The Days Of The Locusts: The Great Swarm Of 1874
A modern-day locust swarm in Madagascar. Source: ( RIJASOLO/AFP/Getty Images)
Plagues of locusts are something that most people associate with stories from the Bible or mythology. However, the reality is that locusts have been a dire problem through all of history with one of the most devastating swarms occurring in the American west in 1874.
The end of the American Civil War hastened the settlement of American west. Homesteaders in the tens of thousands pulled up stakes in the east to take advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act which enabled settlers to claim 160-acre plots of land. Pioneers swarmed to the Great Plains. The settlers were in turn greeted by swarms.
Massive swarms of locusts have disrupted American settlement before, but the year 1874 was particularly calamitous. The Rocky Mountain Locust, commonly referred to by settlers as a grasshopper erupted into huge swarms. Its scientific name is Melanoplus spretus. Spretus means despised.
Locusts are often confused with grasshoppers. The difference is that there are two phases to a locust. The first is the solitary phase when it resembles grasshoppers and is mainly harmless. The second is the gregarious phase when the insects metamorphose into larger insects with longer wings and greater appetites. In this phase, they congregate and swarm with devastating effect. While locusts are not a direct danger to humans, they consume any piece of vegetation they can find.
The Rocky Mountain Locust normally inhabited the eastern range of the Rocky Mountains. They became migratory at times of drought when their normal fodder is unavailable. There were drought conditions from 1874 to 1875, which caused a truly enormous swarm to develop.
The 1874 swarm cut a more than hundred-mile swath from Canada to Texas, devastating the countryside. One source estimated there were 120 billion of the insects and another put it at 15 trillion. Obviously, determining the number of individual insects is difficult, but either way that is a lot of bugs. The swarm equaled the geographic area of all of the northeast United States from Maryland to Maine, 2 million square miles.
It is hard to appreciate a locust swarm unless you see it or are in the thick of it. The incredible biomass covered the land and darkened the sky. Every tree, every shrub, every corn stalk was throbbing with the infestation. It was noisy too as the sound of the insects in the feeding frenzy was likened to hail. Crops were devoured and the insects made their way into settlers’ homes, eating anything that they could. They made their way into beds which had to be shaken at night to loosen them of the hated pests. People literally went insane as they were pelted by the thick swarms. One woman claimed that insects literally ate the shirt off her back.
The settlers tried all sorts of methods to rid themselves of the locusts. They used gunpowder. They whacked them with anything they could. They even dug pits to light barricading fires only to find that the sheer weight in numbers of the locusts smothered out the flames. Inventions were tried including a type of vacuum. All these attempts utterly failed because there were so many insects.
The author Laura Ingalls-Wilder was a girl and a witness to one of these swarms which she likened to a storm in her book On the Banks of Plum Creek:
“A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes but they were larger than snowflakes and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle.”
The wake of the locust depredation was starvation and deprivation. Waterways were polluted with locust excrement. All that was available to eat were locusts which were taken up by wild animals and domesticated ones. The result was bloating and inedible meat.
Ingalls-Wilder described the aftermath of a locust visitation:
“The whole prairie was changed. The grasses did not wave; they had fallen in ridges. The rising sun made all the prairie rough with shadows where the tall grasses had sunk against each other. The willow trees were bare. In the plum thickets, only a few plumpits hung to the leafless branches. The nipping, clicking, gnawing sound of the grasshoppers’ eating was still going on.”
As for people, some took up the recommendations of the Missouri state entomologist to eat the locusts, but many looked askance at eating the hated pest. Many settlers retreated to the east to avoid starvation. Other people, planning on moving west, either canceled or delayed their plans with one source stating that the flow of westward emigrants dropped by 20%.
But some stayed due to commitment or debt and did starve. However, to the credit of the federal and state governments, the scale of the disaster was quickly seen. Bonds were issued and relief was shipped west. Settlers were allowed to leave their claims temporarily with the residency requirement waived in order to earn a living. Massive amounts of seed were sent west for the 1875 growing system. The winter of 1874 to 1875 saw the U.S. Army clothing and rations to settlers in Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Kansas.
The year 1875 was met with dread since the billions or trillions of locusts must have laid trillions of eggs. However, a late snowstorm and frost culled most of the nymphs. While there were great swarms, including a 198,000 square mile swarm called Albert’s Swarm, it wasn’t as bad as the 1874 outbreak. Subsequent years saw Nebraska enact legislation giving bounties for collecting locust eggs and compelling men to spend two days during hatching time to destroy locusts or be fined $10. Farmers also began switching crops to winter wheat, which was ready for harvest before locusts swarmed. By the 1880s, the region had recovered.
Rocky Mountain Locust swarms then disappeared with the last observation of the insect in 1902. It was declared extinct in 2014. It is amazing that a creature with such numbers could go extinct so fast. While there are no smoking guns as to the cause of extinction, it is surmised that the breeding grounds for the locust were concentrated in small areas that were settled by pioneers. The settlers plowed out or under locust eggs, thus bringing about an end to the species. Locust outbreaks still occur throughout the world from time to time, but none to quite the extent of the 1874 plague.