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Grasshopper Plague On the Banks of Plum Creek

Have you given much thought to those grasshoppers which tormented the Ingalls family and other pioneers? Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote of the despised insects in her Little House books. As a child I wondered if she exaggerated the account.

I no longer wonder. Now I research.

(And some of that research will be part of The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide coming out in 2020.)

Spoiler alert: Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are historical fiction, but her account of the locust plague was accurate.

Rocky Mountain Locust (fig. 1) and
Red-legged Grasshopper (fig. 2).
Public domain, from The More Destructive
 Grasshoppers of Kansas, 1897.
Now extinct, the pests were actually the Rocky Mountain locust. Grasshoppers and locusts are quite similar. When crowded, locusts develop long wings and they migrate in big swarms and cause incredible damage. Grasshoppers don't swarm by the millions. And though grasshoppers eat plants, they won't eat every crop in a region. Rocky Mountain locusts (Melanoplus spretus) species darkened the skies of the midwest between 1874 and 1877 and ate their body weight in food daily.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood's book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (affiliate) was an incredible resource. I highly recommend it if you're interested in learning more about the Rocky Mountain locust. It was an interesting book.

The Rocky Mountain locusts swarmed the Great Plains for centuries before those devastating years. Dr. A. L. Child estimated the swarm to be 1,800 miles long and about 110 miles wide in Nebraska in 1875. The swarm may have contained 3.5 TRILLION locusts according to Dr. Jeffrey Lockwood's estimations.

Experts think they infested about 2 million square miles of land and caused about $200 million in crop damage. That'd be about $116 billion today.

The middle grade book, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, by Sarah Albee, briefly discusses just how bad it was for American pioneers.
"The sound the locusts made was compared to the roaring of a huge waterfall. Not only were crops devoured in minutes, but so too was the wool from the bodies of live sheep and even, according to some reports, the clothes off peoples' backs. Trains couldn't move along the tracks because the insects made the rails too slippery. The locusts, or hoppers, as people called them, remained for a few days to a week and then left as they had come, on the wind."
Sarah Albee also explained that since pioneers were left nothing to eat, pioneers would boil the locusts to eat in soup. I highly recommend Bugged (affiliate) for those curious about history, history lovers, and especially anyone who teaches history. It would be an incredible asset to hook kids prior to a unit study.

The Latin species name, spretus, means despised. I think Ma and Pa Ingalls would agree. Historical documents agree with the fictional account written about in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction.
Want more information? In addition to the books mentioned above, Beyond Little House has an interesting article about the locusts. Be sure to read the discussion in the comments, too. Take a look at some images of the Rocky Mountain locusts, too. The clouds are surreal.

Insects changed history! If you enjoyed this post and want more information about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Little House books, check out The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Review Press, 2020). It's full of history, discussion ideas, photographs, and so much more. It includes 75 activities to help readers live like Laura and Almanzo! 

This post has been updated since it's original publishing date on 8/25/2015.

~ Annette Whipple