Pestiferous Ironclads: The Grasshopper Problem in Pioneer Utah

Davis Bitton and Linda P. Wilcox
Utah Historical Quarterly, 46 #4

One of the most dramatic and famous moments in Mormon history occurred in 1848 when the first crop in Utah was threatened by a plague of crickets. Fearing the loss of food needed for survival, the settlers fought the ravenous insects by every possible means. Then, when it appeared that all was lost, in answer to a prayer a white cloud of seagulls flew in and devoured the crickets. This miracle was told in the diaries and reminiscences of several of the pioneers who observed it. It became a faith-promoting tale that was often retold. The Seagull Monument on Temple Square is said to be the only monument in honor of a bird, and appropriately the seagull became recognized as the state bird of Utah.1

Not so well known are the other attacks by crickets and far more frequent attacks by grasshoppers. Over and over again these insect invasions threatened the crops of the Mormons. This article proposes to detail what can be found out about the frequency of the grasshopper attacks, to make some tentative judgments about their economic impact, and to describe the reactions of the Mormon people to these unwelcome visitations. Significant to economic and agricultural history because of the subsistence nature of farming in the arid West, the grasshopper problem in pioneer Utah is also of interest as an example of how a religious community attempted to explain natural disasters and to cope with them.

Frequent contact with grasshoppers, in sometimes overwhelming numbers, was a common experience in pioneer Utah. Often the first approach of the grasshoppers was signaled when swarms of them appeared in the air overhead—an awesome sight. Settlers described them as looking like a “heavy snowstorm” or snowflakes and so numerous as to cover the sky and darken the sun. The Deseret News reported one massive appearance in which “the grasshoppers filled the sky for three miles deep, or as far as they could be seen without the aid of Telescopes, and somewhat resembling a snow storm.”2 These locusts were known to fly overhead several hours a day for a period of two or three weeks.3 When they landed they could be even more troublesome. Minerva Edmerica Richards Knowlton remembered a noonday buzzing and apparently the sun going behind a cloud. Also, something bumped against windows and doors. She went outdoors and found millions of Rocky Mt. Locusts all over the house, garden, yard, etc. The family washing had been put out early that morning, and the “tobacco juice” (children call it) stained the clothing so badly that the home-made soap and boiling the clothes on the kitchen stove, each washing, never fully removed the stains.4

Worse, the grasshoppers did not depart as quickly as they came but often stayed on for weeks, even through disagreeable weather. Benjamin LeBaron, describing the visitation of 1868, reported that when it rained “they would gather on the tree trunks, fence poles and posts, and every other object that might afford shelter for them, until they literally covered all such things.”5 Other observers echoed this feeling of the grasshoppers being ubiquitous. Alfred Cordon, the bishop of Willard, described his return from the funeral of Heber C. Kimball in Salt Lake in June 1868: “The air was full of Grasshoppers and the fields & Gardens were covered. We travelled through one continued stream of Locust untill we reached within four miles of home.”6 A month later Cordon recounted the cheerful festivities surrounding the July 24 celebration, adding, almost in an offhand way, “There was nothing to mar our peace only the thought that the Locusts were destroying our crops. The Locusts were very numerous. They eat our clothing as we sat in the Bowery.”7

The picture of Willard citizens having their clothing nibbled at by grasshoppers seems hard to believe, but other reports about the voracious nature of these insects suggest that it may not have been a unique event. John Fell Squires described how the grasshoppers devoured everything green, “right down to window blinds and green paint.” He went on to comment that “if a male or female appeared out doors dressed in green they would be driven to cover or uncover in less than no time. You must remember this, if they could eat all the bark from a shade tree which they did, it would not take them long to eat up a fellow’s pantaloons when the color suited them.”8

The depredations of the grasshopper understandably engendered dread and discouragement. A Tooele resident, after describing in 1870 how they had wiped out all his vegetables and wheat and were now on his trees, muttered, “I presume it is right; but it is very unpleasant for a man to have his all taken by the miserable hoppers.” Yet, the Mormon settlers did not entirely lose a sense of humor in discussing their enemy. Comparing them to anti-Mormon legislation, Andrew Galloway wrote, “I dread them more than I do the Cullom Bill.” And in 1877 the Deseret News described one of the occasions when grasshoppers interfered with railroad traffic:

The destroying angels are abroad! They are coming this way. They are armed and legged and winged–as orthodox angels should be—and fully equipped for war. Their maneuvers are not exactly according to the manual, but they act in concert and their march is irresistible. On the sand ridge between this city and Ogden they are out on parade. But the engine of the U.S. passenger train this morning dashed through their ranks with defiant snorts, and countless numbers were done to death.9

Unfortunately the locomotive, limited to its track, could not pursue the enemy over roads and fields.

When a special national commission was established to collate information and plan counteraction, the Mormon newspaper remarked that it was much like civil service reform:

Some of the “peculiarities, habits and manners” of the festive grasshoppers are very striking, easily discernible and exceedingly bad manners, feeding upon the property of industrious people, without invitation, leaving little or nothing for the party to whom the provender belongs. They have a habit of commencing their meals at sunrise, and continuing to devour the whole day through. The office-holding class upon whom the principles of civil service reform are directed have instincts and proclivities in common with the grasshopper. Their appetites for the spoils of office are as voracious and insatiable. The average “anti-Mormon ringite” belongs to the same genus, the only difference being that those peculiarities are in him more intensified.10

The News went on to comment that the only cure for the grasshoppers was to kill them off; the same was true of officeholders who “cannot be cured by any system short of official decapitation.”

Later the same year the Deseret News published for the enjoyment of its Utah readers an essay from Josh Billings entitled, “The Grasshopper iz a Burden:”

The grasshopper iz a flippant bug. He iz likewise a kuss. He iz green for color, and has several leggs, or more, i disremember whitch. They ken fli, hop, walk, sit still, or run, and are born ov eggs, a dozen from each egg, proberbly. They are an inch and a quarter in length, and are sumtirnes a frackshun over. They are laid, hatchid out, git their manhood, and die off in 75 days, this iz aktual bizzness, and shows enterprize, in a lofty degree. What they are good for, haz been concealed from us, for wize reasons, but the evil they kan commit iz sumtimes equal to a famine. I hav seen every green thing on the flatz of the earth, for 50 miles in diameter, et up hi them, and millyuns ov them besides starving to deth. I have seen the air filled with them like a shower ov sand, and nothing but stone fences, and McAdam roads proof against their appetights. To be et up bi grasshoppers, to be consumed bi muskeeters, or mangled bi a mule, have allways been the three deths that i have voted against. But az much az i fear the deafly hopper, i had rather face a mile sqaure ov them, all alone, in the month of August, or i had rather cross the Neward marshes bi moonlite, in Juli, when muskeeters are in their consumate glory, or even fondle the sportive muel, than to have a nusepaper kritick, who writes for 8 dollars a week, git after me.11

Humor could provide some relief, even from insect depredations.

Grasshoppers, rather than the more famous crickets, caused most of the insect damage in pioneer Utah. Crickets were hardly noticeable in Utah after 1850, making only minor appearances (as far as is known) in 1855, 1860, and 1864–66. The real villain was the Rocky Mountain locust, a common type of grasshopper responsible for widespread damage in the western and southern states as well as in Utah. In its infant form the Rocky Mountain locust can only hop, but after four or five moltings, when it is capable of sustained flight, it can appear in swarms and darken the sky in a frightening way. Such locust flights occurred in the 1860s and 1870S in the Plains states as well as in Utah.12

Grasshoppers were essentially a spring and summer phenomenon. Rarely were they seen before April, but by May they were hatching out, and throughout the summer months they would feed on the unharvested crops. They might eat the second or even third sowings of some crops as well as the first. Visitations late in August or in September were usually too late to do much actual damage to crops but were mainly occasions for depositing eggs.

Grasshoppers were likely to eat anything. Wheat was a favorite grain, but they enthusiastically tackled corn, oats, barley, lucerne, and clover—even grass. They ate almost all garden crops—potatoes, onions, peppers, rhubarb, beets, cabbages, radishes, turnips, tomatoes. One informant indicated that they seemed to prefer the strong or pungent vegetables. They stripped orchards and vineyards, eating even the bark of the trees. “Even shawls or sheets thrown over plants or trees to protect them would be quickly destroyed.” William Jennings observed, “They would be found among the skirts, under a muslin dress, eating and destroying everything.”13 Grasshoppers “will eat clothing in preference to sorghum.”14

Patterns of grasshopper appearances puzzled entomologists as well as laymen in the nineteenth century. Why did grasshoppers come in some years and not in others? A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 1877 explained it in terms of breeding grounds—mapping out permanent or native areas where they were present all the time, semipermanent or native areas where they could perpetuate themselves for years at a time, and temporary regions (including Utah) where they would visit but usually disappear within the year.15 Another approach attributes the invasions to the hatching out of larger numbers of grasshoppers than the local food supply could accommodate. This imbalance was corrected by migrations (either hopping or flying) in search of new food sources.16

Grasshopper invasions may have been influenced by weather factors, especially drouth. The drouth of 1855 in Utah apparently forced the grasshoppers down into the valleys that year.17 In 1854 in Nephi and in 1859 in Cache County water was very scarce and grasshoppers were abundant.18 Conversely, in 1877 the wet weather was credited with destroying a large number of young grasshoppers and preventing some of the eggs from hatching.19 Nationally, too, drouth and grasshoppers made a joint appearance in Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado in 1895, suggesting a possible connection.

Since grasshopper invasions were reported more fully as areas became settled, it cannot be known whether grasshoppers really increased in numbers or were just finally being noticed. However, there did seem to be a pattern of increased destruction in newly settled areas. Commenting in 1868 on a Department of Agriculture report about grasshopper devastation throughout the country, the Deseret News said:

It is noticeable that the Report mentions that in many places their ravages were confined to new ground, that had undergone but little cultivation. Whether in the Rocky Mountains, these drawbacks to prosperity will disappear as population increases and the cultivation of the soil become more general throughout, is a problem that the future must solve.20

And, in fact, this seems to have been what happened. Although grasshopper invasions continued both nationally and in Utah far into the twentieth century, they dwindled in frequency and extent of damage as more and more of the country came under settlement.

Utah Territory received its share or more of visits from the grasshoppers in the first thirty to thirty-five years of settlement. The report of the Entomological Commission of 1877 claimed that they had appeared in Utah every year since 1851 except for 1873 and 1874, explaining that “this Territory is liable to suffer more or less, especially in the northern portion.”21 Our table of incidence of grasshopper appearances in Utah gives an idea of the places that were affected.22

The worst year, by any measurement, was 1855, when grasshoppers invaded the territory from the far north through Iron County, wiping out the third sowing of some crops in Salt Lake County, destroying all or nine-tenths of the grain in some Iron County towns, and denuding whole fields elsewhere. Following a trip throughout the territory in the spring of 1855, Heber C. Kimball wrote to his son William, describing the extent of the devastation:

From this place south as far as we went, the grasshoppers have cut down the grain, and there is not fifty acres now standing of any kind of grain in Salt Lake Valley, and what is now standing, they are cutting it down as fast as possible. In Utah county the fields are pretty much desolate; in Juab Valley not a green spear of grain is to be seen, nor in Sanpete, nor in Fillmore. In Little Salt Lake they are still sowing, also at Cedar City, that county being so much later the grain is not yet up, but the grasshoppers are there, ready to sweep down the grain as soon as it comes up. In the north as far as Boxelder the scenery is the same…. and to look at things at this present time, there is not the least prospect of raising one bushel of grain in the valleys this present season…. I must say there is more green stuff in the gardens in G. S. L. City than there is in all the rest of the counties; still there is a great many of the gardens in the city entirely ruined. Brother Wm. C. Staines told me this morning that he had 500,000 young apple trees come up and they are all cut down to the ground, and many gardens where the peach trees were full of peaches, every leaf and peach are gone.23

Twenty years later, it was still estimated that 70 percent of the cereals, vegetables, and fruits that year had been destroyed, making 1855 stand out as a year of crippling loss.24

What did the settlers consider as an “appearance” of grasshoppers? In some years it may have been nothing more than a few indigenous insects hopping around in the fields. On other occasions, swarms of them flew overhead for days at a time, but they did not necessarily do serious damage in the areas where they were sighted. In some years they were observed in the fall, depositing eggs that hatched out the following spring; but no damage was done during the year of the egg-laying. In some communities crops were wiped out several years in succession. In 1877 the Entomological Commission reported that northern Utah, especially Cache Valley, was visited by grasshoppers every year from 1854 to 1870.25 Yet, in response to a survey in 1875, the officers of the Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society reported the appearance of the “devastating Grasshopper” only in 1855 and 1866 through 1872, specifying that the 1866 appearance consisted only of depositing eggs. This indicates only six or seven years of grasshopper destruction severe enough to mention.

In summary, research shows that the peak periods of grasshopper invasion and devastation seem to have been 1854–56 (with 1855 being the worst year of the century), 1867–72, and 1876–79. Utah was practically free from serious grasshopper problems the last twenty years of the century.

Assessing the number of grasshoppers invading Utah is difficult. Appearances were described with such terms as “very numerous,” “immense swarms,” “by the millions,” or “myriads.” A more specific, though not necessarily exact, report from Tooele in 1855 claimed that there were about forty grasshoppers on every stalk of corn.26 A correspondent from Pleasant Grove described the grasshoppers there with perhaps a bit of hyperbole:

I do not think there were any more in Egypt in the time of Moses than there are now on my place, for the ground is literally the color of grasshoppers. We have to shut our doors to keep them out of our houses. The well, the cellar, the water ditches, everything is filled with the pests.27

Some sense of how numerous the grasshoppers were can be gleaned from counts made “by the bushel.” Collecting six bushels of the creatures per hour was considered an average catch from the streams that were diverted in order to skim the grasshoppers off the top.28 The Deseret Agricultural and Manufacturing Society estimated that there were one hundred bushels of grasshoppers to the acre in some areas. A “notable local mathematician,” probably Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt, estimated that in one season, one and a half million bushels [of grasshoppers] were destroyed by lighting in Great Salt Lake and drifting on the shores, forming an immense belt.”29 Another observer commented that “at one point they drifted ashore and piled up on the beach six feet high and two miles long.”30 In one of the few exact numerical counts Taylor Heninger and John Ivie in Sanpete County, after checking the hay meadow for grasshopper eggs, noted that “. . . by actual count and careful average we found 118-28/54th eggs to the square inch of ground; making a total of 743,424,000 eggs to the acre, or a total of 2,973,696,000 to the four acre piece.”31

Obviously, there is no way of calculating very closely the number of grasshoppers in Utah from year to year. But it is clear that, even allowing for some exaggeration, grasshopper appearances in Utah were not limited to slight or moderate numbers.

Determining the extent of grasshopper damage presents difficulties also. Some settlements may have lost most or all of their crops several years in succession. For them, the grasshopper invasions were very destructive. But in the context of the entire territory, the damage from grass hoppers was probably rather slight in most or all of those years. Even within one county, the amount of damage varied considerably from settlement to settlement, and even from one farm to another. Nor can the influence of other factors be ignored. Crop losses in some years were also caused by drouth, frost, and other insects, so that sorting out the grasshopper damage becomes a complex task.

That a severe attack could so reduce grain production as to raise prices substantially is indicated by Lewis Barney’s experience in Sanpete County in 1860:

My stock continued dying until the last animal I had was gone, leaving me in debt for the building of my mill, one hundred fifty bushels of wheat . . . which was worth one dollar per bushel at the time I agreed to pay it. The grasshoppers came and cut off the crops and wheat raised in price to five dollars per bushel, causing me to pay seven hundred dollars insted [sic] of one hundred fifty.32

There is a precise indication here of the impact of scarcity on prices, but the impression comes across most tellingly in human terms—what it meant to a person who had contracted a debt. Nine years later, in 1869, Barney wrote, “I found the country full of grasshoppers and every thing devoured by them, not a morsel of bread or anything else to be had to sustain life. Consequently we were under the necessity of going back to work on the railroad.”33

Without minimizing the suffering incident to intensive attacks, it is important to maintain a balanced view. Barney indicated the kind of resiliency characteristic of the Mormon settlers:

The next spring [probably 1855] I put in 18 acres of wheat and several acres of corn. But the grasshoppers took it as fast as it made its appearance through the ground. This they continued to do until the ground was entirely destitute of every green thing. After the hoppers had cleaned the settlements of every vestige of vegetation they took wings and left. I then borrowed 2 bushels of wheat of Brother Mendenhall by promising to give him corn in the fall. This wheat I sowed on my city lot. It was late in the season when it was sown. But it did mature so that I got 105 bushels of wheat from it. I also discovered that after the grasshoppers left there was a few spears of corn sprung up from the roots that was to grow and spread so that in the fall I gathered from it 75 bushels of good sound corn. This made 180 bushels of corn and wheat that I raised that season after the hoppers left.34

In 1877, after several alarming announcements of devastations during the summer, the actual harvests in most localities turned out to be fairly normal.35

Indications of damage in certain years include the produce turned in to the LDS church as tithing. Here are some comparisons between crops produced in 1855, the great grasshopper invasion, and the following year:

1855 1856
Wheat 3,998 bu. 17,079 bu.
Corn 1,902 3,173
Barley 104 413
Oats 568 1,733

Clearly, for certain crops, especially grain, the grasshoppers in 1855 had been devastating. Three or four times as much wheat and oats came into the tithing office in 1856. It is unlikely that increased land under cultivation accounted for more than a 10 percent increase. Fewer potatoes were contributed in 1856, perhaps due to an early frost. Much depended on the particular crop and on the timing of the insect invasions.

Some of the difficulties of comparison are suggested by a look at 1868, another grasshopper year. Coming into the tithing house were 10,092 bushels of wheat. Stopping there one would conclude that this was worse than 1856 but not nearly so bad as 1855. But of corn there were only 1,544 bushels—worse than in 1855, while in barley there were 543 bushels, better than either 1855 or 1856. Obviously, much depended on the crop that was hit by the pest and on the amount planted of different crops. When one looks at the overall cash value for the 1868 receipts, which came to $143,372, it is apparent that even considering the increase in population this was not a year of absolute catastrophe.

The impact of a crop failure on communities and individuals can be assessed. Leonard Arrington has calculated that production of wheat per family in the Ogden area amounted to 30 bushels in 1855, increasing to 40 bushels in 1856, and 44 bushels in 1857. However, 1856 showed a substantial decrease in cattle production, perhaps because so many were slaughtered the previous year or died during the severe winter. Recorded wheat production for this community was 13,000 bushels in 1855. It increased to 21,000 bushels by 1857, but part of the increase was due to an extension of land under cultivation—a 20 percent increase from 1855 to 1857.36

It would be surprising if a people accustomed to seeing their experience in terms of a divine plan failed to discern the hand of Providence in the infestations. Like other trials through which the Latter-day Saints had passed, the grasshopper invasions were often looked upon as tests imposed by Providence—tests of their faith, preparedness, ability to call upon deity in prayer, dedication to the cause. Drawing from their biblical and Christian traditions, the Latter-day Saint leaders asserted that such trials were the means by which God reminded his children of their dependence on him, calling them back from their materialism, worldliness, and self-sufficiency. “The Lord chasteneth those he loveth”—this old theme had its Mormon counterparts.

In the face of the grasshopper challenge the Saints were exhorted to have faith that they would receive help from the Lord. “Exercise your faith, brethren,” said the Deseret News on April 25, 1855, “that the Lord may bless your crops, rebuke the destroyer, and bring your labors and exertions to a successful issue.” The next month, on May 23, 1855, the newspaper remarked that “through faith and obedience they [the Saints] can prevail in the grasshopper war, at least as well as they did in the cricket war of 1848.”

They did not expect their faith always to bring about an end of the insect attacks, but there were dramatic examples of forces that did divert or greatly reduce the danger. The gulls did not come in force every year, but they did help destroy the crickets in 1848, the grasshoppers in 1855, and the crickets in 1860. “The gulls, which are exceedingly numerous,” reported the Deseret News on May 30, 1860, “have of late commenced a war of extermination against the uncouth-looking pestiferous creatures, and the probability is that their works of destruction will soon measureably cease.” Joseph E. Wheeler reported that gulls were of help in the Huntsville area after 1866 and occasionally even into the twentieth century.37

Less well known are the efforts of other animals in reducing the grasshopper population. Pigeons did away with some grasshoppers in Payson during the 1855 visitation. Chickens, too, were often helpful in eliminating insects in the gardens and to a limited extent on the farming lands. Perhaps most surprising, sheep were sometimes a valuable ally. One informant claimed to have known occasions on which 75 percent of the grasshoppers, before they took wing, were killed by sheep. As late as 1880, some settlers in Sanpete County were deliberately using sheep against the grasshoppers. John Swain attended a meeting to consider the best plans to deal with the grasshoppers. Several days later he wrote, “Assist kill Grasshoppers with sheep in the afternoon.”38 On other occasions grasshoppers were reportedly felled by gnats, maggots, and grubs.

Another enemy of the destructive insects was the Great Salt Lake, which drowned them in great quantities. George A. Smith reported in 1855 that “a great portion” of the insects landed in that body of water, “which appears green at a distance and the shore is lined with their dead, from one inch to two feet thick and which smell exactly like fish.”39 Just how the hoppers got to the lake is another question. They “landed” there sometimes. At other times they must have been blown in that direction. Whether blowing the insects into the lake or just blowing them away, a good stiff wind could be of great help. John A. Wakeham reported a providential wind in 1855 that blew the insects into the lake. After noticing the quantities of insects in the lake in 1868, Benjamin LeBaron wrote, “I consider this later deliverance from the grasshoppers just as great and miraculous as the former 1848 rescue from the ravages of the black crickets.”40

These opposing forces were not always seen as miraculous—just helpful. Some saw the gulls in natural terms. And the parasite that killed the hoppers in droves in 1878-79 was ordinarily seen as a natural enemy:

The grasshopper—the dreaded scourge of this country, seem to have an enemy, which, though infitessimal [sic] in stature, is still more powerful in their destruction than man can be. Brother John Daynes, of the 20th Ward, called this morning with a number of pests that had clustered together on the sprig of a currant bush, and were holding each other with a death grip. They were mere shells, the whole internal portion of their bodies having been gnawed away by an insect, which bores its way through the ironclad, outer covering and never leaves its prey until death ensues. Brother Daynes informs us that all the bushes in his lot are loaded with the dead hoppers, and we learn that the same thing may be seen in various parts of the country. And a pleasant sight it is.41

The following spring the “hopper parasite” was described again. Due to it “the grasshoppers on the lake bottom and as far north as Pleasant Grove are dying off by the bushels.”42

While the Latter-day Saints were gratified at unexpected help, whether gulls or parasites, and some of them at least interpreted such help as the result of divine intervention, it would be inaccurate to see their response primarily in such terms. The Mormons were pragmatists, interested in results. They subscribed wholeheartedly to the Anglo-Saxon practicality of “Pray to God but keep your powder dry.” When preaching on standard Christian themes, they were not attracted to any kind of salvation without work. Faith without works was dead for the church leaders, and they urged their followers to exert themselves against the invading insect hosts and not rest content with praying or hoping for a miracle.

But what could be done? Mainly it was a question of getting out in numbers and beating the insects to death. But there were ways in which the manpower could be more efficient. In 1855, for example, George A. Smith described men, women, and children organized into “squads of three or four each, well armed with willow bushes, and they were very busy sweeping the armies of grasshoppers into the small creeks where they place coffee sacks, and when they get them filled, they dig trenches, and bury their enemy.”43

People turned out en masse, but it was not realistic to expect all of the people to be out fighting the enemy all of the time. Some organization was needed. So, in Salt Lake City they worked at the ward level. In 1868 the people of the Twentieth Ward turned out “and destroyed immense numbers of them, by catching them on sheets, driving them into straw and burning them; and driving them into the water . . . and trapping them as they were being carried down by the water.”44

Organization of the “grasshopper war” was not merely by ward. Within each ward, in Salt Lake City at least, the ward or block teachers were appointed to superintend their own districts. In addition, a man was put in charge of each creek. Proud of their efficiency, A. P. Rockwood, who was chairman of a special grasshopper committee, remarked, “We can accomplish more in such a case than the people of other places now suffering from them, because we act more unitedly.”45

Rockwood conducted experiments on “the best plan for destroying the locusts or grasshoppers.” Beating them with brush worked fairly well on hard ground, but on soft ground where crops were planted it usually did not kill them. He tried traps in a stream and collected three pecks in sieves during half an hour.46 Driving the insects into the water of ditches, canals, and creeks, then screening them out at certain points, was a favorite method. Burning them with straw was tried at times. No example of the Mormon settlers paying a bounty for hoppers has been found, perhaps because in Minnesota where this method was tried “some of the farmers are so anxious to make ‘an honest dollar’ that they carefully nurse the hoppers so as to obtain the prescribed bounty for catching them, in the supposition that it is more profitable to grow grasshoppers than grain.”47

Despite the many suggestions for fighting the invading insects, little real progress was made. A window into the concerns and mentality of the times is provided by the minutes of the School of the Prophets held on May 14, 1870. After the opening song and prayer A. P. Rockwood recommended “a systematic, organized effort” to destroy the hoppers, otherwise there would be little raised that season. Wilford Woodruff noted that within his experience the best way of destroying them was “to get a large sheet, and a man at each corner to drag it through the grain, and when caught bury them.” If, after trying this, the crops were still destroyed, Woodruff added, “we shall have the satisfaction of having done our duty.” John Pack said he had never seen such destruction by the grasshoppers as this season. They had destroyed his wheat already. He planned to sow again on Monday. He also planned to plow the wheat under and not harrow it so that the first joint would still be under the ground. If the hoppers took the sprouting tips, it would shoot up again. If they took that, he would plant corn. After several other participants in the meeting had concurred in the need for organizing, Wilford Woodruff recommended that the bishops of the county get together and “devise some practical method for destroying them.” Since there had already in previous years been many such discussions, one senses a groping faith (or hope) that some trick would be discovered. Daniel Carn said that if people would put axle grease on the trunks of their fruit trees, two feet high, the grasshoppers would not go near them. Milo Andrus had a more interesting suggestion: sprinkle whisky and water on trees and plants. The meeting terminated with a decision that the bishops meet and organize the fight in their respective wards. All in all, the meeting reflects well the mixture of concern and practicality of the period.48

Elsewhere in the country enterprising individuals were inventing grasshopper-killing machinery. The Utah people, too, came up with mechanical ideas. In 1871, A. W. Winberg, a blacksmith, demonstrated a machine:

It consists of a frame drawn by two horses, having an apron extending forward close to the ground to scrape up the locusts, with a hood above it forming a box open in front. At the rear of the machine is a pair of rollers, geared together, the upper one driven by the carrying wheels of which it forms the axle. Whatever may find its way into the front of the machine is obliged to pass between the rollers at the back, which being capable of being forced close together, are apt to completely demoralize the “iron clads.”49

Although the Deseret News recommended that people of the settlements pool their resources to purchase this machinery, it did not catch on. A few years later George Darling wrote to the Deseret News to recommend a device he had thought of several years earlier, a wooden machine on wheels that required the operator to brush coal tar on the rollers as they became covered with the insects.50

In 1867 William Tanner, of Leavenworth City, Kansas, wrote to Brigham Young asking for suggestions on how to combat the insects. Tongue in cheek, Young wrote the following response:

Your favor of the 4th instant, on the subject of grasshoppers and the best remedy to prevent or check their ravages, has been received. We have suffered somewhat from them; but when we had a heavy visitation of them in this Territory, and the prospects were that we would be troubled with them again, I put in considerable of a crop on purpose for them to eat, hoping that my regular crops might be spared. The crop I put in for them suffered but slightly.51

One assumes that the insects had a hard time distinguishing the one marked “for grasshoppers only.” “The only remedy that we know for them out here,” the Mormon leader concluded, “is to exercise faith and pray the Lord to bless our land and our crops and not suffer them to fall a prey to the devourer, and to overrule circumstances that His purposes may be accomplished.”

This sounds like a counsel of futility, and perhaps Young was discouraged. He did have more positive advice to give, however, and it was not to merely “exercise faith and pray.” In 1867, having noted the laying of grasshopper eggs, Brigham Young stoically said in a sermon in Tooele:

According to present appearances, next year we may expect grasshoppers to eat up nearly all our crops. But if we have provisions enough to last us another year, we can say to the grasshoppers—these creatures of God—you are welcome. I have never yet had a feeling to drive them from one plant in my garden; but I look upon them as the armies of the Lord, and with them it is easy for Him to consume a great nation. We had better lay up bread instead of selling it to strangers, and thus avoid a great calamity that otherwise might overtake us.52

In 1868, Young was giving a sermon in the Mill Creek Ward. Faith alone was never sufficient, he argued, for “those who manifest by their works that they seek to do the will of the Lord are more acceptable before Him than those who live by faith alone.” Immediately, the Mormon leader was reminded of grasshoppers. Just a few days earlier he had returned from Provo and observed that “fields were stripped, young orchards were stripped of the leaves, and evidences of destruction were to be seen around.” Some people had tried to exercise faith and ask God to remove “this destructive power,” but Young did not see things in this way, not when he was preaching to the Saints. “Have I any good reason to say to my Father in heaven, ‘Fight my battles,’ when He has given me the sword to wield, the arm and the brain that I can fight for myself? Can I ask Him to fight my battles and sit quietly down waiting for Him to do so.? I cannot.”53

But what specifically did Young want the people to do? Was he urging more committees, more traps in the streams, special machinery, or special fields planted for the insects? One assumes that he was in favor of any procedures that would reduce the damages, but this was not his main message to the congregation at Mill Creek.

“We have had our fields laden with grain for years; and if we had been so disposed, our bins might have been filled to overflowing, and with seven years’ provisions on hand we might have disregarded the ravages of these insects, and have gone to the kanyon and got our lumber, procured the materials, and built up and beautified our places, instead of devoting our time to fighting and endeavoring to replace that which has been lost through destructiveness. We might have made our fences, improved our buildings, beautified Zion, let our ground rest, and prepared for the time when these insects would have gone.”

Borrowing from the experience of the shortage in the past and also from the biblical precedent of Joseph in Egypt, Brigham Young urged not a direct attack on the insect hordes but preparation that would enable the settlers to ignore the insects.

In 1877 similar advice was put forth by the church newspaper, which urged the Saints to plant as much as they could. Then the News raised the question that must have been in the minds of many people: What will happen when the grasshoppers come and devastate the crops?

“What of that? Sow and plant enough for yourselves and the grasshoppers. If you only put in sparingly, maybe the grasshoppers will conclude that there is not enough for them and the people also, and the first law of nature, self-preservation, will impel the insects to take what they need. If [p. 353] there is little, they may take all. If there is much, they hardly will. Of late years, they never have taken all—they have left enough for the people, for greater breadths than ever have been sown and planted. If there is much grain sown, and the grasshoppers take their share of it, they will not be so likely to kill your fruit and shade trees, and your fruit shrubs and plants, as they would if there were no grain crops to bear a part of the burden. The Territory could better afford to lose half its grain crop than lose its fruit trees and shrubs. Grain can be replaced in one year, but it takes many years to replace fruit trees and shrubs. Therefore the manifest wisdom of sowing largely, more largely in a probable grasshopper year than in a year free from those pests.”54

Summing up, the newspaper said, “Better sow a large crop and save half of it, than a small crop and lose it all.” In essence, this seems to have been the response of the farmers of Utah—planting as much as possible and trying to hold some food in reserve for bad years. There is no way of determining the extent of production beyond the minimum needed for subsistence, or the extent of the shortage, but even if pursued only haltingly such programs would have helped to soften the blow of the devastations.

By the late 1870s, if not before, grasshoppers were becoming a problem across several states and territories. In 1875, at the Detroit meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor C. V. Riley, state entomologist of Missouri, read a paper on “The Locust Plague and How to Avert It.” He recommended destroying the eggs and unfledged insects, exterminating the full-grown insects, encouraging their natural enemies, and preventing their ravages by artificial methods. He concluded that the best approach would be to “carry the war into Africa,” that is to attack the insects in their native home, the Rocky Mountains, using federal troops for the purpose if necessary. To this the Deseret News replied, “That last would be a capital idea. Better than sitting down on their haunches in Corinne to prevent the people there from being frightened to death. Think of the soldier boys out on the benches, chasing the locust and following the grasshopper!”55

In 1877 Congress established a national entomological commission that solicited information from all parts of the country and then published its findings. Many Utahns supplied data about the frequency of the incursions in that territory. It is hard to know to what extent the Mormons drew upon this government publication for ideas, but there is ample evidence in the newspapers that they were interested in any findings or proposals.56

For the quarter of a century during which their attacks were most frequent and most severe, the grasshoppers posed a considerable problem to the farmers of Utah. They challenged the strength of the Mormon settlers to battle a discouraging, imperfectly understood pest. Although there were individual variations, the community at large combined religious faith and pragmatism in coping with the “iron-clads.” They prayed, they “exercised faith,” they saw the hand of God in bird and wind and lake. At the same time, they exerted themselves to lay up grain in the storehouse, to fight the pests directly by every means at their disposal, and above all to plant larger crops while trying to resist discouragement. Through all of this the religious background was never far from the minds of the Mormons: How could it be? Their very planting of crops was in itself seen as part of the fulfillment of the prophecy that the desert would blossom as the rose. Yet, they retained their commonsense approach to life. In his journal William Moore Allred remembered that in 1872 or 1873 Joseph F. Smith had visited his settlement and had prophesied “that the grasshoppers would leave us if we would do right.” Avoiding pride and self-righteousness but certainly pleased with the way things had turned out, Allred then added, “and we have had none since, altho I presume we have not done everything right.”57

Davis Bitton is professor of history at the University of Utah. Linda P. Wilcox is a part-time historical researcher.
1 On the miracle of the gulls see B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 3:331-33; and James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), p. 251. Challenging some parts of the traditional story, particularly that everyone regarded the seagulls as providential, was William Hartley, “Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story,” Utah Historical Quarterly 38 (1970): 22-39. For some comments on the later memorializing of the event see Davis Bitton, “The Ritualization of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (1975): 67-85.
2 Deseret News, June 25, 1855.
3 Deseret News, August 21, 1867.
4 George F. Knowlton to Davis Bitton, February 17, 1977.
5 Benjamin LeBaron, “The Grasshopper War,” typescript, Hurricane, Utah, April 9, 1939, Archives Division, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter referred to as LDS Archives).
6 Alfred Cordon Journal, June 26, 1868, vol. 8, p. 16.
7 Ibid., July 24, 1868, vol. 8, pp. 25-26.
8 John Fell Squires Autobiography, LDS Archives.
9 Deseret News, June 1, 1870; June 11,1877.
10 Deseret News, June 20, 1877.
11 Deseret News, January 9, 1878.
12 The “Mormon cricket” looks like a cricket and is called a cricket but is technically a large, black, long-horned, wingless grasshopper. Real crickets have wings. See Frank T Cowan, Life History, Habits, and Control of the Mormon Cricket, U.S. Department of Agriculture Technical Bulletin No. 161 (Washington, D.C., 1929), p. 3.
13 Quoted by J. Cecil Alter, “In the Beginning,” p. 157, typescript, Utah State Historical Society.
14 W. C. A. Smoot, First Annual Report of the United States Entomological Commission for the Year 1877 Relating to the Rocky Mountain Locust and the Best Methods of Preventing Its Injuries and of Guarding against Its Invasions (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1878), pp 104–5; appendix, p. 258.
15 Ralph H. Brown, Historical Geography of the United States (New York: Harcourt Brace, and Company, 1948), pp. 385-86.
16 Dorothy Childs Hogner, Grasshoppers and Crickets (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960), p. 32.
17 Alter, “In the Beginning,” pp. 486–87.
18 Journal History of the Church, August 12, 1854, LDS Archives; Salt Lake Herald, May 28, 1879; Journal History, May 24, 1879.
19 First Annual Report of the U.S. Entomological Commission, appendix, p. 258.
20 Deseret News, August 5, 1868.
21 First Annual Report of the U.S. Entomological Commission, p. 54.
22 Our study makes no claim to be complete. There may have been grasshoppers in some areas and years which do not show up here. But a check of the Journal History and of the Deseret News has turned up no indications of grasshoppers for the years that are blank on the table. Table begins on p. 354.
23 Journal History, May 29, 1855.
24 Deseret Evening News, May 13, 1875.
25 First Annual Report of the U.S, Entomological Commission, p. 103.
26 Deseret News, September 5, 1855.
27 A. P. Madsen in Deseret News, May 27, 1879.
28 Deseret News, May 20, 1868.
29 Deseret Evening News, May 13, 1875.
30 Henry Ballard, in First Annual Report of the U.S. Entomological Commission, appendix, p. 256.
31 Deseret News, August 1, 1879.
32 Lewis Barney Journal, p. 87, typescript, LDS Archives.
33 Ibid., p 99.
34 Ibid, pp. 68-69.
35 Deseret News, June 20, 1877; June 27, 1877; July 25, 1877; August 1, 1877; August 15, 1877; October 24, 1877; November 14, 1877.
36 Leonard J. Arrington, “Historical Materials of Utah in the LDS Church Archives,” paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Utah State Historical Society, September 13, 1972.
37 Joseph E. Wheeler Journal, LDS Archives.
38 John Swain Journal, LDS Archives, May 30-June 12, 1880. Other information in this paragraph is from First Annual Report of the U.S. Entomological Commission, appendix, pp. 255-58.
39 Journal History, June 20, 1855.
40 LeBaron, “The Grasshopper war.”
41 Deseret News, September 25, 1878.
42 Deseret News, June 19, 1869.
43 Journal History, May 31, 1855.
44 Deseret News, May 20, 1868.
45 Ibid.
46 Deseret News, May 13, 1868.
47 Deseret News, April 18, 1877, June 27, 1877.
48 Minutes, School of the Prophets, May 14, 1870, LDS Archives.
49 Deseret News, May 31, 1871.
50 Deseret Evening News, April 25, 1877.
51 Brigham Young Letterbooks, February 21, 1867, LDS Archives.
52 Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London, 1854–86) 12 :121-22.
53 Ibid., 12:24ff.
54 Deseret News, April 5, 1877.
55 Deseret News, September 8, 1875.
56 A copy of the report was received by the curator of the Deseret Museum, Deseret News, August 21, 1878.
57 William Moore Allred Journal, p. 5, LDS Archives.
John S. H. Smith, “Sanpete County between the Wars: An Overview of a Rural Economy in Transition,” pp. 356-368.