An August 1875 locust swarm blackened Colorado’s skies and almost caused settlers to starve

Colorado may have heat, haze and a pandemic in August 2020. At least it doesn’t have locusts.

In August 1875, a locust plague was exactly the scourge pioneers faced.

A swarm so thick hovered over Colorado that it blackened the sky. Locusts devastated crops, and the bugs covered dusty streets. And while locusts are a different natural phenomenon than lightning strikes, large hail and tornadoes, the 1875 locust swarm is listed on the National Weather Service Boulder’s website as significant weather history for the month of August.

“On the 30th the grasshoppers were so numerous as to almost darken the sun,” the National Weather Service website says. (Note: Locusts are grasshoppers but we will get to that in a bit.) The Nebraska State Historical Society describes it in an article summary as “a plague of biblical proportions.” And Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the misery of locusts in her Little House books.

Scientists estimate 3.5 trillion locusts that summered covered 198,000 square miles across the American West, Jeff Lockwood, an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, said. Some historical documents use locusts and grasshoppers interchangeably to describe the event. Lockwood says locusts are a particular form of a grasshopper: “All locusts are grasshoppers but not all grasshoppers are locusts.”

“It was a bumper crop,” Lockwood said. “Locusts in 1875 in Colorado were about like wildfires in California in 2020.”

Lockwood is so fascinated by the Rocky Mountain locust that he’s written a book about the insect’s influence on development in the West and he’s penned the libretto for “Locust: The Opera,” where the ghost of a Rocky Mountain locust haunts a scientist trying to figure out why her kind disappeared.

Before the West was developed, Rocky Mountain locusts thrived on well-drained, sandy soil. But settlers using the land for agriculture destroyed their habitat, he said.

Locusts swarm when their population becomes too dense, knowing it’s time to leave when they smell each other’s feces and feel their locust brethren close enough to brush the hairs on each other’s legs.

“If you find yourself being constantly jostled and the streets started smelling like a sewer, you could be pretty sure it was a good time to leave Denver,” Lockwood said.

So the locusts in 1875 took off in search of more space. But as they moved across the West and into the plains, they ate everything in sight.

“Entire fields could be stripped down to the soil in a matter of hours,” Lockwood said.

So if you’re complaining this week because you can’t find quinoa or graham crackers or peanut butter in the grocery store, at least you’re not an 1875 subsistence farmer whose entire garden was eaten by locusts.

The locust plague is cited as the first example of the federal government aiding citizens in a natural disaster — something that’s expected today when wildfires rip across the Western Slope or giant hurricanes blow through the Gulf Coast.

“The Army distributed food across the west to keep settlers from starving to death in the winter of 1875-76,” he said.

While the locust swarms made life miserable for settlers in the late 19th Century, they were gone within a couple of decades. The last documented sighting of a Rocky Mountain locust was in 1904, Lockwood said. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate.

“How should we think about the loss of this humbling life form?” Lockwood said. “The good news is we aren’t losing massive farm land, but we’ve transformed the landscape of the West.”

 

 

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