1874 was the year of the great locust plague. 120 billion Rocky Mountain locusts destroyed a swath over a hundred miles wide that by autumn, working south, had got as far as Texas. In the end the infestation affected two million square miles. It came about owing to a population increase among the insects that coincided with an unusually dry early summer in which greenery couldn’t flourish, the result being that the creatures took wing in search of food.
Accounts of the time are horrifying. The locusts blotted out the sun for hours as they flew in and then they devoured everything that was even vaguely edible. Every leaf off every tree was eaten, every fruit, every blade of grass, but they only ate the juicier parts of wheat and left the rest rotting. Where farmers laid quilts over their vegetable patches to protect them, the locusts ate the quilts. They came into houses and consumed everything that wasn’t shut away in wooden or metal boxes and when they’d finished, they ate the curtains. They also ate clothes and they weren’t fussed if there was someone inside them. One woman described how they gobbled up the green stripe on her white dress.
Homesteaders rushed to cover their wells when the locusts (or grasshoppers as they often called them) arrived. As it was, every bit of natural water was tainted with the excrement of the insects and was thus undrinkable. Nothing worked to stop them coming – people tried fire and explosions and even just shouting and banging. The only thing to do was eat them, and gourmets claimed they were quite delicious, but farmers who’d watched their crops being destroyed before their very eyes by them had developed an aversion. When barnyard animals ate them, they became bloated and their meat was inedible.
A report in 1874 declared that only one family in ten had enough provisions to last the bitter winter which followed. Desperate people either abandoned their homestead claims and their dreams and moved out, or in some cases died of starvation.
The US army saved a great many lives, distributing rations and warm clothing and blankets. The federal government also helped families hard-hit by the infestation by exempting them from residency requirements which meant that they could move elsewhere for as long as it took for the land to recover and then return to occupy their claims.
The locusts had laid vast numbers of eggs so the great fear was of another whole year without a harvest. But when spring came and the ground was covered in a crawling mass of nymphs, there was a stroke of good luck for the homesteaders. A late snowstorm and hard frost killed most of them while there was still time to replant the crops.
Various measures were taken in different states to combat future plagues of locusts, such as offering high prices early in the season for a bushel of locusts picked off the ground. But a major safeguard was the planting of winter wheat which could be harvested in the early summer before locusts arrived.
So successful was the battle against these frightening invasions that the Rocky Mountain locust was approaching extinction by the end of the twentieth century. We shouldn’t be too complacent, however – other species of grasshopper, cricket or katydid can fulfil much the same role.