The Grasshopper Plagues in Iowa

Pioneer Farming

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Excerpts from Briggs, John E. The Grasshopper Plagues in Iowa, The Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 13, (1915), pp. 349-391. (Used by permission from the State Historical Society of Iowa.)


Although scarcely a quarter of a century has elapsed since the pioneer period in Iowa came to a close [this article was written in 1915], it is difficult for the present generation, accustomed to all of the conveniences of modern civilization, to form an adequate idea of the hardships and privations that were endured by the settlers who first made their homes in the new country.

People are inclined to scoff at the tales of enforced corn meal diet and the chronic failure of crops; while it seems incredible that in one of the richest agricultural areas in the world people should ever go hungry and suffer from the want of clothing.

Yet that very thing came to pass. Year after year the farmers planted their grain with every prospect of harvesting a splendid crop, only to have their hopes blighted....To persist in the face of such adversity required nothing short of heroism.....


The species of migratory grasshoppers which, until about the year 1880, so often invaded the territory of western Iowa, is commonly known as the Rocky Mountain locust. They are comparatively small, the body seldom exceeding an inch and a quarter in length, slender, and of a light brownish color.

Their flight has been likened to "an immense snow-storm...." On the horizon they often appear as a dust tornado, riding upon the wind like an ominous hailstorm eddying and whirling about like the wild, dead leaves in an autumn storm...they circle in myriads about you, beating against everything animate or inanimate; driving into open doors and windows; heaping about your feet and around your buildings; their jaws constantly at work biting and testing all things in seeking what they can devour."

Often they came in such numbers as to obscure the light of the sun, giving the weird, somber appearance of a solar eclipse. At times they accumulated on the railroad tracks to such an extent that the oil from their crushed bodies so reduced the traction as to actually stop the trains.

Falling upon a promising field (their instinct seemed to direct them unerringly toward the cultivated places) it was but the work of a few hours to reduce it to a barren area of leafless stalks...they often completely covered the ground. The ravenous hosts were almost omnivorous. One observer testifies that they "will feed upon the dry bark of trees or the dry lint of seasoned fence-planks; and upon dry leaves, paper, cotton and woolen fabrics. They have been seen literally covering the backs of sheep, eating the wool...


The authentic record of the ravages of the Rocky Mountain locust extends back to 1818, when hordes of them appeared in North Dakota and in Minnesota eating everything in their course. The first serious grasshopper raid in Iowa occurred in July, 1864, when the region in the vicinity of Sioux City appears to have suffered severely.

Toward the end of May 1867, news came that the grasshoppers were ravaging Nebraska. The entire southwestern quarter of the State apparently suffered. Indeed, the invasion of 1867 probably was the most destructive of all the grasshopper raids in the counties along the Missouri River.

Although certain regions in Iowa were troubled with locusts in 1870, 1871, and 1872, there was no damage worthy of notice. The next year [1873] however, the hopes and in many cases the fortunes of the settlers in northwestern Iowa were ruined, swiftly and surely by the terrible scourge. Never before had the grasshoppers come in such numbers or stayed so long. In general the territory covered by the scourge of 1874 was identical with that invaded in 1873, with perhaps a slight extension toward the east and into the extreme southwestern corner of the State.


The winter of 1872-1873 had been a severe one in northwestern Iowa. The settlers were for the most part people of limited means who had taken advantage of the homestead or preemption laws. Long and hard had they labored in anticipation of better times. They had endured all of the hardships and privations of pioneer life in the hope of realizing a substantial reward in the years of prosperity that were to come. For two or three seasons their efforts had been crowned with success: the newly broken prairie had responded magnificently to cultivation. But the homesteaders had come to the new country empty-handed, many of them possessed only of a wagon-load of household goods.


When the destruction of crops by the grasshoppers began to be a regular occurrence year after year following 1873, serious efforts were made to discover means of prevention and methods of destroying the insects. In October, 1876, a convention of the governors was held in Omaha, at which resolutions were adopted. The convention also recommended that the Federal government make efforts to eliminate the pests and appoint a special commissioner to investigate the locust problem.

This commission found a great number of schemes being employed for the destruction of the locusts. Some of the states sought to avail themselves of natural agencies by passing better laws for the protection of birds. To destroy the eggs, harrowing in the autumn, plowing, irrigation, tramping by stock turned into the fields, and collection proved the most effective methods. In prairie and wheat-growing regions the surest means of destroying the unfledged locusts was by burning.

Much could also be done by rolling the fields if the ground was smooth and hard. Trapping was successful where the young grasshoppers were traveling in armies. The use of chemical was necessarily limited and more or less unsatisfactory. A great number of "hopper dozers", locust crushers, and other machines for killing or capturing the insects were invented, some of them being very ingenious devices.

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