, that these outbreaks, which occurred up through the early seventies, were merely local in character; just how many may be blamed on the Rocky Mountain locust remains a question. Certainly the locusts were migratory. As one settler commented, “They came one year and left us the next when the young had acquired wings, and so they came and went all the time.”

As the snows melted in the spring of 1874 the grasshoppers suddenly seemed to appear everywhere on the Plains. So rudimentary were communications at the time that the widespread nature of the assault was not immediately realized. “Such a host of insects I never saw,” reported a Kansas homesteader. “The ground is completely covered and the blanches of the trees are bending down with their weight. In my orchard of nearly twenty acres the trees are covered by myriads. The grove on the north is one huge, moving mass.”