Time Machine

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For Utah’s Mormon pioneers the spring of 1848 brimmed with promise. They had been arriving since the previous July, hoping in that harsh and remote land to finally escape persecution. Their trip through the desert had been arduous, and the ensuing winter had been fierce. But now, amidst glorious mountain scenery, as towns arose in the desert and the sun shone on acres of sprouting crops, they could almost feel God smiling.

Then the crickets came. In late May dense swarms of the buzzing, ravenous insects—described as “a cross between the spider and the buffalo”—devastated the Mormons’ fields. One pioneer’s diary recorded: “Today to our utter astonishment, the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans for us and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept over peas, then came into our garden; took everything clean.”

Settlers tried to beat them off with sticks, but it was like bailing out the Mississippi River with a teaspoon. Drowning them in irrigation ditches was no use either; the tenacious crickets came back to life as soon as they were dry. The Mormons built fires, banged on pans, and heaped up carcasses at the edge of fields to take advantage of the crickets’ penchant for cannibalism. Nothing worked. Finally, helpless against nature, the settlers prayed for divine assistance.

They got it. After two weeks of insect depredation, flocks of sea gulls miles across suddenly descended on the settlement. Some weary Mormons thought the birds were bringing more trouble until they swooped down and started voraciously devouring the crickets—gobbling bugs by the beakful, vomiting them up, then gobbling more. To the amazed settlers, it seemed the birds’ intention was to kill crickets rather than to feed themselves. Experienced mountaineers said they had never seen sea gulls so far from the ocean before.

On June 9 church elders wrote to their leader, Brigham Young, in Iowa, “The sea gulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the cricket as they go; it seems the hand of the Lord is in our favor.” By July 21 they could confidently write, “The crickets are still quite numerous and busy eating, but between the gulls and our own efforts and the growth of our crops we shall raise much grain in spite of them.”

Modern revisionists have questioned whether the episode was really miraculous. Pacific sea gulls, it is pointed out, routinely migrate to the Great Salt Lake and feed on insects. Disgorging the indigestible parts of their food is normal as well. One recent paper even argues that the settlers should have eaten the protein-rich crickets themselves, as Indians did—though since Mormons can’t even drink coffee, they would probably have found a rule against it.

Yet it’s easy to understand why the Mormons saw, and still see, the coming of the sea gulls as a miracle. Since 1831 the hardy band of believers had been almost constantly on the move, from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois to Utah, seeking in each place to build the Zion prophesied in their scriptures. Financial trouble, dissension, and hostility from their neighbors had doomed all previous efforts. When the crickets attacked their crops, some settlers talked of pulling up stakes yet again and heading back East or moving on to California or Oregon. But the arrival of the sea gulls, seemingly from heaven, was an unmistakable sign that this time things would be different. Today a monument in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square commemorates the birds that finally brought an end to the Mormons’ long pilgrimage and reassured them that after seventeen years of running, they would not have to run anymore.