09 June 2010

Topics in Research-The Great Grasshopper Plague of '74


In 1874, billions of grasshoppers1 descended upon the Plains States, leaving devastation and destitution in their wake. It was the most massive and destructive swarm ever recorded in North America. A passing reference to this infestation in a biography spurs a research adventure into the world of biblical-scale plagues, and yields some interesting, if obscure, implications for those researching families who settled in the Western United States.

The Spur
Erie Alanson May--man of not-so-much mystery--was fond of a good writeup in the mugbooks of his day. One such entry, in the 1905 Historical and Biographical Record... of San Joaquin Valley, makes a passing reference to one of Erie's political experiences:
In 1875, Mr. May was appointed sergeant-at-arms at Yankton, the state capitol [of Dakota Territory] and directly after the close of the legislative session he was selected to return east as a representative of the farmers, to solicit aid for those who had been impoverished by the grasshopper scourge, this terrible pest having destroyed the crops of the country.2 (emphasis added)
An obituary also mentions that Erie was sent to the "Eastern States to solicit aid in providing seed for farm lands ravaged by grasshoppers.3"

It may be easy for the modern mind to dismiss, offhand, the seriousness of a grasshopper plague. But when we consider the reality of the Plains States in the 1870s--relatively recently settled, full of fledgling towns and nascent farms, balanced precariously on the success of their budding agricultural industries--we can start to realize exactly how monumental this event was. Without today's powerful agricultural pesticides (and the planes that deploy most of them), the gamblers eking out a living in the Plains soil found themselves on the end of a losing bet, with no recourse to protect themselves against the insect onslaught.

The Grasshoppers Cometh

The spring and summer of 1874 had been a harsh one for many in the Western States. Floods, drought, a variety of insect invasions, and the economic fallout from the Panic of 1873 had made life difficult enough for those trying to farm the Plains. Luckily, it seemed most would be able to wring out enough from the parched landscape to make it through the 1874-75 winter, and optimism was high that farmers would be able to make the most of the land's potential the following year.

But then word came out in June of 1874 that something strange--maybe even sinister--was going on with grasshoppers in Iowa. A 22 June 1874 New York Times article noted that the "voracious insect has been eating the wheat, oats and corn by wholesale. In some counties, scarcely a field has escaped its ravage.4" By August, the New York Times noted that the insects had swarmed "all over the West, from Illinois to distant Oregon, and from Texas to Dakota.5" The swarm was alarmingly widespread, and was showing no mercy for the landscapes upon which it alighted. When all was said and done, the swarm ranged almost the entirety of the Great Plains, affecting 11 different states and territories:


Image from The Locust Plague in the United States, by CV Riley, 1877. The orange color shows the full extent of infestation. The green area shows where the damage was worst, the pink where damage was less due to lower human habitation.

Obliterating the Sun

What it was like to see these millions of grasshoppers arriving in any given place defied belief. Although the Plains area had suffered swarms of the insect in years past, 1874 was breaking all preconceived notions of how huge--and how devestating--the locusts could actually be. Reports variously described the swarms as clouds obliterating the sun or massive snowstorms. Descending upon a field they would strip it bare--destroying crops, gardens, and natural vegetation; they ate crops down to the ground. What crops they didn't eat completely, like wheat, they destroyed by eating only succulent bits, letting the rest rot on the ground. Some settlers reported the grasshoppers eating clothing hung out to dry and wooden handles.6. A New York Times correspondent in Kansas wrote in August of 1874:
Nothing can describe the thorough and utter devastation of this grasshopper plague in Kansas. The insects seem to work together, and swoop down upon a town, beating everything before them. The air is literally alive with them. They beat against the houses, swarm in at the windows, cover the passing trains. They work as if sent to destroy. The plague of locusts in Egypt, as depicted in the Bible is the only account that can graphically describe the grasshopper plague in Kansas. "For they covered the whole face of the earth so that the land was darkened and they did eat every herb of the land and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left, and there remained not any green thing in the trees of the herbs of the field through all the land in Egypt.7
Even the trains--paragons of modernity and the veritable symbol of Man's supremacy over nature--were stalled by the locusts; the sheer number of bugs crushed by the trains made the tracks too slippery to allow necessary traction. Tracks had to be swept clear of the carcasses before the trains could proceed.8

The Response

The most immediate fallout from the grasshopper plague was, of course, the livelihoods of the farmers. In more recently settled areas where farmers had not yet established themselves and were dependent upon a good crop, the main goal was to get out and get back East before winter set in:
Most of [the settlers] had staked everything on this their first crop, and with hardly enough of worldly goods left to stand them until harvest time, they suddenly find their all stripped from them and starvation staring them in the faces. Without waiting to consider, feeling that in this case at least famine is upon them, and they who hesitate are lost, they have hastily packed up their household goods and may be seen here and there moving eastward, miserable, pitiable sights to behold.9
Thus a settlement pattern which had seen migration east to west was, in this case, being reversed, as the onerous weight of economic woes (exacerbated by natural calamity) drove many early settlers back to their places of origin.

In some areas, such as Erie May's Dakota, the original assessments of damage seemed manageable, but the truth soon became evident:
Mistaken courage and pride caused the people and public officers to believe that the damage was not overwhelming, that the settlers could pass through the crisis without great suffering and that cases of special suffering would be relieved by friends and relatives. But when a severe winter came upon them and fuel and food and clothing and comforts of every kind were lacking, and illness began to follow upon exposure and want, the need for help become [sic] manifest.10
Appeals for help from settlers and the governments of the variously affected States led to the passage of two laws by the Congress11. The first, "An Act for Relief of certain settlers on public lands" was passed 28 Dec 1874, and gave settlers the opportunity to leave their lands until July of 1875 without the possibility of losing their property by adverse rights; settlers were therefore able to leave their property through the winter (perhaps even relocating their families) without fear of losing their claim to another settler. The act even included a provision for further extension of leave time should the grasshoppers return in 1875 (which they did, provoking further extensions of the suspension of adverse rights).

According to the "Circular Instructions" of 1876, notations would have been made in tract books regarding any leave taken by settlers under the auspices of the Act. Settlers were also required to provide two witnesses to vouch for crop destruction in order to take advantage of the leave time, and had to provide proof of re-settlement of the property upon their return.12. This latter requirement was intended to protect both the original settler, and any persons who may try to assert title to that same settlement.

The other act possibly reflects the work Erie May put in during his visit to "the Eastern States": on 25 January 1875 Congress passed the "Act to enable the Commissioner of Agriculture to make a special distribution of seeds". This Act was particularly important, as one of the legacies of the grasshopper hordes was that they had devoured crops to the extent that farmers did not have seed to plant the next year's crop. The seed was duly sent, and, from all accounts, 1875 proved a remarkably successful year considering the lingering hardships suffered.

No source has yet mentioned Erie May by name as an agent of supplication in the matter of the Grasshopper Plague of 1874, but the research into the matter shows why he would well have been proud of his work, and why the event itself was probably a memorable one for him for the rest of his life.


1. The insects were later identified as the Rocky Mountain Locust. Locusts are a subset of grasshoppers that exhibit swarming behavior when their population density hits certain critical levels. See articles here or here. As noted below, the hot and dry drought conditions of the spring and summer of 1874 which had already crippled agricultural production also proved ideal breeding conditions for the grasshoppers.

2. Guinn, JM. Historical and Biographical Record... of San Joaquin Valley, California. The Chapman Publishing Company, Chicago; 1905. Page 1221.

3. The Oakland Tribune, 08 September 1942, "G. A. R. Post Becomes History As Last Member Passes Away", page C17, column 4.

4. The New York Times, 22 June 1874, "A Plague of Grasshoppers". As retrieved from The New York Times Archive.

5. The New York Times, 03 August 1874, "The Insect Plague". As retrieved from The New York Times Archive.

6. Harvest of Grief, p. 17.

7. The New York Times, 17 August 1874, "The Locusts of the West". As retrieved from The New York Times Archive.

8. "The Insect Plague". (See note 5.)

9. "The Locusts of the West". (See note 6.)

10. From South Dakota Historical Collections, Volume III, 1906, p. 143.

11. Constitution.org has PDFs of the US Statutes, 1789-1875, which are also available at American Memory from the LOC.

12. Public Land Laws...1875...to 1882.

4 comments:

Miriam said...

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about this plague in her fourth "Little House" book, On the Banks of Plum Creek.

Miriam said...

See page 192 here.

Jennifer said...

Thanks Miriam!

T.K. said...

Very interesting post, Jennifer. Thanks!