Mormons and those crickets do indeed have a shared history

Glenna Christensen, Idaho Statesman religion columnist
Glenna Christensen, Idaho Statesman religion columnist Idaho Statesman

In a strange coincidence, both articles on the front page of the Statesman’s Outdoors section on August 1 mentioned the same insect — the Mormon Cricket. While one article introduced fishermen to “a new-kind of hair-raising catfish bait — the creepy,crawly Mormon cricket”, the second describes a hike on the Dry Creek trail in the Foothills where Mormon crickets squished beneath feet.

Why use the crickets to fish? Because catfish like to eat gross things. And because at Brownlee Reservoir and in the Foothills the crickets were “thick — their big, black bodies hanging from every shrub and tree branch.”

Ever wonder why they are called “Mormon” crickets? They acquired their name in consequence of an incident in the early history of Mormon settlement of the Salt Lake Valley.

After crossing the plains, the Mormon pioneers arrived in the valley near the end of July 1847. The valley floor was a dry and treeless plain. Gray sagebrush stretched as far as the eye could see, and the hot sun scorched the grass and baked the earth. The pioneers began planting crops the day they arrived.

While some broke the ground and planted, others began to build shelters and yet others dug ditches to bring water to the fields. But shortly after the green shoots of crops planted in July broke the ground, untended livestock grazed it to the ground. Livestock fell victim to wolves and surrounding Indian tribes.

The harvest that fall was pitiful — planted late, under poor conditions — and yielded a meager amount of marbled-sized potatoes. By spring the new settlers were subsisting on crows, wolf meat, tree bark, thistle tops, sego lily bulbs and anything else they could find.

Despite the difficult conditions, by the end of 1847 the pioneers had prepared more than 5000 acres for spring planting. Another 872 acres had been planted in winter wheat that would be ready for harvest in the spring.

Leonard J. Arrington, in his history “The Mormon Experience,” described the onslaught of the crickets in late May: “Just when the prospect of an abundant spring harvest in 1848 lifted pioneer spirits, hordes of crickets — ‘wingless, dumpy, black, swollen-headed, with bulging eyes in cases like goggles, mounted upon legs of steel wire ... a cross of the spider on the buffalo’ — swarmed over the sprouting grain.”

The pioneers — men, women and children — raced to their fields with aprons, hoes and brooms. They stomped crickets, poured water on them, buried them in trenches, even used fire to burn and smoke them out. All to no avail. Praying fervently for relief, the people continued the battle for two weeks. On June 9, 1848, the sky was darkened with flocks of seagulls that headed for the fields. Fearing a second “plague,” the pioneers realized that the gulls were eating the crickets. Allies had arrived.

Witnesses described seagulls feasting on crickets and then disgorging them and continuing the cycle for hours. One chronicler described the crickets and seagulls retiring each night, only to resume the battle each morning for about three weeks.

Although the crop was damaged, a portion was preserved and the Saints remained in the valley with renewed determination to make it their home. The initial population of 1,700 people increased by 2,400 over the summer of 1848, and by the time railroad trains replaced wagon trains in the 1860’s, over 100,000 Mormons had come to settle the western desert.

Although the Mormon settlers observed swarms of crickets when they arrived in the valley, the large black crickets were on the hillsides and were utilized by the Indians for food. The pioneers were blindsided when the crickets ravaged their crops the next spring.

The arrival of the gulls was an answer to prayer, and if you visit Salt Lake City and go to Temple Square, you will see a monument of a California Gull near the south entrance. If you join a tour of the square, you’ll hear the story of the seagulls recounted.

Not only is the miracle of the seagulls commemorated at Temple Square, but the California Gull is the state bird of Utah. The Mormon cricket received no recognition — except for its name.

Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.