Laura Ingalls Wilder and One of The Greatest Natural Disasters in American History
When a Trillion Locusts Ate Everything in Sight
In the fall of 1873, Charles and Caroline Ingalls sold their little house in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, the log cabin where their two oldest daughters had been born, for a thousand dollars. Perhaps they were struggling to pay back debts; perhaps it was simply an offer too good to refuse. Years later, Laura Ingalls Wilder would attribute the decision to the disappearance of game and her father’s distaste for the crowds piling into Wisconsin, where the population had swelled to more than a million. Charles Ingalls never seemed to realize that his ambition for a profitable farm was irreconcilable with a love of untrammeled and unpopulated wilderness. Whatever the motivation, selling a comfortable, established home with plowed fields and a productive garden was a leap into the unknown. It would be repaid with disaster and heartbreak.
In February 1874, the Ingallses headed west in their wagon across the frozen Mississippi River into Minnesota. Charles found a property on Plum Creek, a tributary of the Cottonwood River, and in June he filed a claim on 172 acres. To get title to the land, he would have to stay at least six months, establish a residence, and eventually pay $2.50 an acre—twice the price for ordinary public land, because this property was near the railroad. The land was two miles north of a not-yet-incorporated town, then known as Walnut Station, and later renamed Walnut Grove for its black walnut trees.
The family moved into a dugout already on the property, a cavity scooped out of the creek’s banks. As was customary, the roof had been crafted from a lattice of willow branches with strips of sod laid across the top. As the grass grew together, its thatch formed a relatively sturdy ceiling, but one that could be pierced by an errant ox wandering across the top.
However primitive the accommodations, Plum Creek was a beautiful place. Along the creek bed, clear water meandered over a soft, silty bottom shaded by willows and plum thickets, perfect for wading. Tall-grass prairie spread to the horizon, waving with big bluestem and a riot of summer wildflowers: bergamot, butterfly weed, coreopsis, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan. Butterflies, meadowlarks, and red-winged blackbirds flew among the grasses while badgers lay in their burrows. Beyond the east bank lay a vast flat tableland, the vista topped by a spectacular blue sky studded with distant white.
Laura and Mary were delighted with dugout living and had “wonderful times” playing in Plum Creek. They were proud of their new responsibilities: minding three-year-old Carrie to make sure she didn’t fall in the water and watching for the family cow, brought back each afternoon by a herd boy after a day grazing on the prairie. Their father was busy plowing and digging a well next to the site where he planned to build a house. Charles Ingalls was once again chasing a wheat crop that, he hoped, would put him in the black. Wheat was selling high at the moment, $1.02 a bushel.
But even as the Ingallses were finding a place for themselves in Walnut Grove, there was trouble on the horizon. Ominously, two other men had previously filed claims on the same land, then relinquished it. Neither one had “proved up” by completing the process and paying for the claim. Whether Charles knew it or not, the previous owners may have had good reason to leave the bucolic Plum Creek property.
In June 1873, a year before the Ingallses arrived, a mystifying cloud had darkened the clear sky of southwest Minnesota on “one of the finest days of the year.” Like a demonic visitation, it was flickering red, with silver edges, and appeared to be alive, arriving “at racehorse speed.” Settlers were terrified to realize that it was composed of locusts, swarming grasshoppers that settled a foot thick over farms, breaking trees and shrubs under their weight. They sounded, according to one unnerved observer, like “thousands of scissors cutting and snipping.” A young Minnesota boy was in school with his brother when they heard the locusts coming, around two o’clock in the afternoon. As they started for home, cringing under a hail of falling insects, the boys had to “hold our hands over our faces to keep them from hitting us in our eyes.”
Farmers tried everything to get rid of them, firing guns, building barricades, starting fires, clubbing them off houses. Nothing worked. According to eyewitnesses, a month after they arrived, having eaten everything green, the grasshoppers formed a column and marched off to the east.
During that one month, the locust swarms destroyed more than three million dollars’ worth of crops, including over half a million bushels of wheat. A dozen counties reported damages, including virtually all of Redwood County. Yet though it was a blow to the state’s economy, the lost crops represented only 2 percent of that year’s production. The state wrote it off as a fluke, reveling in a banner year elsewhere.
Charles Ingalls must have heard of the grasshoppers; newspaper columns were full of them. Yet when the Ingallses settled on Plum Creek in 1874, the land was cloaked in spring green. They may have believed, as others did, that the grasshoppers had moved on. In fact, the previous year’s swarm had laid their eggs before departing. While Charles Ingalls plowed his fields, grasshoppers flew and marched in columns again, leaving destitute farmers in their wake with no seed to plant the next season. As with tornadoes, however, devastation was spotty and localized, with locusts touching down like funnel clouds in one place only to leave a neighboring township untouched. Perhaps a fluke of the wind spared Laura’s family their first year.
Losses from the 1874 locust swarm were immense. Twenty-eight counties were affected, more than twice as many as in the previous year. Farmers lost a total of 4.5 million bushels of grain and potatoes, including 2.6 million bushels of wheat. Many of them suffered crop failures two years in a row, leaving them wholly without food. An elderly farmer east of Walnut Grove pleaded with Minnesota’s chief executive as if he were God himself: “Oh, most honorable governor, I hope you will help us poor old mortals.” A girl wrote to say that her family had seen all their crops destroyed by grasshoppers and were suffering from cold, “having but two quilts and two sheets in the house.”
But the governor was busy with other matters. As he saw it, the farmers’ problems were primarily a matter for the private sector. That year, the state legislature appropriated only 5,000 dollars in direct relief, with another 25,000 to buy seed grain for affected farmers. General Henry Hastings Sibley, the state’s renowned Indian killer, was brought out of retirement to coordinate charitable relief. St. Paul merchants proved generous, but need far exceeded supply.
Minnesota was far from the only state harmed by the locusts, with destitution also reported that winter in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, and Dakota Territory. In Nebraska, soldiers were tasked with delivering surplus Army clothing, and found women and children surviving in a pitiable state, men having left to find work. One boy staggered into an army outpost with bare feet wrapped in cloth, saying that his mother and five siblings were at home, starving.
Melanoplus spretus, the Rocky Mountain locust, was a stupendous force of nature. Individually, the grasshopper was scarcely noticeable: a dull olive green, just an inch and a half long. In the aggregate, however, it wielded immense power, as hinted at by the nomenclature. The word locust comes from the Latin phrase locus ustus, which means “burnt place.” Spretus means “despised.” Reflecting the general feeling, one of the common names for the creature was “hateful grasshopper.”
Ordinary grasshoppers never gather in immense clouds. Locusts, on the other hand, have the ability to become gregarious, form massive swarms, and fly astonishing distances. After settling, adults feed and lay eggs over a summer; their offspring hibernate during the winter and hatch out the following spring. It was these immature locusts that would march across the country, devouring foliage as they molted into adulthood. Until recent times, every inhabited continent on earth had at least one locust species. Before modern pest control, Europe was plagued by them; Africa, Asia, and Australia still are. The US had only a single species. The Rocky Mountain locust could go for years without swarming, until the perfect conditions set it off.
Perfect conditions were created by drought, which was a major problem across the West and Midwest in the 1870s. Indeed, the entire planet was gripped that decade by a severe El Niño event, which disrupted climate around the globe. It caused mass famines in China and India, triggering epidemics of disease; millions died. A study in Nature called it “the most destructive drought the world has ever known.”
In 1873, parts of Kansas had had their driest year on record. The following year, much of the Great Plains experienced a summer without rain. A Kansas woman remembered eerie, oppressive heat, broken only by a cataclysmic hailstorm. “The grasses seemed to wither and the cattle bunched up near the creek and well and no air seemed to stir the leaves on the trees,” she recalled. “All nature seemed still.” Then the clouds took on a “greenish hue” and hail fell, “devastating everything.”
Prolonged heat and aridity favored locusts by accelerating their growth and concentrating sugars in plants. Then, as drought wasted wild vegetation, the invertebrates focused their attention on the densest, highest-quality source of nutrients: crops. In 1875, locust nymphs hatched from their eggs throughout the Great Plains. Billions upon billions matured in a flash.
Given the severity of damage the previous two years, some of the Ingallses’ neighbors were simply sitting on their hands, refusing to plant until the danger had passed. Total acreage planted declined in 1875 and the following year by nearly 60 percent. But there was a great deal of misinformation. An inveterate newspaper reader, Charles Ingalls may have taken the advice of farm papers such as the one in Red Wing, Minnesota, which confidently reported in late May 1875 that “there are no grasshoppers . . . in any part of Minnesota north, south, east or west . . . the conclusion is inevitable that their eggs have been entirely destroyed.”
That year, after the arid summer the year before and the mild winter that followed, Charles Ingalls had made a considerable financial outlay, building a spacious house, probably the finest the family had yet lived in. It stood 20- by 24-feet square and 10 feet high, with a solid roof and floor, and three windows. It was the pride of the family. Laura would later call it “the wonderful house.” Charles built two stables for oxen and horses, plowing and cultivating 40 acres. He was feeling confident enough to take advantage of the Timber Culture Act, new legislation that allowed settlers to acquire 160 acres at no cost in exchange for planting a certain number of trees on that land. In early June 1875, he filed on such a “tree claim” a few miles north of his Plum Creek property, expanding his holdings. Meanwhile, he was raising a bumper crop of wheat.
Charles was gloating over the wheat as the family sat down to dinner one June day. Raising his arms, he showed them how tall it was, “with long beautiful heads and filling nicely.” Just as he pronounced it a “wonderful crop,” they heard someone calling them outside. It was their neighbor Olena Nelson, and she was screaming, “The grasshoppers are coming! The grasshoppers are coming!”
The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history. It would become known as “Albert’s swarm”: in Nebraska, a meteorologist named Albert Child measured its flight for ten days in June, telegraphing for further information from east and west, noting wind speed and carefully calculating the extent of the cloud of insects. He startled himself with his conclusions: the swarm appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles, Child concluded, an area equal to the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. “This is utterly incredible,” he wrote, “yet how can we put it aside?” The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.
The swarms swept from Saskatchewan to Texas, devouring everything in their path. The grasshoppers savored the sweat-stained handles of farm implements, chewed the wool off sheep, ate the leaves off trees. After flying, settling, consuming, and laying eggs, they began marching across the country, millions massing to form pontoons across creeks and rivers. Hoppers were said to “eat everything but the mortgage.” Terrified, people reached for comparisons, likening the insectile clouds to other natural disasters: snow storms, hail storms, tornadoes, even wildfires. “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire . . . the low crackling and rasping,” read a report from the US Entomological Commission, created by Congress to address the crisis. Even modern scientists stretch for language to convey the swarm’s ferocity, calling it a “metabolic wildfire.” It consumed roughly a quarter of the country.
Farmers ran frantically to cover tender garden plants with gunny sacks, quilts, shawls, and dresses, only to watch, stunned, as the insects chewed right through them. A Kansas woman found denuded pits hanging from her peach tree. She tried to save her garden by covering it with sacks but soon saw it was hopeless: “The hoppers regarded that as a huge joke, and enjoyed the awning . . . or if they could not get under, they ate their way through. The cabbage and lettuce disappeared the first afternoon.” She noticed the “neat way” they had of eating onions from the inside out, leaving the outer shell behind.
Grasshopper carcasses fouled wells, polluted creeks and rivers, and halted trains laboring up grades, the tracks greasy with crushed bodies. There were reports of children screaming in horror as insects alighted on them and of farmers’ wives becoming hysterical, mad with fright. A woman wearing a striped frock said insects settled on her and ate “every bit of green stripe in that dress.”
Technology was useless. Inventive farmers crafted “hopperdozers” out of sheet metal, contraptions drenched in coal tar and pulled across infested fields. These collected some pests, but their effectiveness was limited. Grasshoppers could work faster than fields could be dragged.
When the Ingallses saw the locusts coming, Wilder recalled, her father put on his hat and “went out toward his beautiful wheat field.” He set fire to berms of straw and manure piled around the field, hoping to smoke out the locusts. But it was to no avail. By noon of the second day, he gave up and returned to the house exhausted, “his eyes all swollen and red from the smoke and lack of sleep.”
The dream of the perfect crop died that day. It was a nightmarish repetition of Caroline Ingalls’s early privation, when she and her siblings had had nothing to eat but bread crumbs and water. Once again there was no money to buy food. The catastrophe could not have come at a worse time: Caroline was pregnant again, expecting a child in November.
On the third day, the insects began marching west, walking inexorably up the east side of the house, across the roof, and down the other side, coming in the window by the score until Caroline ran to close it. They were marching, Wilder wrote, “like an army,” and the family looked around at each other “as though we were just waked from a bad dream.” Grasshopper bodies filled the creek and left fields pocked with holes, “like a honey comb.” The holes were filled with eggs.
The locust plague constituted the worst and most widespread natural disaster the country had ever seen, causing an estimated $200 million in damage to western agriculture (the equivalent of $116 billion today) and threatening millions of farmers in remote locations—far from social services in the cities—with starvation. In 1875, Minnesota once again lost more than two million bushels of wheat. That January, the so-called Grasshopper Legislature appropriated a mere $20,000 in aid for the stricken, extending the deadline for property taxes but balking at doing more for those perceived as shirkers. Miserly amounts of food aid were distributed in some counties, in amounts ranging from two to four dollars per family, while the minimum required by a family of four for a year was estimated at two hundred dollars. Just like the locusts themselves, relief, such as it was, fell in haphazard fashion.
As for the federal government, Congress appropriated $100,000 in aid for settlers on the western frontier. But the easterners were generally cavalier. Newspapers shrugged at the constant reports of “famine, suffering and misery” in the West. “It is humiliating to have them so constantly before us, passing round the hat,” wrote one editorialist.
Even as Minnesota distributed aid, it expressed contempt for the destitute, enacting punitive regulations that required farmers to prove they were completely bereft before applying for relief. In a cruel and counterproductive move, the state demanded that applicants sell any livestock they owned before receiving aid. Meanwhile, trying to empty the ocean a drop at a time, counties nailed flyers to town walls advertising a bounty for grasshoppers: five cents a quart, “caught and delivered dead.” An informational pamphlet distributed by a railroad urged farmers to get busy collecting the pests, since solving the problem was their responsibility. Newspapers advised their hungry readers to eat the bugs: “make it a ‘hopper’ feast.”
In desperation, Charles Ingalls sold his horses, leaving the money with his wife. With nothing left for train fare, he walked 200 miles east to work the harvest, possibly near his brother Peter Ingalls’ farm in southeastern Minnesota, where the grasshoppers had not penetrated. When he returned, he moved the family into town for the winter, where they rented a house behind the church. On November 30, Charles signed a sworn statement before county officials stating that he was “wholy without means,” the humiliating requirement of the relief act passed earlier that year. It made him eligible to receive two half-barrels of flour, worth five dollars and twenty-five cents. He may never have told his children where the flour came from.
The one thousand dollars he had received for the little house in the Big Woods was long gone. Wilder later recalled that her parents had hoped Plum Creek would restore their fortunes. “Prosperity was only just around the corner, just till that crop of wheat was raised,” she wrote wistfully. “Plum Creek was safety and then look what happened.”
Charles Ingalls and his family must have longed for their former home. The locust swarm had never crossed the Mississippi River. It left Wisconsin untouched.
From Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Courtesy Henry Holt and Co. Copyright 2017, Caroline Fraser.