by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
During 1874, the “year of the locusts,” millions, if not billions, of individual insects, acting as groups of giant super-organisms, descended on settlers’ fields across the prairies in Canada and the United States and devoured crops with machine-like efficiency.
There had been a minor invasion of locusts in Manitoba in 1873, but they had arrived too late in the season and were confined to an area north of Winnipeg so that little damage was done to crops, but they did manage to lay eggs that would hatch in the spring (Notes on the Locust Invasion of 1874 in Manitoba and the North West Territories, by George M. Dawson, 1876).
The following year brought a different outcome. Two swarms of locusts, the first to arrive en masse in 36 years, descended upon Manitoba from Minnesota in 1874, destroying “most of the crops along its way, as far north as Winnipeg (Manitoba Free Press, July 25, 1874). Another swarm came in from the west, and had made general devastation from the Western limit of the Province to the Red River.”
There seemed to have been an arbitration path of destruction — crops on one field were spared, while plants on an adjacent field were gobbled up by the voracious insects. The Free Press reported on August 1, 1874, that the locusts moved so quickly that some fields and crops were spared from damage, but others were less fortunate and cleared of all vegetation when the swarm descended. To the west of Portage la Prairie, fields were “completely enveloped with those pests, hard at work at their destruction ... The new settlers are reported very despondent, the most of them not having a dollar to help themselves, not a month’s provisions, and some of them largely in debt.”
It was observed between Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg “that the whole country ... is covered with grasshoppers, and the crops are mostly ruined” (Free Press, July 25, 1874).
Even Winnipeg wasn’t spared, as a swarm destroyed local gardens, while oat and barley fields in the vicinity of the city were “nearly completely destroyed.”
“The garden of Deer Lodge was destroyed in a few hours (The Prairie Province, by James C. Hamilton, 1876). “Mr. (James) McKay had the insects swept up and so filled two bushel baskets. They were scalded in hot water and fed to pigs.”
Newspapers in the 1870s reported that feeding locusts to hogs was common practice and that they grew exceptionally fat eating the insects.
Hamilton, who observed the plague first-hand, wrote that he “heard sad tales ... Many of the farmers let their fields lie waste (rather) than plant for them (locusts) to eat as they had done for two years.”
J.M. Machar, a federal government land commissioner who visited the province in 1875, said farmers in a 16-square-kilometre district between the Assiniboine River and the south shore of Lake Manitoba were able to harvest two-thirds of their crops despite the locusts.
Some farmers resigned themselves to a crop loss and allowed the locusts to do their work without interference. On the other hand, Machar said he saw examples of people who planted and then vigorously defended their crops from the plague.
“I saw a forty-acre field of splendid wheat at Portage Creek,” Machar wrote, “the property of a family of New Brunswickers named Green. They spread a swath of straw right across the middle of the fields. Then, through the long June days, the whole family (of) four stalwart young men and three young ladies, daughters of the farm, armed themselves with boughs, and forming in line, drove the ‘hoppers’ before them into the straw ... When evening came a match was applied, and in five minutes nothing was left of the invaders but their horny coverings, which at the time of my visit in August, still littered the ground in millions.”
William Nimmons, who had a 320-acre farm 10 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg at “Little Stony Mountain,” was said by Machar to have enjoyed years of increasing yields of wheat, barley, oats, peas, turnips and potatoes, while the crops surrounding his acreage were wiped out by locusts. When asked how he escaped the wrath of the locusts, Nimmons replied he fought them at every stage of development, “commencing the previous fall by ploughing and reploughing their eggs under the ground, thereby preventing them hatching; but, of course, they came on to his fields last summer from the uncultivated prairie in myriads. These he battled against by fire, and by driving, so successfully to save nearly his entire planting.
“Mr. Nimmons summed up the matter by stating it as his belief that the grasshoppers may be met and conquered by hard work and common sense means; and that in closely-settled neighbourhoods, if each occupant does his share, a fair crop may always be counted upon.”
To the south of Winnipeg in the Pembina Mountains, locusts were reported in the July 7, 1875, Free Press, to have arrived and were “rapidly destroying the crops ...
“The Mennonite settlement (in southern Manitoba) has, despite the efforts at fighting the grasshoppers, been about entirely ate out. “
David Plett later recollected his childhood impression of Blumenort in 1875, a year after it was established by Mennonite settlers: “It did not look very appealing here ... the grasshoppers eat everything.”
“Farmers at High Bluff (just east of Portage la Prairie) who expected to have saved some crops by opposing the pests have fared no better than the Mennonites,”continued the newspaper. “Similar reports come from Springfield (today’s RM of Springfield adjacent to Winnipeg).”
When surveying the Parish of Portage la Prairie in 1875, George McPhillips, mentioned that: “The ravages of that migratory locust would make a wilderness of a paradise.”
One enterprising Winnipegger took the time to calculate that with 20 locusts to the square foot (as he observed) that covered a swath of land 20 miles (32 kilometres) from north to south and 100 miles (160 kilometres) east to west, their number would total 1,267,360,000,000 individuals, and when placed end-to-end, “they would encircle the earth 791 times” with plenty to spare, ‘or, in other words, they would form a band around the earth 66 feet wide” (letter to editor, Free Press, June 26, 1875).
Due to the devastation in Manitoba and the plight of settlers, the Dominion (federal) government instigated “grasshopper relief advances,” which was in the form of wheat seed (valued at $60,000 in 1875). Of course, the advances had to be repaid “in cash, or grain,” but with the crops being devoured by locusts before ripening and settlers spending every cent they possessed on their homesteads, no one really had any cash or grain to spare.
A settler in the audience when the cornerstone was laid for the new city hall and market on August 17,1875, was heard to have said after Chief Justice Henry Wood announced that the locust infestation was not as bad as it seemed: “Three years ago I came to this country with two thousand dollars in my pocket and some personal effects. I took up a homestead, laboured upon it, and sowed till my last dollar was invested in seed, only to see the growth destroyed by grasshoppers, and (with tears running down his cheeks) unless some aid comes from some source, I do not know what my family are to live upon next winter, or where, or how I shall get seed for the spring.”
The years of locust swarms were so damaging that some began to compare them to the wrath of an angry God and the coming of the apocalypse.
Others were less convinced that the locusts were the product of divine judgement. According to an August 7, 1874, Free Press article, settlers were saying: “Well, it is providence, it is not our fault, it cannot be helped, we just have to grin and bear it and hope for the best.”
In the U.S., settlers walked off their land, despite government relief efforts that were more generous than in Canada. Settlers were promised by governments on both sides of the international border that the 160-acre plots of land they received under the respective country’s homestead act would, through hard work, be transformed into prosperous farms. Instead, the newcomers found themselves destitute and on the verge of starvation following each locust invasion. In fact, the continuous locust plagues had such a dire economic impact that it was believed that agriculture production on the plains was dealt a fatal blow and would never again recover.
The “Promised Land,” which was said to be “flowing with milk and honey” by government agents, and set aside for the “Chosen People,” had become a victim of the harsh reality that no earthly power could prevent the destruction of their crops once the locust swarms descended.
An October 31, 1875, report from the Dominion Lands Office in Winnipeg by agent Donald Codd claimed that the number of immigrants coming to Manitoba had decreased significantly as a result of the locust plagues. The number of homesteads registered at the office was only 503 in 1875, compared to 1,377 during the previous year. He reported the amount of land entered in 1875 was 163,917 acres, while 364,544 acres were entered in 1874.
“Taking the Province as a whole,” Codd stated in his report to David Laird, the federal minister of the interior, “I am of the opinion that not much more than one-half of the crop escaped destruction, and the effect of the loss of this very large proportion is rendered more serious from the fact that only about one-half of the usual crop was sown, the loss of both seed and labour from this plague having been anticipated by the settlers.”
The Free Press on June 5, 1875, predicted that since the locust infestation was so widespread, more than half of the settlers would be compelled to leave their homesteads and seek employment elsewhere. The newspaper said if the farmers left to earn a living elsewhere, the Dominion Lands Office should adopt what was occurring in the U.S. and relax its requirements and not cancel homestead titles. To do otherwise “will be a heartless outrage.”
Local newspapers were full of advertisements announcing homesteads up for sale due to the cancellation of titles for non-compliance with the Dominion Lands Act — that is, failure to take up permanent residence and make improvements on the lands they received from the government for a period of three years.
In the Dakota Territory in the U.S., settlers in areas infested with locusts were permitted to be absent from their homesteads for specified periods, and “during such absence no adverse rights shall attach, and that the term of absence shall be regarded as a part of the period required to perfect title under the homestead law (also three years in the U.S.) ...”
Residents of Portage la Prairie and High Bluff petitioned Laird to relax the rules of the Dominion Lands Act.
John Stoughton Dennis, the surveyor-general for Dominion Lands, wrote in reply on July 6, 1875, that the interior minister had subsequently authorized land agents, “in view of the poverty of people in consequence of the ravages of grasshoppers and stagnation of trade,” to revoke the cancellation of homesteads for non-compliance. The grace period was extended until October 15, 1875.
“At the same time he desires it to be distinctly understood, that in future, unless under similar urgent exceptional circumstances, no such consideration will be extended to homestead settlers, but they will be required to conform in all respects to the provisons of the Dominion Lands Act,” ended Dennis.
The railroads suffered because they relied upon an influx of new settlers to purchase plots of land granted to them by governments in order to build tracks, while the steel industry suffered without new contracts to forge tracks. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad stopped in 1875 due to bankruptcy brought on by a severe economic recession, drought on the prairies and the locusts discouraging settlers. The railway just couldn’t attract enough settlers to guarantee land sales and future traffic to remain solvent, despite the generous terms it offered on land purchases.
The well-publicized presence of vast swarms of locusts made a mockery of railway and government publicity campaigns extolling the grain-growing capabilities of the prairies.
The rail link to Manitoba from the U.S. was nearly abandoned due to the locust plague, but survived through a chance encounter. The syndicate of proposed buyers of a bankrupt railway, which would form the southern portion of the St. Paul, Minnesota and Manitoba Railway line (later it became the South Branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway), travelled to Minnesota in 1877 during a locust infestation. George Stephen, the president of the Bank of Montréal, was so alarmed by how the locusts had denuded the landscape that he wanted to back down from the deal, declaring the region as too inhospitable to settlers.
(Next week: part 3)