The Locust Plagues of the 1930's
1931 was a difficult year for the United States. Two years after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the country was experiencing a crushing economic depression forcing many hardworking families out of their jobs, their homes, and without food. Throughout 1931 riots began to break out across the country, as Americans demanded relief from the staggering economic inflation and unemployment, which hit 15.9% in 1931, twice what it had been the previous year, and was still rising. In February, hundreds of starving people in Minneapolis broke into grocery stores and began distributing food. "Who has the most children here?" asked one rioter as he handed out meat. In May, 15,000 people marched to protest the lack of food and assistance. By 1932 these “hunger marches” were widespread across the country. As they marched, they sang:
“We march on starvation, we march against death,
we're ragged, we've nothing but body and breath;
From north and from south, from east and from west
the army of hunger is marching."
In some parts of the country food was being grown but not harvested; without money, people couldn’t afford to buy it. But in other parts of the Midwest and Great Plains a severe drought that began in 1930 continued into 1931. In the dry, depleted fields, the earth itself began to blow away. Ninety years ago, on 26 July 1931, flying grasshoppers began to fall on the dry, brittle earth. This was the beginning of the Dust Bowl and a decade of suffering that would forever change the United States.
Armies of Hunger: 1931
It seemed as if things could not get much worse for Americans in the Midwest and Great Plains in 1931. Thanks to the stock market crash and resulting unemployment millions of people were malnourished, unable to find jobs or meet their basic needs, and huddling in their homes (if they had them) against giant dust storms that began sweeping across the prairie. But then a new kind of storm arrived. This storm was driven by hunger itself. But it wasn’t dry topsoil darkening the sky: it was grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers and locusts belong to the same taxonomic group, the difference being a matter of behavior. When grasshoppers depart from their typical behavior and begin to multiply and swarm, they are known as locusts. Plagues of locusts have been a part of human history since the dawn of agriculture. Depictions of the insects and their devastation have been found in the Iliad, Egyptian tombs, the Mahabharata, and the Bible. Over thousands of years, descriptions of the phenomenon remain the same.
In Exodus 10, for example, Moses and Aaron warn Pharaoh that if he does not recognize God’s power, He “will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields.” When Pharaoh refuses, the locusts descend. “They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”
The horrific scene was soon familiar to those in Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota (among other nearby states) in 1931. “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire . . . the low crackling and rasping,” reported the United States Entomological Commission. Other scientists described the swarming insects as a “metabolic wildfire.” The bugs, like the beleaguered people themselves, were starving.
Searching for food, the locusts soon decimated available weeds and foliage and began to eat not only crops such as corn and wheat but literally anything else they landed upon that was edible. This included fabric, leather, house paint, varnish, and even wood. They were especially attracted to anything salty. Walter Schmitt, a farmer in Nebraska at the time, remembered the insects landing on his horse-drawn plow. “The horse-drawn equipment... had a wooden tongue in pulling it with horses. And I suppose that, as the time passed, that wooden tongue probably may have got some sweat from the horse on it. Then grasshoppers came along. They would actually eat that wood."
Locust plagues were not new to the Great Plains. In her book, On the Banks of Plum Creek (1937), Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered the locusts that devastated her family farm in Minnesota in the great swarm of 1874. Neighbors of the Ingalls family had warned them about what they called “grasshopper weather,” a term the family had never heard before. They soon understood. Successive years of drought had primed the grasshopper population to explode. Scientists today believe that there are multiple causes of locust swarms, including drought, pheromones, and other combinations of environmental triggers that set off the phenomenon.
“A cloud was over the sun,” Laura Ingalls Wilder writes. “It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle….Plunk! Something hit Laura’s head and fell to the ground. She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen. Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms. They came thudding down like hail. The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers.”
In the agricultural heartland of the United States the 1931 locust plague became one of the first drivers of mass migration away from the region. Between 1930 and 1940 nearly 4 million people left the Great Plains, many headed to California, where in one year 86,000 so-called “Okies” (a term of disdain) arrived, a number greater than the influx of migrants during California’s 1849 gold rush. Today one-eighth of the population of California can trace their roots back to these economic migrants.
Like the locusts themselves, the people of the Great Plains were forced to travel to find food. In 1931 an army outpost in Minnesota took in a staggering young boy, with cloth wrapped around his feet for shoes. He begged the soldiers for help, not only for himself, but for his mother and five other siblings he’d left at home, who were starving to death. The swarms that year covered millions of acres. “Take a swarm the size of Manhattan [14,478 square acres],” explains scientist Keith Cressman of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. “In one day, that swarm will eat the same amount of food as 42 million people.”
The great locust swarm of 1931 was one of the first and most horrifying natural disasters of the 1930s that forever changed the social makeup of the United States and of Canada, which experienced a similar plague that year. Looking back on her own experience, Laura Ingalls Wilder recalled that the insects were “like an army” on the march. The locust army of 1931 successfully displaced an entire population of people who then became their own kind of army, eventually arriving in Washington, D.C. in late 1931 and 1932 in “Hunger Marches” begging for help. By 1932 hundreds of “Hunger Children” convened outside the gates of the White House, singing:
“Empty is the cupboard,
no pillow for the head,
we are the hunger children
who cry for milk and bread.
We are the hunger children
who cry for milk and bread.
We are the worker's children
who must, who must be fed.”
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Farming Ancestors in America’s Heartland
The Midwest, comprising twelve states in the Old Northwest Territory and the Great Plains regions, has always been an agricultural powerhouse. Even today, there are over 125 million acres of agricultural land in the Midwest producing crop and livestock products valued at over $75 billion dollars annually. Many of our midwestern ancestors were also engaged in agriculture during their lifetimes and often it can feel as if it’s difficult to ascertain details about their lives. Unlike ancestors who may have lived in large cities, less variety of sources tend to be available for rural and small town ancestors. So what records can be obtained to discover more information about our hard-working, farming ancestors?
Census & Tax Records
It’s often easy to identify which ancestors were engaged in agriculture through census records. Beginning with the 1820 United States Federal Census, census takers asked how many people in each household were engaged in agriculture. In 1850, with the inclusion of every member of a household and a question about occupation on the population schedule, it could be determined exactly which ancestors were engaged in agriculture and to what extent (such as farmer or farm laborer).
From 1850 to 1900, there was a specific Agricultural Schedule as part of the census which asked extensive questions regarding which crops were being grown and the amounts produced, livestock with quantities, acreage and its value, including which part of the land was improved or unimproved. The Census Bureau GuideAgricultural Schedules: 1850 to 1900 provides the definitions and instructions for each schedule, which will help add value to the information you may obtain. Some of the Agricultural Schedules have been digitized on popular genealogy websites and all are available through the National Archives.
Tax records, although seemingly mundane, can also provide a wealth of information for your ancestors during a given year. The information found on tax records is wide-ranging, sometimes including a minimum of information such as the amount of the tax and the date page or, extensive itemized taxes for land, crops, and livestock. The availability of tax records varies by individual county, so search out what records may be available for the area in which your ancestors lived.
Understanding the type of farm your ancestors operated or worked on and the output produced may help you understand more of their daily lives - was it a subsistence farm, producing crops and maintaining livestock for the family’s use, or were they engaged in intensive farming, which produced a high output of crops or livestock for export to the surrounding community or state?
With the passage, by Congress, of two laws, the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance (officially titled An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio) on 13 July 1787, the territory northwest of the Ohio River opened up for mass settlement – this territory paved the path to statehood for six new states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and (part of) Minnesota. With the expansion of this land for purchase by individuals, a new system of surveying and dividing land was developed for use.
The original colonies and their derivative states had used, and still use, the British system of Metes and Bounds, which established land boundaries based on natural or artificial monuments and barriers such as rivers, roads, trees and posts – which often resulted in property boundaries of abstract shapes. This new system, the Public Land Survey System (PLSS), was primarily based on a neat grid of squares and rectangles. The components of the PLSS are: state, prime meridian, township, range, section, and aliquot parts or lots.
Since land in the Midwestern states was initially considered public land, you may find original patents and grants through the General Land Office Records from the United States Bureau of Land Management. Subsequent land transactions will be found in county-level deed books - the FamilySearch catalog is the best place to search for digitized local land records - these records are also often available on microfilm at State Archives and, of course, microfilm and original records can be found at county repositories.
Land records will help you to understand exactly where your ancestors resided and the types of land they possessed and even help you determine if the land farmed was passed down through the generations or if your family may have been migratory farmers.
The above-mentioned General Land Office records website also has a map feature which shows the historical land boundaries on a current map. Land can also be mapped on plat maps (the original survey maps) and even topographic maps. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a large collection of historical topographic maps, which can be digitally overlaid on a modern map using their topoView feature.
Published Works & Other Records Collections
Don’t forget to seek out newspaper notices for ancestors involved in agriculture - particularly in rural communities, individuals may have been noted for their excellence in growing a particular crop or participation in a fair or exhibition. You may also find notices for the sale of produce or farm equipment.
Historical Farmer’s Almanacs, although not pertaining to particular individuals, can also provide context for understanding the best growing season for particular crops or weather patterns that were predicted for a particular year. Additionally, local history books can also offer insight into the larger community to which your ancestor belonged. Any information you can glean will provide you with better context and insight into their lives.
Farm Bureaus were established in the early 1900s to help communities of farmers and associated industries receive better information in agricultural sciences, set up insurance policies, provide reasonably priced supplies and services for which farmers had more control and influence, and to guide public policy at the local, state and federal levels. Many of these Bureaus had newspapers and membership records, some of which are still available, such as the Kane County, Illinois Farm Bureau Records or the South Dakota Farm Bureau Records.
Also established in the early 1900s were Cooperative Extension Services and the United States Soil Conservation Service. Extension Services were primarily run from public universities in the state and provided farmers with advice and education, soil testing or running seed trials; search state university archives for available collections. The Soil Conservation Service held records of federal assistance, maps, documentation for soil conservation and erosion in an area, and kept agricultural data for government agencies and programs. Records of the Soil Conservation Services are available through the National Archives Record Group 114.
Every family history is bound to include at least one, if not dozens, of farmers throughout the generations. Agriculture has long been the backbone of civilization and of the ability to even exist, so jump into the records and show your agriculturally-involved ancestors some appreciation by learning more about their lives. The records mentioned above are not exclusive to the Midwest, so even if your ancestors were from other regions, you’re likely to find the same types of records for them wherever they may have lived. Happy searching!
Land records can be very telling, learn more about local, state and federal land records in the article Land Records and Beginning Genealogy Research.
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Mineral & Land Records System, Bureau of Land Management (http://mlrs.blm.gov : accessed 21 July 2021), 15 November 2020, “About the Public Land Survey System.”
Open Prairie, South Dakota State University (http://openprairie.sdstate.edu : accessed 21 July 2021), “South Dakota Farm Bureau Records.”
Catherine Boeckmann, The Old Farmer’s Almanac (http://almanac.com : accessed 21 July 2021), 17 July 2020, “Cooperative Extension Services.”
The Living New Deal (http://livingnewdeal.org : accessed 21 July 2021), “Soil Conservation Service (SCS) (1935).”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 21 July 2021), digital image from original negative, “[Untitled photo, possibly related to: Tenant farmer spreading grasshopper bait in his alfalfa field, five miles from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma],” Dorothea Lange, photographer, June 1937, Digital ID: fsa.8b32043.
"Steam Corn Husker" The South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Indiana), 21 October 1874, digital images, Newspapers.com (https://newspapers.com : accessed 21 July 2021), citing print edition, p. 1, col. 3.
National Guard (https://www.nationalguard.mil/ : accessed 21 July 2021), “N 1937, Colorado Guard used flamethrowers and explosives against plague of locusts,” photograph of Grasshoppers swarming downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, image 140609-A-YG824-001.*
*National Guard Image Disclaimer: "The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement."