Locusts — explorer said horde cast a dark shadow over the prairies, filling the sky for several hours one day


by Bruce Cherney (part 4)
Future Winnipeg businessman, James Henry Ashdown, emigrated to Manitoba just in time to witness the ravages of a Rocky Mountain locust infestation. Writing to his brother and sister in Ontario on August 26, 1868, he commented: “I began to look around to see what sort of a country we had landed in, and sooth to say the truth, though the country looked well enough, the prospect was not very enticing. The grasshoppers (actually, locusts) had about finished their work, and many of them had already flown away. But numbers still remained, and when they had eaten the last of the husbandman’s work off the fields, they began to eat each other, and for days and almost weeks the air was polluted and the water rendered well-nigh undrinkable by their dead bodies, passing down or up the settlement.”
Henry Youle Hind, in his book  about the 1857 Red River Exploring Expedition, said he found locusts everywhere he travelled along the Assiniboine River. Hind saw “innumerable hordes of grasshoppers ... flying northward in the direction of the wind. At times they cast a shadow over the prairie, and several hours one day, the sky from the horizon, to an altitude of thirty degrees, acquired an indescribably brilliant ash-white tint, and seemed faintly luminous as the semi-transparent wings of countless millions of grasshoppers towards the north east, reflected the light of the sun.”
Hind said the insects flew upward when they were disturbed by each footstep, and “if a strong wind blew they became very troublesome, flying with force against our faces, in the nostrils and eyes of the horses, and filling every crevice in the carts ...
“Those portions of the prairie which had been visited by the grasshoppers wore a curious appearance; the grass was cut uniformly to one inch from the ground, and the whole surface was covered with the small, round, green exuviae (i.e., shed exoskeletons) of those destructive invaders.”
Hind said locusts appeared in the fall of 1857 on the White Horse Plains where they deposited their eggs. “The swarms of the insects must have extended as far west as the South Branch of the Saskatchewan (River) and covered the country in a greater or lesser degree between Lake of the Woods and the South Branch, a distance in an air line of 560 miles; the product of 1857, or the young brood of 1858 have been nearly continuously over that wide extent of country ...”
Amazingly, the young locusts of 1858 were seen hopping on the snow in late-April near Portage la Prairie, according to Hind. The settlers thought the late snowfall would have killed that year’s brood, “but it did not appear to have created any sensible diminution in their numbers.”
Hind claimed that the locusts would eat everything from leather to woolen garments. He said they ate the varnish from the leather case he used to carry his telescope when it was left on the ground in 1858.
“Blankets became instantly covered with them and eaten into holes, the only article of clothing which did not suffer their voracity was the caoutchouc or gutta percha (a form of rubber) cloaks and coverings,” according to Hind.
To get an impression of the devastation wrought by the voracious insects, one need only turn to an account by Thomas Traill, of the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Fort Qu’Appelle, who wrote in his journal in 1867: “Suddenly I was aware of a heavy black cloud on the western horizon which looked like an approaching storm, but the sky around me remained clear and, thinking it was a prairie fire in the distance, I rode on until dusk. 
“On the way home I again passed a barley field and it was now a blackened ruin.
“‘Did you have a fire?’ I asked the watchman who opened the gates for me. ‘The barley for our saddle horses is all burned.’
“‘We had no fire,’ he said. ‘Did you not see the grasshoppers?’
“Then I looked around and saw them three inches deep inside the fort. They had devoured everything in the garden except roots, stripped the trees, and had fallen in the lake until the outlet was blocked, and they were piled up on the shores in windrows. 
“To prevent them from filling the fort I had to keep half the men in double shifts carting them out in order to live. 
“The ducks and prairie chicken ate grasshoppers until they were unfit for us to eat. Even the eggs tasted of them. 
“The train dogs got fat and the cattle became poor for lack of grass.
“The whole valley looked like a burned-over prairie. They came in clouds like smoke and for 12 days the air was alive with them as high as one could see. 
“They darkened the sun and lay an inch thick on the ground. The lakes and rivers stink with the dead ones. The frost has at last killed them and some of the vegetables they left. Farming here is all a delusion.”
During the great infestations of 1874-78 that struck the U.S. and Canadian prairies, the insects were described as being so ravenous that they ate leather saddles and harnesses, wooden fenceposts and axe handles, as well as laundry left out on clotheslines to dry. Observers claimed that the locusts were capable of eating anything in their path once the vegetation was depleted.
In August 1875, H. McAllister of Colorado Springs, Colorado, described the din the insects created as they munched their way through the fields: “The noise their myriad jaws make when in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire or heard the flames passing along before a brisk wind — the low crackling and rasping; the general effect of the two sounds is very much the same” (Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., November 15, 1877).
Locust swarms defied all efforts by prairie farmers to save their crops — overwhelming numbers simply penetrated any defence, regardless of how carefully planned or elaborate.
Robert Michael Ballantyne, who served six years as a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk and later became an author of popular adventure novels, travelled to the Red River Settlement in 1841. From the settlers, he gained a knowledge of the colony’s history, which included the plagues of locusts that periodically visited the region.
He wrote in The Buffalo Runners: A Tale of the Red River Plains, a novel published in the 1890s, that a man named Old Duncan McKay ordered a trench be dug next to his garden and filled with water in anticipation of a plague of locusts in Biblical proportions. McKay then realized the trench would be useless against the winged foe and ordered his daughter to fetch blankets, tablecloths and towels from the house to fight the locusts.
Their efforts, of course, were futile, as “the enemy descended in such clouds that they filled up the half-formed ditch, extinguished the fires with their dead bodies, defied the blanket-warriors, and swarmed not only into the garden of Old Duncan McKay but overwhelmed the whole land.”
The people living on the plains in Canada and the United States used everything imaginable to battle the relentless hordes of locusts. During what can be described as hand-to-hand conflict, they tried to squash, bury, trap, burn, shoot with shotguns, asphyxiate or poison them, all of which proved to be ineffectual in stopping their onslaught.
The U.S. department of agriculture recommended five methods of destroying locust eggs: harrowing, plowing (also spading), irrigation, trampling (cattle, hogs and sheep sent into infested fields) and collecting.
In the latter case of collecting eggs and the insects themselves, the Manitoba Free Press on June 8, 1875, admitted it was effective in more populous states south of the border, but  the newspaper could not “see that anything like it would be workable in a sparsely populated country like our own ...”
“Every bushel of eggs destroyed is equivalent to a hundred acres of corn saved ..., according to the 1877 report by the commissioner of agriculture.
(Next week: part 5)