by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
James Henry Ashdown can be forgiven for believing that upon arriving from Eastern Canada he had stepped into an eerie landscape that evoked the most ghastly of nightmares and was far from welcoming for his future prospects in the Red River Settlement.
Writing to his brother and sister in Ontario on August 26, 1868, the future Winnipeg businessman and millionaire, described the calamity surrounding him: “I began to look around to see what sort of 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 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 (Red River) settlement.”
Actually what Ashdown saw were not grasshoppers indiscriminately devouring all crops, but Rocky Mountain locusts, an insect species that had periodically plagued the Red River Settlement for decades by descending in the millions upon farmers’ crops and then eating the maturing stalks of grain right down to their roots.
“The multitude of insects was so great as to render it difficult to convey an appreciable idea of their numbers to the minds of those absent from the scene of their devastation,” wrote Joseph James Hargrave in his book, Red River.
Hargrave was on-hand to witness the devastation and wrote that locusts piled up “in heaps about the walls of (Upper) Fort Garry,” and “they were carted away and burned up to prevent the effluvia from their decaying bodies contaminating the atmosphere during the stifling heats of an unusually warm summer.”
It was the “stifling heat” that provided the ideal conditions for the hatching of the locust eggs laid a year earlier in the fields amid the colony. Actually, the period between 1862 and 1868 was particularly dry and conducive to locust infestations.
“Dry, dry,” wrote one observer at Lower Fort Garry, “the weather was never seen, people say, so long without rain. It thunders often and yet no rain, sometimes it is very hot, but it gets very rainlike sometimes but it clears off and there is no rain.”
The August 25 Nor’Wester indicated that there had been “upwards of 400 cases of sun stroke” reported in the colony.
What made the plague of locusts more harrowing than in past years was that it was one of just a series of disasters that struck in 1868 with a devastating effect to the well-being of the colony.
“We have had the customary fruits of the earth entirely cut off by a plague of grasshoppers, and, instead of our usual abundance, we shall reap nothing, absolutely nothing, in the shape of wheat, barley, rye, or oats,” was the lament in the August 7, 1868, Nor’Wester.
But there was more bad news to follow, as related by Roman Catholic Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché. In a letter to the Nor’Wester, dated August 11, he wrote: “I have to certify that in your issue of the 4th instant the following statement is not exaggerated, ‘That within the whole colony not one bushel of any kind of grain nor vegetables of any kind are to be found in the gardens or fields.’ Moreover, the buffalo hunters, instead of furnishing their large share of provisions and leather, arrived starving from their usual hunting grounds. Many, during their long excursions through the plains, were reduced to eat their yoke of oxen, or even their horses, and they are now in our midst without a morsel of food.”
In the past, Métis buffalo hunters could be relied upon to feed the Red River settlers whenever a crop failure was experienced, but the absence of buffalo in the traditional hunting grounds meant that the fall and winter of 1868 would be different than other years.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the ominous tidings. Renowned historian W.L. Morton wrote in Manitoba: A History (1957), that not only had the locusts consumed all the settlers’ crops and the annual fall Métis buffalo hunt had failed, but so had the local fisheries on Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, “even rabbits and other game disappeared, or were scarce. The periodic shortages of provisions in Red River had affected the less provident of the population in the past; but in 1868 all but the most fortunate were affected by want, or the consequent high prices of provisions.”
The want took the form of a famine, which is exactly how it was described in all accounts from the period.