Rocky Mountain Locust: A plague of Biblical proportions

Time Before Now – September 1874The largely forgettable Franklin Pierce became president in March, following the untimely death of Millard Fillmore from a stroke.  Gail Bordon, the savior of hundreds of babies on the frontier with his patented condensed milk, died as well at the age of 72.  Waltz KingJohann Strauss, premiered “Dei Fledermous” in Vienna (right) and Robert Green introduced ice cream sodas during the Semicentennial celebration at Philadelpia’s Franklin Institute.

September 18, 1874

On this day starving settlers, their crops ravaged by Rocky Mountain locust, could apply for help from the Nebraska Relief and Aid Society.  It was unfortunately  sometimes charity served up with a mean-spirited price tag. 

The Society’s funds came from a combination of government and private money, most private donations from wealthy Easterners.  The hard-pressed farmers, however, were sometimes forced to prove they were absolutely destitute.  Fearing recipients would “become soft,” with unbridled largess, their privileged donors often required that they sell their last milk cow and their plow horses. It only perpetuated the crisis. 

Direct donations accounted for approximately $68,000, about $1.5 million today.  Congress appropriated $130,000 for relief and seed, however, amounting to nearly $3 million now.  The government funds were distributed by U.S. Army officers under Major General Edward Ord, commander of the Platte District. (Above)  An engineer and Civil War hero, Ord had witnessed the devastation first hand and asked Washington to be allowed to provide aid.  

His initial request was turned down but as the crisis deepened, he was finally given permission to hand out surplus Civil War clothing.  He exceeded his orders by also distributing food and supplies, as well, saving perhaps thousands of lives and hundreds of farmsteads. It marked the first time in the country’s history the American military lent aid in a civilian crisis. 

The next  year, however, he was transferred to Texas where he designed and supervised the construction of Fort Sam Houston.  

It should have been obvious to everyone the disaster hadn’t been caused by laziness or lack of moral character.  In July of that summer, a swarm of the locust had swept out of the west, leaving total destruction in its wake. It was a disaster that just kept happening.   

The plains continued to be struck every seven to 12 year into the 20th Century.  In the five years between 1873 to 1877 alone, locust were estimated to have been responsible for more than $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska.

The infestation inspired a variety of editorial cartoons.

Eye witness accounts describe locust a foot deep.  The ravenous insects were said to eat the wool off sheep, the tails off horses and the shirts right off the backs of prairie homesteaders.  Newspaper accounts of a train stalled on the tracks by locust near Kearney, Nebraska, were generally discounted as hyperbole by Eastern residents. 

The largest swarm occurred in 1875 and recorded by a Nebraska physician and amateur meteorologist, Dr. Albert Child.  He calculated the size at 198,000 square miles, larger than the size of California. It took five entire days to pass over Child’s prairie outpost.  The doctor arrived at his number by telegraphing communities to his east, estimating the speed at which the swarm moved.

Computer-assisted science has proven Dr. Child’s calculations amazingly accurate, estimating more than 12.5 million insects in a cloud so dense it blotted out the sun.  The swarm is still listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as “Albert’s Swarm.

The root of this 19th century plague, a mystery for many years, originated in a sandy 20-mile strip  in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Starting out as garden variety grasshoppers, the insects undergo a metamorphosis caused by overcrowding. 

In the 1920s Oxford University researcher Russian-born entomologist, Sir Boris Petrovich Uvarov, (right) was the first to discover the phenomenon, producing increased serotonin, a change in color, body structure, increased appetite and rapid breeding. Most important of all, the nymphs have wings.  The process occurs when the hind legs of an individual contact another insect several times in 60 seconds.

Uvarov went on to become the first director of London’s Anti-Locust Research Centre, preeminent in forecasting and prevention of locust swarms and played a major role in African anti-locust campaigns during WWII.

Adult locust can be carried hundreds of miles by the wind alone.  The devastating 19th century swarms were thought to be made worse by an unusually low jet stream over the Great Plains combined with a lengthy drought.  Dry conditions increase the amount of sugar stored in plant stocks, providing more food for the insects.

The Hopper Grinder was one of many useless contraptions

Desperate farmers tried all manner of contraptions including Hopper Grinders and Hopper Plows.   More recent scientific theories surrounding the eventual extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust range from the loss of buffalo wallows to the introduction of alfalfa.  Improved plowing methods and increased irrigation remain popular explanations.  Inventer James Oliver’s chill-bottom plow blades get a lot of credit.  Capable of cutting deeper into the heavy prairie soil. they crushed or exposed the larvae to the elements.

The last known Rocky Mountain locust was discovered in southern Canada in 1902.  Declared extinct in 1950, examples have been found frozen in glaciers.  Unfortunately its extinction wasn’t the end of locusts.  The High Plains species nearly reached plague proportion in the 1930s, ravaging the area already devastated by the Dust Bowl.  While not yet declared extinct, it is considered “rare” today

Now more easily controlled by aerial applications of chemical and biological insecticides and a variety of other modern techniques eliminate the insects in the larval stage.  According to entomologists, North America is the only continent on earth without a significant locust threat.  They still appear periodically in other parts of the globe, however, and may one day again endanger the world’s food supply.

A fictionalized account of the locust years by author Laura Ingalls Wilder is contained in “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” part of her Little House on the Prairie series and Ole Edvart Rølvaag’s 1927 “Giants in the Earth”  describes personal experiences as a Norwegian immigrant in Dakota Territory.

Nebraska History Museum, 131 Centennial Mall N, Lincoln, Nebraska, features more than 125,000 artifacts documenting pioneer life on the plains in the state where homesteading began.

Not large but comprehensive, its steps away from the popular Lincoln Children’s Musuem and Bertram Goodhue’s historic State Capitol.  Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children, kids under 5 are free.   Open 9 to 4 Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday,  9 to 8 Thursday and closed Saturday and Sunday and state observed holidays.  For more information go to, e-mail or call (402) 471-4754.

© Text Only – 2022 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.