Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Rocky Mountain Locust Plagues Western Settlers

Nebraska, 1874. The farmer stood in his field, staring up at the sky. He could hear a horrific sound coming toward him, a screeching sound, like the sound of a million birds, but the skies were clear and blue.

Suddenly, a black cloud appeared on the horizon, moving forward like a vicious, thundering flash flood in the sky. Within minutes, his fields were filled with locust, the dreaded Rocky Mountain Locust, voracious eaters, consuming everything in the field and leaving little more than dirt. In a matter of hours, the farmer's fields were empty, and the locust had moved on.

Rocky Mountain Locust once swarmed in numbers unimaginable to modern farmers who use pesticides to protect their crops. According to the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, the 1874 swarm of Rocky Mountain Locust covered 198,000 square miles with an estimated 12.5 million insects. According to Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation at the Fort Collins Museum, "From July 20 to July 30 of 1874, a plague of locusts was recorded over the prairie that covered 198,000 square miles (approximately twice the size of Colorado!) and contained at least 12.5 trillion individuals weighing approximately 27.5 million tons."

Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), who wrote the Little House series about her family life in Independence, Kansas, also wrote about her family's experiences with the Rocky Mountain Locust in her book On the Banks of the Plum Creek, which Bowell quotes on the Fort Collins Museum website.

Ingalls explained her impression of the locust as they moved toward her family farm: "The cloud was grasshoppers.Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin, large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm..."

Imagine yourself a farmer. Having responded to the 1862 Homestead Act, you packed your family and belongings and moved onto your 160 acres. You built the required, yet small home out of mud because you learned mud homes survive best against the harsh winds of the Western prairies. You lived on your land for five years, planting, harvesting, waiting for the day when you could finally file the title to your property, then suddenly one morning, in the skies above you, there appeared a black cloud, moving closer, faster, descending on your dream like a giant beast and destroying every little plant that grew from every little seed that you and your wife and children dropped by hand into the soil just months before. For some settlers in the West, the loss was too much and they returned back home to their families in the Eastern states, but those who stayed on the land were eventually rewarded.

At the turn of the century, the Rocky Mountain Locust mysteriously disappeared. The last sighting of a Rocking Mountain Locust was in Southern Canada in 1902. In an ironic twist, it is widely believed that these same farmers who were relentlessly tortured by plagues of locust eventually brought about the locust's demise by exposing their larvae while plowing their fields.

All locusts are swarming grasshoppers in the Acrididae family. The Rocky Mountain Locust is known as the M. spretus. It once lived primarily in the Rocky Mountains, but spread into the prairies as its numbers grew, and continued to grow until clouds of locust filled the air for miles and miles. Between 1873 and 1877, locust swarms caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Nebraska.

In spite of the size of the 1874 swarm less than 300 specimens of the insects remain. It is, however, still possible to find Rocky Mountain Locust carcasses frozen in glaciers.


Tim Shey said...

"In an ironic twist, it is widely believed that these same farmers who were relentlessly tortured by plagues of locust eventually brought about the locust's demise by exposing their larvae while plowing their fields."

Before the plow came to the prairies and plains, if you had dry conditions, a fire possibly could start in Nebraska and head all the way to the Rocky Mountains. With the advent of the plow, you had less big prairie fires. Plowed ground is an excellent firebreak.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

We recently moved from the Texas Hill Country and last summer's drought hit our area the hardest. We were about half an hour from the huge Bastrop fire--I wrote numerous news articles on the subject for Then, a fire broke out about five minutes from our home. I drove out to the field to take photographs for the story and was amazed by how quickly the fire moved. You could see it waving in the breeze as if it was breathing. I first started studying wildfire science when I lived in Colorado and a family member was working as a forest fire firefighter. Forest fires are powerful, fascinating, and frightening. I couldn't imagine what it must have been like facing a fire like that as a pioneer. In Texas, people still die in their fields because the winds whip up and the fires rage through the grass so quickly it consumes everything in its path. Nothing escapes.

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado...