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The Great Plains' Largest Natural Disaster: A Plague Of Locust

1800s | August 7, 2019

A large swarm of locust can eat 100,000 metric tons of vegetation per day. AFP PHOTO/BILAL TARABEY. Source: (Photo credit should read BILAL TARABEY/AFP/Getty Images)

If you're up on your Bible, you know that when God was angry that the Pharaoh would not free the Israelites, he sent down a series of plagues to the people of Egypt. One of them was a plague of locusts to devour and destroy the crops of the region. This might sound like biblical fiction, but locusts—actually just common grasshoppers with anger issues and a mob mentality—really can band together in massive swarms that bring destruction to an area. In fact, the largest swarm of locust in recorded history didn’t happen in biblical times or faraway Egypt but the Great Plains of the United States in 1874 and 1875. The tremendous destruction these insects caused made it the largest, most widespread natural disaster to hit the Great Plains. 

Technically, locusts are just grasshoppers that swarm together to cause destruction. Source: (daily.jstor.org)

What are Locusts?

Locusts and grasshoppers are essentially the same things. Most of the time, the insects are solitary and docile, but occasionally, their swarming instincts are triggered. When this happens, grasshoppers are called locusts. Together, the insects can cause havoc for farmers, because much like the freeloading cousin who crashes on your couch every few months, they eat every bit of vegetation they happen upon.

A cartoon drawing showed how the settlers were at the mercy of the grasshoppers. Source: (historynet.com)

The Year of the Locust

Depending on which historian you talk you, you may be told that the Year of the Locust in the United States was 1874 or 1875, but really, there were locust swarms both years. Eyewitness accounts of the time tell us that the summers of both years were very hot and very dry. That's why, when the homesteaders on the Great Plains saw a cloud approaching, they got excited, thinking it was a rain cloud. The closer the cloud got, however, the stranger it looked. The cloud was greenish in color and shimmered from the sunlight hitting the iridescent wings of the insects. The cloud of locusts was so thick it blotted out the Sun for hours. It was when the locusts descended to Earth, however, that the real destruction started. 

Try as they may, there were just too many insects to catch or kill. Source: (mnopedia.org)

Insects with an Appetite for Destruction

Individual locusts began falling to the ground like hail. In almost no time, the locusts covered the ground and began eating everything they could find. First to go was the vegetation—crops, grasses, trees, prairie plants. Within a few hours, the area was totally stripped of plant life, and that was just the appetizer. The locusts reportedly ate cloth—quilts spread out to cover vegetable gardens, canvas wagon covers, and even the clothes off peoples' backs. It was like the world's most terrifying burlesque show. They also ate the leather harnesses on the horses, paint on buildings, wooden handles and fence posts, and anything made of paper.

The insect swarm was widespread. Source: (hearthstonelegacy.com)

A Massive Swarm

This was during the era when everyone was all excited about these newfangled telegraph machines, so frontier towns on the Great Plains quickly relayed news of the swarm, presumably entirely in screams. It turned out it was bigger than anyone realized. The swarm spread from the eastern Rocky Mountains to Iowa and the Mississippi River, and from the middle of Texas across the Great Plains and into the Canadian prairie provinces. The hardest-hit areas were in Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas. As the swarm moved across the area, it impacted nearly 200,000 square miles. Researchers believe the swarm contains more than 120 billion insects—the largest insect swarm in recorded history.

A homestead family burning piles of dead locusts. Source: (kshs.org)

What Caused the Plague of Locust?

The insects involved in the Year of the Locust were Rocky Mountain Locusts, which are commonly found in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. In typical years, their numbers are not impressive, but the two years leading up to the 1874 and 1875 invasions were not typical. The region had been impacted by severe drought, which meant that vegetation had stopped growing and some fungal species that usually keep the grasshopper population in check were killed off by the dryness. Without a natural predator, the grasshopper population exploded, and without an available food source, the insects formed a migratory swarm to search for food. It's the same process that causes the Gathering of the Juggalos.

The Year of the Locust left farm fields in ruins and the region's economy destroyed. Source: (siqik.com)

An Economic Hardship

For many of the settlers in the Great Plains area, the devastation caused by the locusts was too much to overcome. As much as one-third of the population left, either returning to the east or pushing farther west. Others were too deep in debt to leave. It was clear that the settlers needed additional help, so the federal government sent seeds to the impacted areas to help farmers replant. They also provided feed assistance and waived the residency requirement to proving up a homestead claim. They asked every able-bodied man to spend at least two days per week removing locust eggs and even paid people to bring in bushels full of dead locusts. Within a few years, the prairies had bounced back from the devastating locusts and settlers returned to the area, which doesn't seem very fair. They didn't have to shovel any locust eggs.

Tags: locust plague great plains

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.