The New Mormon History
D. Michael Quinn, editor
Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story
[p.137] Within picturesque Temple Square in Salt Lake City stands the graceful bronze and stone Sea Gull Monument commemorating a highly dramatic experience in Mormon pioneer history. Soon after Mormons reached the shores of Great Salt Lake, so the story goes, their desperately needed first crops were invaded by vociferous black crickets. When the battle to save fields and gardens seemed doomed, the pioneers prayed earnestly for deliverance. Thereupon, miraculously, thousands of sea gulls suddenly appeared. In short order these divinely sent birds ate and disgorged huge quantities of crickets until the insects were eliminated, and the threatened Mormon crops were saved.
The cricket war of 1848, popularly known as the “Miracle of the Gulls,” has assumed legendary characteristics in the folk history of the Rocky Mountain West.1 And like many frontier legends, this one invites scholarly probes into the past in order to determine how well the traditional story is supported by historical evidence.
In assessing current accounts of the 1848 event, a number of questions must be considered. Were gulls and crickets inhabiting the Great Salt Lake area prior to the Mormon arrival in 1847? Did the gulls actually prevent major destruction of the Mormon crops? Was the event considered miraculous by contemporary observers? How unique was the encounter when compared with the natural history of the Utah area? Current historical research has produced some unexpected answers to these questions while revealing some new problems with the traditional story.
The cricket war of 1848 occurred during the Mormons’ first year in the Great Salt Lake Valley. A vanguard company of pioneers entered the area on 22 July 1847 followed by Brigham Young two days later. Other Mormon companies arrived soon thereafter, with the largest immigration coming in September. Young soon returned to Iowa, leaving a high council presidency in charge of the new settlements during the winter of 1847-48 and through the cricket attacks the subsequent spring.
These pioneers were new to the area but gulls and crickets were not. Their pre-Mormon presence is established by trapper and explorer records kept during the preceding decades. As early as 1825 British fur trapper Peter Skene Ogden noticed sea gulls near the present Utah-Idaho border, according to his May 5 diary entry: “Our course This day was west over a fine Plain Covered with Buffaloes & thousands of Small Gulls the latter was a Strange Sight to us I presume some large body of water near at hand at present unknown to us all.”2
Years later the energetic American explorer, John C. Fremont, reported the presence of gulls near the Great Salt Lake in his journal entry for 12 September 1843: “We had to-night a supper of seal gulls, which [Kit] Carson killed near the lake.”3 These two notations show that sea gulls were not strangers to that region when the Mormons came.
Crickets were but slightly mentioned in early diaries. Again Ogden’s journal specifically notes their presence not far from the Great Salt Lake on 2 May 1825: “As for insects we have no Cause to complain, Fleas Wood lice Spiders & crickets by millions.”4 There is no record, however, of gulls attacking crickets anywhere in the Rocky Mountain West prior to 1848, although a novelized account reported the rescue of the Comondu Mission in California when threatened by crickets and saved by gulls.5
The first Mormons to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 were impressed by the quantity of large crickets they encountered. “The ground seems literally alive with very large black crickets crawling around up grass and bushes,” commented William Clayton.6 Orson Pratt described crickets the size of a man’s thumb.7 Brigham Young received a message from the vanguard party similarly descriptive: “In [p. 139] many places the grasses, rushes, etc. are 10 feet high, but no mire. Mammoth crickets abound in the borders of the Valley.”8Crickets were still busy in the valley as late in the summer as 29 August, when John Steele wrote that his daily labors included “planting buckwheat, irrigating crops, killing crickets, etc.”9 It is notable, however, that these pioneer diarists did not mention the presence of gulls before the birds’ impressive appearance in the spring of 1848.
Throughout the winter of 1847-48 nearly 1,700 Mormons prepared the dry valley soil for cultivation. Many lived at the Old Fort, a walled-in series of cabins forming the nucleus of the community later designated as Salt Lake City. Other pioneers had settled at the present sites of Kaysville and Bountiful and along the Weber River. Fences enclosed more than 5,000 acres, about one-fifth of which was sown with grain. A mild winter allowed for an early planting.10
Harvest prospects were bright by the next spring. On 16 April 1848 John Steele rejoiced that “green stuff is coming very fast” and that his “wheat, corn, beans and peas are all up and looking grand and grass is 6 inches high.”11 In a 9 June letter valley leaders advised Brigham Young that prior to the arrival of the crickets a large amount of spring crops had been planted and had been doing well.12
By late May, however, tragedy struck. Completely unexpected by the Mormon farmers, the nights turned cold, producing killer frosts, while sunlight activated armies of crickets. John Taylor noted crickets in some fields as early as 22 May.13 Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young despaired over their destructive appearance as part of her 27 May entry in her husband’s diary: “We have grappled with the frost … but today to our utter astonishment, the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans for us and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept over peas, then came into our garden; took everything clean. We went out with brush and undertook to drive them, but they were too strong for us.”14
The psychological damage caused by the dual enemies—frost and crickets—became apparent the next day to Eliza R. Snow: “This morning’s frost in unison with the ravages of the crickets for a few days past produces many sighs, and occasionally some long faces.”15 That same day, 28 May, Isaac Haight matter-of-factly described his losses: “Frost again this morning. Things killed in the garden such as beans, cucumbers, mellons, pumpkins, and squash. Corn hurt some [p. 140] and some wheat killed and the crickets are injuring the crops.”16 Mrs. Lorenzo Young’s description that day is similar: “[May] 28th: Last night we had a severe frost. Today the crickets have commenced on our corn and small grain. They have eaten off 12 acres for Brother Rosacrants, 7 for Charles and are now taking Edmunds.”17
The horror of crickets engulfing fields, barns, houses, clothes, and cupboards continued day after day. Mrs. Lorenzo Young began to fear for the future outcome: “Today [29 May] they have destroyed 3/4 of an acre of squashes, our flax, two acres of millet and our rye, and are now to work in our wheat. What will be the result we know not.”18 Another diarist, Patty Sessions, wrote on 30 May of her son’s efforts: “Mr. Sessions has gone to the farm to keep the crickets off the crops; they are taking all before them that they come to. The frost killed a good deal.”19
That the quantity of crickets destroying the vegetation was overwhelming is shown in John Steele’s “catch-up” journal entry which summarized at least a week of destruction: “Sunday, June 4th, there is a great excitement in camp. There has come a frost which took beans, corn and wheat and nearly everything, and to help make the disaster complete, the crickets came by the thousands of tons.”20 Although Isaac Haight did not admit disaster, his mood that same Sabbath was similarly gloomy: “Quite cold and very dry. Crops begin to suffer for want of rain. The crickets destroyed some crops and are eating the heads off the grain as soon as it heads out. The prospects for grain are discouraging.”21
This anxiety caused some Mormon leaders and members to doubt Brigham Young’s inspiration in selecting such a place for settlement. Haight perceived that “Many of the Saints begin to think of leaving the valley for fear of starvation.”22 Steele recorded that “the cry is now raised, `we cannot live here, away to California,’ and the faith of many were shaken.”23 Other farmers stated their intentions of leaving for the eastern states or Oregon. Even John Young, a counselor in the governing high council presidency, urged that an express be sent to warn Brigham Young not to bring more Mormons to the valley for fear of starvation.24
Subsequent entomological research regarding the characteristics of the Mormon cricket justifies the fear felt by these pioneers. The black insects, technically identified as Anabrus simplex, measure 1.25 inches in length and are wingless. They generally inhabit the [p. 141]mountain country but occasionally become plentiful enough to descend into the valleys in outbreaks which last from two to six years. Traveling in bands the size of a city block to a square mile or more, these sluggish insects move from one-eighth to almost two miles per day. Relishing garden crops, small fruits, and grains, they also are cannibalistic and have been seen consuming leather harnesses and large rattlesnakes, evergreen trees, and sagebrush.25
Every conceivable defensive tactic was tried by the farmers to fight this “army of famine and despair.”26 In an account written nine years later, Jesse N. Smith said that initially water was turned into ditches surrounding the fields. This method, however, proved ineffective because “it seemed impossible to drown them, as they would recover after being a long time under water.” Then, he added, the pioneers took advantage of the crickets’ cannibalism. Since they “showed some preference for the dead or disabled of their own number,” crickets were killed at the borders of the fields to keep other crickets fed.27
Sticks, clubs, brooms, brushes, and willows were used to knock the black creatures off the plants. Fires were built into which the crickets were driven. Some Mormons discovered that the insects disliked certain noises, so women and children went into the fields with bells and sticks and tin pans to scare the black villains.28 A five-year-old girl was given a wooden mallet with which to smash crickets.29 Possibly the oddest technique was tried by John Young who, with his brother, pulled a rope back and forth across the tops of the grain to knock off the climbing crickets before they could reach the heads of the wheat.30 Initially ignorant of cricket habits, the pragmatic pioneers soon claimed to be gaining a “fund of knowledge” about the enemy.31
The harassed farmers “prayed and fought and fought and prayed” for almost two weeks against the crickets—which some Mormons jokingly described as a cross between a spider and a buffalo.32 It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the California gulls first arrived to assist, but on 9 June valley leaders described the dramatic event in a letter to Brigham Young: “The sea gulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the crickets as they go; it seems the hand of the Lord is in our favor.”33 Daily gulls flew to the Mormon fields to consume crickets. Twelve days later another letter to Brigham Young noted the continuing activity of the crickets despite the gulls: “Crick-[p. 142]ets are still quite numerous and busy eating but between the gulls and our own efforts and the growth of our crops we shall raise much grain in spite of them.”34 John Smith remembered that the gulls “came every morning for about three weeks, when their mission was apparently ended, and they ceased coming.”35 It appears that the 1848 cricket invasion lasted for at least a month and probably longer. In that time crickets had swept through some grain fields two or three times.
The spectacle of innumerable screaming sea gulls, filling the sky and shading earth from sun, seemed at first to portend a third plague for the Mormon crops. John Smith left this description: “The first I knew of the gulls, I heard their sharp cry. Upon looking up I beheld what appeared like a vast flock of pigeons coming from the Northwest. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon… . There must have been thousands of them. Their coming was like a great cloud; and when they passed between us and the sun, a shadow covered the field. I could see gulls settling for more than a mile around us.”36 Initially the gulls were feared because their presence in the valley was strange to many of the new settlers. Summarizing the history of the Mormon church up to 1850, Thomas L. Kane told the Pennsylvania Historical Society that gulls “were before strangers to the valley,” an opinion he must have gained from a valley resident.37 Likewise a letter published in the Little Rock, Arkansas, Democrat in 1849 claimed that “mountain men” familiar with the Great Salt Lake area said that gulls had never been seen there prior to 1848.38 Needless to say such a belief would enhance the drama of the gulls’ appearance.
The California gulls, now regular inhabitants of the Great Salt Lake region during spring and summer months,39 amazed the beleaguered pioneers not only by the amount of crickets they killed but also by the unusual manner of consumption. The gulls would feed on crickets until full, drink some water, and then regurgitate prior to consuming more crickets. Therefore it appeared that their main objective was to kill crickets rather than to feed on them. George Q. Cannon, for example, received such an impression after walking along water ditches where he saw “lumps of these crickets vomited up by those gulls.”40 To ornithologists, however, such vomiting by gulls is not unusual. Responding to Cannon’s description, gull expert F. E. L. Beale judged that “these `lumps of crickets’ were undoubtedly [p. 143] `pellets’ of indigestible parts habitually disgorged by the birds.”41
Mormon pioneers, alone in the Great Basin wilderness, devout in their faith, and convinced that they were God’s chosen people, attributed much of their experience as a religious body to the divine will. Thus in 1848 some, but not all, who witnessed the cricket war felt that God had performed a miracle in their behalf by sending the gulls. As noted earlier, the 9 June letter to Brigham Young expressed belief that “the hand of the Lord” guided the gulls.42
That such a belief became popular in a short time is shown in a most descriptive diary entry penned later in 1848. Henry Bigler, a member of the Mormon Battalion returning from Mexican War duty in California, was impressed by the story of the cricket war he heard immediately upon arriving in Salt Lake City: “[Sept. 28] The whole face of the earth I am told was literally covered with large black crickets that seemed to the farmers that they [the crickets] would eat up and completely destroy their entire crops had it not been for the gulls that came in large flocks and devoured the crickets. I am told that the gulls would feast themselves on the crickets to the full and straight way disgorge them and begin again and thus they did destroy the crickets and save the crops and … all looked upon the gulls as a God send, indeed, all acknowledged the hand of the Lord was in it, that He had sent the white gulls by scores of thousands to save their crops.”43
Various pioneers familiar with the 1848 episode likewise affirmed years later that the gulls had been divinely sent. Typical is this 1853 tribute by Thomas S. Terry: “God who was ever ready to bless his Faithfull Children, Sent the Gulls, who was timely Saviours in our behalf, and Saved our Crops from total ruin.”44
Immediate reverence for the gulls was expressed in laws adopted to protect them. A number of documents indicate that it was forbidden to shoot, kill, or annoy gulls with firearms.45 Bigler wrote that this protection was afforded because “all” the pioneers looked upon the gulls as a “God send.”46
The “Miracle of the Gulls” has been a popular faith-promoting story in Mormon circles for a half-dozen generations. The first mention of the “miracle” in a Mormon general conference was made by Apostle Orson Hyde on 24 September 1853 when he asserted that the gulls had been agents prepared by the hand of providence.47 Two years later the Deseret News offered this encouragement for Mormon [p. 144] farmers then suffering a devastating grasshopper plague: “We do not feel … the least apprehension for the final result of the present destruction… . As for the Saints we are perfectly aware that through faith and obedience they can prevail in the grasshopper war, at least as well as they did in the cricket war of 1848.”48
Similarly versions found in such Mormon periodicals as the Improvement Era and the Instructor and in the standard church histories by B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith positively assert the miraculous nature of the event.49
Surprisingly a number of the contemporary sources which should have contained accounts of the “Miracle of the Gulls” make no mention of it. Various memoirs and autobiographies, for example, retrospectively tell of the cricket invasion in 1848 but say nothing of the gulls. Also all of the diarists quoted earlier for the day-by-day account of the cricket advances—Haight, Snow, Steele, Sessions, and Mrs. Young—ceased making diary entries during the first week of June, when the crickets were at their worst, and then said nothing about the gulls when their diaries were later reactivated. For example, Eliza R. Snow’s next diary reports were dated 10 June and 15 June; they bemoan the general agricultural situation but ignore the newly arrived sea gulls.50 Similarly unusual is the non-mention of gulls by the outspoken apostle, Parley P. Pratt. Neither his 1848 letters to his brother Orson in England nor his later autobiography mention gull attacks on crickets, even though Parley witnessed–and lamented in these sources–the 1848 difficulties.51
Likewise unusual is the lack of mention of the event in the official Mormon newspaper in England, the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star. Not only Parley Pratt’s letters but all valley reports reaching the Star painted an unduly optimistic picture of 1848 valley agricultural conditions. Very slight reference to cricket damage plus a passing remark printed in 1849 about the gulls is all that English Mormons were told about the cricket war of 1848.
Some understanding of this silence comes when the actual significance of the gulls for the ensuing 1848 harvest is evaluated. Was it a successful harvest? If so how much did the gulls contribute to that success?
On the one hand are glowing production reports like those sent to England by Parley Pratt. In September, for example, he wrote that a successful harvest had been produced: “Wheat harvest com-[p. 145]menced early in July, and continued till August. Winter and spring wheat have both done well, some ten thousand bushels have been raised.” He added that a surplus of ten to twenty thousand bushels was expected.52
A more moderate estimate comes from Henry Bigler: “Their crops were prity much harvested… . Buck wheat was good, potatoes fine, but the corn crop was light and fodder short.”53 On the other hand are more pessimistic reports. Isaac Haight, optimistic in July, wrote that his final wheat harvest was poor.54 John Steele’s harvest consisted of a mess pan full of corn ears.55 A. J. Allen only produced five bushels of wheat from two acres.56 Chapman Duncan wrote five years later that the 1848 harvest had been light due to lack of irrigation.57
Official Mormon church reports, more than any other source, indicate that the 1848 harvest was far from successful. They objectively discuss the factors which, in addition to the crickets, were to blame. The high council presidency, in evaluating the valley’s agricultural situation for Brigham Young on 21 July 1848, rated the gulls as helpers but certainly not as rescuers: “The brethren have been busy for some time watering their wheat and as far as it is done the wheat looks well and the heads are long and large. The crickets are still quite numerous and busy eating, but between the gulls and our own efforts and the growth of our crops we shall raise much grain in spite of them. Our vines, beans and peas are mostly destroyed by frost and the crickets; but many of us have more seed and are now busy replanting… . Some of our corn has been destroyed, but many large fields look very well and corn is growing very fast.”58
This letter identifies four factors which are important for any assessment of the role played by the gulls. Individual pioneer actions, in addition to gull efforts, are credited for controlling crickets. Also frost initially was every bit as damaging as the crickets. In addition specific crops such as corn and beans were hurt more than others by crickets. Undoubtedly individual farmers responded to the gulls according to the amount of cricket damage their fields did or did not receive and to the final amount produced by their own fields. Another factor noted in other sources was insufficient irrigation.
The gulls were completely slighted in a more significant letter written the next year. The first valley epistle officially sent by the First Presidency of the Mormon church to scattered non-Utah Mormons [p. 146] included a thorough evaluation of the 1848 harvests. Negative factors received the greatest emphasis: “The brethren had succeeded in sowing and planting an extensive variety of seeds at all seasons, from January to July, on a farm about twelve miles in length, and from one to six in width, including the city plot. Most of their early crops were destroyed, in the month of May, by crickets and frost, which continued occasionally until June… . The brethren were not sufficiently numerous to fight the crickets, irrigate the crops, and fence the farms of their extensive planting, consequently they suffered heavy losses.”59
It must not be overlooked that this official summary of valley experiences from the first arrival of the pioneers until 1849 nowhere mentions the gulls, despite prominent notice paid to the cricket plague. According to this evaluation, crop losses were severe. Therefore the actual physical benefit brought by the gulls was not as extensive as is popularly believed.
The cricket war of 1848 is sometimes confused in pioneer writings with similar occurrences during the subsequent two years, when the gulls were more responsible for halting the crickets. Both gulls and crickets arrived earlier in 1849. Plover, a specie of shore bird native to the Great Salt Lake area, arrived before the gulls, according to a general church epistle dated 9 April 1849: “The month of March and April, to the 4th, was very mild and pleasant, and many small crickets have made their appearance, but large flocks of plover have already come among them, and are making heavy inroads in their ranks.”60 By 6 June California gulls were also attacking the crickets.61 Two days later Brigham Young and others were reported to be “busy killing crickets, building fences, etc.”62 According to Thomas L. Kane the early arrival of the gulls “saved the wheat crop from all harm whatever” in 1849.63
The “Journal History” compiled by the historian’s office of the Mormon church contains a number of newspaper articles describing gull and cricket activities in Utah and the western United States. Millions of crickets, for example, invaded Rush Valley, Utah, in 1904.66 Mandan, North Dakota, reported thousands of sea gulls in the grain fields in 1921 attacking grasshoppers.67 A Montana report [p. 147] in 1924 said that gull flocks numbering from 4,000 to 5,000 birds preyed upon grasshoppers for more than six weeks.68 Colorado reported thousands of gulls attacking grasshoppers in 1926.69 An estimated one million gulls were feeding on Saskatchewan grasshoppers in 1933.70 Four years later gulls feasted on Mormon crickets in Oregon.71 An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 gulls raided crickets southeast of Tooele City, Utah, in 1937 during a cricket invasion which lasted until the next year.72 More recently gulls battled crickets in Oregon in 194773 and in Utah in 1952.74
In 1848 Mormon farmers felt that their experience was unique. But these numerous examples suggest that encounters between gulls and crickets are common to the natural history of the western United States.
Current research alters the traditional sea gull/cricket story in many respects while substantiating its basic facts. As a result, the following information should be taken into account in credible versions of the dramatic struggle:
(1) The gulls were not strangers to the valley. Records before and since sow that various types of gulls, including the California gull in 1848, regularly inhabit the Great Salt Lake area. These birds are natural enemies of various insects, including crickets.
(2) Gulls habitually regurgitate the indigestible parts of insects they have swallowed.
(3) Gulls did not arrive until after severe cricket damage had already occurred. Even after the gulls had been “feasting” on crickets for two weeks, the insects still were “quite numerous and busy eating.”
(4) In 1848 Mormon crops were seriously damaged by three enemies—frost, crickets, and drought—and the gulls dealt with only one of these
(5) The “miraculousness” of the event was not clearly recognized by contemporaries. The Mormon church’s First Presidency was notably silent concerning any “Miracle of the Gulls” in its letters. Likewise the Millennial Star never told the English Saints about such a miracle. Diarists who detailed the cricket advance did not mention the gulls.
(6) Since 1848 gulls frequently have been on the wing to feast on crickets and other insects, making the 1848 encounter hardly unique.
Like other popular accounts of important and unusual his-torical events, the details of the cricket war of 1848 over the years have been oversimplified, improved upon, and given somewhat legendary characteristics.
Yet the fact remains that the 1848 Mormon pioneers would have suffered more had not the gulls come to their aid. Physically, the gulls helped avert a complete agricultural disaster; the amount of crickets which thousands of gulls could consume in two or three weeks would be a staggering figure. And the birds did relieve hard-pressed farmers from arduous toil against the crickets. More importantly, the gulls provided mental and emotional rejuvenation. Undoubtedly threats of leaving for California were diminished by the sudden appearance of the gull flocks. As a nadir of discouragement the farmers must have felt their burden lightened and their hopes at least temporarily raised by their unexpected ally.
The “Miracle of the Gulls” story remains appropriately as an expression of the faith held by Mormon pioneers and their descendants. To them, God can and does intervene in the everyday affairs of men and women when faith is exercised. Whether or not the gulls performed some type of “miracle” under God’s direction in 1848 is not as important as is the confidence Mormons feel that God could so act if he willed. In the final analysis it is this belief as well as the benefit gulls have periodically provided Utahans that is honored by the impressive Sea Gull Monument.75
49. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1930), 3:331-33; Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1960), 467-68; “Early Life in the Valley,” Juvenile Instructor 9 (17 Jan. 1874): 22; “Saved By Gulls,” Improvement Era 4 (July 1901): 671-73; J. L. Townsend, “The Sea Gulls and the Crickets,” Improvement Era 8 (July 1905): 565-68; James E. Talmage, “Were They Crickets or Locusts and When Did They Come?” Improvement Era 13 (Dec. 1909): 97-108; Peter Madsen, “The Grasshopper Farmer—The Mullet and the Trout,” Improvement Era 13 (Apr. 1910): 516; Elsie Hoffman Buchanan, “Our Historical Insect Foe,” Improvement Era 37 (July 1934): 418-20, 448.