Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The folklore of the Great Plains touches on many insects, including buffalo gnats and Mormon crickets, but no creature so permeates the culture of this region as the grasshopper– and the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) in particular (a locust is a type of grasshopper capable of forming immense, migratory swarms). During periods of favorable weather, these insects erupted from their "permanent breeding zones" in the fertile river valleys and spread over an area of nearly two million square miles. For half a century, outbreaks of this locust devastated farms in every state and province of the Great Plains, and this species was declared the single greatest impediment to the settlement of the region.

Glacial deposits containing frozen locusts in the Rocky Mountains reveal that outbreaks have occurred for at least 1,000 years, but European settlers first reported seeing swarms in 1818. Major outbreaks developed in 1855–57 and 1864–67, but the folklore of this locust was established with the swarms of 1873–78 (1874 was called the "Grasshopper Year" in Kansas). Laura Ingalls Wilder's description, from On the Banks of Plum Creek, is classic: "The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. . . . The rasping whirring of their wings filled the whole air and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm. . . . Laura had to step on grasshoppers and they smashed squirming and slimy under her feet."

In fruitless efforts to fight the swarms that stripped the land of all vegetation, shredded laundry, and infested larders, people used smoky fires, burning trenches, and various contraptions, such as a horse-drawn device to scoop and smash the insects. Governments offered bounties for locust eggs ($5 per bushel), and the eggs were even used as a form of local currency. Kansas attempted to assemble a "grasshopper army," requiring every ablebodied male from age twelve to sixty-five to fight the locusts. Townspeople reported that "heavy freight trains were delayed for hours by their [the locusts'] gathering on the track in large numbers, the wheels crushing their bodies and forming an oily, soapy substance, which caused the wheels to spin around and around, with no power to go forward." Some interpreted the swarms as a punishment sent by Providence. This notion was disputed by a state entomologist who headed a section of his report "Not a Divine Visitation."

The catastrophe became the material of tall tales, like the one about a man who, when plowing his field, hung his work jacket on a post, leaving his watch in the pocket. When he came back to get his jacket, all that was left was the watch–because the grasshoppers had eaten his jacket. Another humorous bit of folklore recounted the man who left his team in the field while he went to his well for a drink of water. When he came back the grasshoppers had eaten up the team and harness and were playing horseshoes with the iron shoes the horses had worn.

When the outbreak of the 1870s abated, the Rocky Mountain locust once again concentrated in the fertile river valleys. At the same time, settlers were converging into these regions, converting them into farmland and effectively destroying the habitat needed by the locust during its recession periods. In doing so, farmers managed to inadvertently drive their most severe competitor to extinction, leaving North America without a locust species. The Rocky Mountain locust lives on only in folklore; the last living specimen was collected in 1902.

See also PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Grasshoppers.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood University of Wyoming

Lockwood, Jeffrey A., and Larry D. DeBrey. "A Solution for the Sudden and Unexplained Extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus (Walsh)." Environmental Entomology 19 (1990): 1194-1205.

Welsh, Roger L. A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

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