Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In August 1874, pioneer farmers in Kansas hoped that the year’s harvest would be prosperous. Wheat and oats were drying in the fields, awaiting harvest. Pasture land was lush and it appeared cattle would be fat and healthy. All was well for the people who had struggled against the elements to make homes in the vast prairie.

Then a great, white glistening cloud appeared. Grasshoppers. So many of them, their wings caught the sunshine and made them look like a vapor cloud or sparkling snow. In some places they were so thick, they blocked the sun. Soon grasshoppers dropped from the sky, pelting the earth like snow or rain, piles of them, sometimes four inches or more. Soon they covered every inch of ground, and every plant and shrub. Branches of trees and shrubs broke under their weight. Garden plants were smashed flat. Then they started eating. Tobacco, corn, vegetables—nothing escaped the devouring plague. They ate everything green except the prairie grass.

(According to the articles I read, this grasshopper is scientifically in the same class as locusts. When they don’t migrate or become destructive, and their population is low, they are considered grasshoppers. When they migrate and destroy things, and have a high, dense population, they are considered locusts. This particular grasshopper was referred to as the Rocky Mountain Locust. Since the farmers called them grasshoppers, and the pictures look like grasshoppers, I will use the term grasshopper in this article for consistency.)

Farmers tried desperately to save their crops. They covered them with blankets, clothes, and feed sacks. One pioneer remarked that the hoppers seemed to laugh at the farmers’ attempts to stop the attack. They either crawled underneath the items or ate holes in them. Some farmers tried to protect their crops with bonfires, but as the grasshoppers landed, they smothered the flames.

A Kansas farm family fights a losing battle
with the relentless "hoppers" in a cartoon
by 19th-century illustrator Henry Worrall.
(Kansas State Historical Society)
Once the crops and foliage were gone, the grasshoppers moved inside barns and houses. They devoured food in cupboards and barrels, and people said the insect began to attack anything made of wood. They destroyed utensils, furniture, fence boards, and sometimes the siding on cabins. Window hangings were left shredded. The hoppers liked things that had been exposed to sweat, including handles of farm equipment and harnesses. But the destruction didn’t stop there. Even trains were affected. The grasshoppers made the train tracks so slick, trains couldn’t start or stop.

When the plague finally ended, the devastation continued. Everything reeked with the stench of grasshoppers. The water in ponds and streams turned brown with excrement and dead grasshoppers, making the water unfit for human or animal. Chickens and hogs gorged on the insects, and their flesh tasted so strongly of grasshopper, they were inedible.

Kansas wasn’t the only state hit by the destruction. Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado Territory and Dakota Territory all felt the devastation of the year of the grasshoppers.

Some pioneers gave up on their dream of making a go in Kansas and other states, and returned home to the East. But others stayed to keep trying, although many of them had to borrow money for wheat to feed their animals. People from the East sent aid in the form of clothes, shoes, bedding, and food.  The U.S. Army stepped in as well, reaching homesteaders in remote areas. During the bleak winter that followed, soldiers distributed thousands of heavy coats, boots, shoes, woolen blankets and other items, including nearly 2 million rations, to suffering families in all the areas affected.

In the spring of 1875, trillions of eggs the grasshoppers had laid hatched and the land was covered with nymphs. But a late snowstorm and hard frost killed most of the insects and the farmers were able to replant.

The grasshoppers kept appearing in the following years, though never in the plague-like amount of the year 1874. By the turn of the 20th century, the Rocky Mountain locust/grasshopper was becoming extinct. The last reported sighting of a living specimen came in southern Canada in 1902. 

Why this particular species became extinct remains a mystery.

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