Martin Frobisher celebrated Canada’s first Thanksgiving in 1578 when a feast was ordered to thank God for a safe ocean crossing. From that time, Thanksgiving had been held across Canada, although it didn’t become an official holiday until 1953, when the federal government declared the second Monday in October was to be observed as Thanksgiving Day.
In Manitoba,Thanksgiving Day was first observed on November 16, 1872, when a provincial government proclamation was issued. The use of a such a proclamation was a tradition that persisted until the Manitoba government began following the lead of Ottawa. But just three years after the initial Manitoba proclamation was issued, for the first and only time in the province’s history, extreme circumstances resulted in the cancellation of Thanksgiving Day. The presence of a Biblical plague of locusts in 1875 had killed off any justification for declaring a day of giving thanks for the harvest.
“There was, however, a day of ‘humiliation and prayer’ proclaimed on July 21, 1875, for the people of Manitoba to humble themselves and supplicate God to stay a locust plague of unprecedented proportions” (The History of Thanksgiving, by A. D. “Tony” Doerksen, Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1975).
The locust plague destroyed so many crops of fresh vegetables north of Winnipeg that scurvy broke out. Dr. David Young, who practiced near present-day Selkirk, laboured day and night to alleviate the sufferings of those afflicted by the disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.
A Toronto Globe editorial (reprinted in the August 27, 1875, Winnipeg Standard) said one grasshopper was not a formidable foe, but when “it comes in clouds; makes an attack upon every herb and every green thing ... one is lost in contemplation of an army” and “it becomes an object ... of fear.”
The insects became so formidable a foe that the Minnesota Legislature decided it had to draft a citizen’s army to battle the swarming hordes. It passed a law in 1877 requiring that all able-bodied men from 12 to 65 years old in every county be ready to gather locusts for at least one day. Failure to comply with the “grasshopper draft” could result in a fine from $2 to $10 or 10 days in jail.
In addition, the state government offered a bounty, ranging from $1 to 20-cents per bushel of locusts collected, depending upon the month in the spring and summer. A bounty of 50-cents was offered at anytime for a gallon of locust eggs.
Each county was ordered by the state legislation to appoint a “measurer” of grasshoppers, who received the collected locusts, paid out the bounty and then destroyed the insects.
In Manitoba, the locust plague had abated by 1876, which allowed the first wheat to be exported from the province to the outside world. “We have great cause to thank the Almighty Giver ... (that) our land should be significantly blessed by abundant crops,” wrote the Manitoba Free Press on September 16 in its annual crop report. Thanksgiving Day was again restored as a celebration of a bountiful harvest in the province.
The newspaper reported that 480,000 bushels of wheat, 173,000 bushels of barley and 380,000 bushels of oats were harvested in 1876. Still, it was not sufficient to meet local needs and flour to make bread had to be imported from the U.S. It would be years before the Canadian Prairies became noted as the “Breadbasket of the World.”
Higgins, Young and Peebles, a Winnipeg store which sold everything from groceries to shoes and glassware, was commissioned by the Toronto seed company, Steele Bros., to collect seed wheat for shipment to Eastern Canada. Although an historic first, the Winnipeg retailer was only able to gather 857 bushels of wheat for its eastern customer.
While the locusts continued for two more years to plague Minnesota and the Dakota Territories immediately south of the U.S.-Canada border, swarms failed to arrive in Manitoba during this period. And with the passing of 1878, the locusts had even ceased pillaging American farms, having disappeared from the landscape.
Actually, the reign of the object of fear and dread on the plains was by this time becoming quite tenuous. Just three decades later, a species that had once numbered in the hundreds of millions and destroyed millions of dollars worth of crops (the U.S. government calculated that in 1874 alone, $56 million in crops had been wiped out, or $1.12 billion today) went extinct.
Norm Criddle, a Manitoba naturalist and nature painter, was probably the last person to actually collect live Rocky Mountain locusts. On July 19, 1902, the young Treesbank farmer collected a male and female Melanoplus spretus (the scientific name for the locust) found on his father’s (Percy Criddle) estate. Half a century later, the two species found their way to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Scientists and farmers had become so accustomed to the periodic appearance of the insect that they refused to believe Criddle’s specimens were the last examples of the Rocky Mountain locust. For years after 1902, grasshoppers, a close relative, were mistaken for locusts when they appeared in large numbers. In fact, newspaper reports well into the 1930s were still mistakenly referring to grasshopper infestations as being perpetrated by Rocky Mountain locusts. But with the locust extinction, grasshoppers were only filling an ecological niche abandoned by the other insect species.
“There is somewhat of a mystery surrounding this insect at the present time which may, indeed, never be solved,” wrote Criddle after not seeing a live locust for 15 years. “We know that its breeding grounds once extended over a very wide area, much of this being classed as permeant by (Charles Valentine) Riley (a U.S. government entomologist) and others who investigated the plague at that time.”
In his book, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (2004), Jeffrey A. Lockwood wrote that scientists believed the insect was hiding out in some remote corner of the continent and was prepared to emerge when the conditions were right.
It was known from the earliest days that the homeland of the locust species was the high dryland valleys on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains — hence its name — in Canada and the U.S. The absence of locusts was merely the result of them biding their time in some undetected location. Most scientists believed the locust would eventually erupt from their hiding places and once again wreak havoc across the plains.
It actually took several decades for scientists to finally agree that the Rocky Mountain locust had vanished altogether from the face of the earth, Lockwood added.
Fortunately, there are no longer any locusts around to result in another cancellation of Thanksgiving Day. In fact, today’s Manitoba farmers are enjoying one of the most bountiful grain harvests in the province’s history, which is a good reason to give thanks.