One hundred fifty years ago, during May and June of 1848, worn-out and malnourished Mormon pioneers discovered that insignificant nuisances had become a deadly enemy: crickets.
To the starving pioneers, these thick black, nearly wingless, inch-and-a-quarter-long insects hopping incessantly forward in indescribably large numbers were an adversary of utmost menace. Chewing the young, green leaves of such crops as corn, beans, wheat, flax, and potatoes, the crickets also ate away at the hope for survival of the pioneers.The saving of the remnant of the crops from the "ceaseless gnawing of the ruthless and insatiable invader" as described by historian B.H. Roberts, came when thousands of sea gulls from nearby Great Salt Lake flew in and began feeding on the crickets. This event, known as "the Miracle of the Gulls," brought new hope to the struggling pioneers. (Comprehensive History of the Church 3:331-333.)
Within time, the pioneers accepted what the sea gulls did as divine intervention, which ultimately was recognized by the erection of the Sea Gull Monument on Temple Square in 1913, and the establishment of the sea gull as the Utah state bird. The story of the sea gulls and crickets has been widely retold from pioneer times to the present.
Soon after they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, pioneers became acquainted with crickets. The insects were plentiful and a primary source of food for Indians who lived in the area. However, the first mention of crickets coming in hordes was made in the spring of 1848 by John Taylor, who wrote on May 22 of their arrival. The pests evidently continued their crop destruction through most of June. It is recorded that the first gulls came early in June, and returned each day for about three weeks. (Journal History, June 21, 1848.)
In May 1848, the pioneers were gaunt, malnourished and hungry to the point that they "could eat anything." Pioneer doctor Priddy Meeks described the winter of 1847-48 for the Meeks family:
"My family went several months without a satisfying meal of vittals. I went sometimes a mile up Jordon to a patch of wild roses to get the berries to eat, which I would eat as rappid a hog, stems and all. I shot hawks and crows and they eat well. I would go and search the mire holes and find cattle dead, and would fleace of what meat I could and eat it. We used wolf meat, which I thought was good. I made some wooden spades to dig seagoes with, but we could not suply our wants. . . . I would take a grubing hoe and a sack and start by sunrise in the morning and go, I thought six miles, before comeing to where the thisel roots grew, and in time to get home I would have bushel and sometimes more. . . . I would dig until I grew weak and faint, and sit down and eat a root and then begin again." (Journal of Priddy Meeks, p.17.)
The pioneers did not know the conditions of the growing season in the Great Basin and so were required to experiment with what precious seed they had. Planting for the 1848 summer harvest began in the fall of 1847, continued during most of the light winter and through the spring. Severe frosts had been destructive on the small plants. (CHC 3:333-334.)
Meeks' narrative continues: "Finly, the crickets came so thick it made the earth black in places, and it did look like they would take what little we had growing, which looked nice and flourishing. . . . Now everything did look gloomy. Our provishions giveing out, and the crickets eating up what little we had growing, and we a thousand miles away from suplies." (Meeks, p. 17.)
The numbers of crickets might compare with an 1855 description by Anson Call of a grasshopper plague. He wrote that "the sky was dark with grasshoppers. These pests settled as a solid mass on buildings, gardens and fields. . . . The next morning these destroyers arose in clouds and continued their flight westward of the Great Salt Lake. This was their destruction, for they were precipitated into the briney waters and perished. Later they were washed ashore in a winnow [windrow] varying from two to six feet wide and from one to three feet in thickness. This . . . extended along the shore of the lake for a distance of fifty miles." (Encyclopedic History of the Church by Andrew Jenson, p. 81.)
Sarah Rich wrote in her autobiography that in 1848 "the women and children would go into the field every day with tin pans and sticks and bells and anything that would make a noise to scare [the crickets] away as best we could, while the men dug ditches and turned in the water, and ran the crickets and young grasshoppers into the water by droves." Pioneers also tried burying, burning and sweeping the crickets. One pioneer even stretched a rope across his grain to knock the crickets off before they reached the top. Yet on and on they came.
Priddy Meeks wrote, "When Sunday come [probably June 4 since a letter describing the event was sent to the First Presidency on June 9], we had a meeting. Apostle [Charles C.] Rich stood in a open wagon and preached out of doors. It was a beautiful day, and a very solom one too.
"While preaching, he says, `Brotherin, we do not want you to part with your wagons and teams, for we might need them.' Intimating that he did not know, but we might have to leave. That increased my solemnity. At that instant, I heard the voice of fowles flying overhead, that I was not acquainted with. I looked up and saw a flock of seven gulls. In a few minits there was another larger flock passed over. They came fast and more of them untill the heavens were darkened with them, and lit down in the valley till the earth was black with them, and they would eat crickets and throw them up again and fill themselves again and right away throw them up again. A little before sundown, they left for Salt Lake, for they roosted on a sand bar. A little after sunrise in the morning, they came back again and continued that course untill they had devoured the crickets . . . ."
"I guess this circumstance changed our feeling considerable for the better. . . ." (Meeks, p. 17-18.)
The pioneers had no further trouble with crickets that year. The sea gulls also fought marauding plagues of crickets in 1849, and in succeeding years and in other places. The pioneers noted that crops were lost to crickets in 1851, but that the sea gulls did come again in 1852 and destroyed the insects. (Zera Pulsipher autobiography, p. 24.)
Unfortunately, the cost of experimenting in farming was a dear one for the pioneers of 1848, many of whom were non-farmers, and, whose crops suffered losses that season from drought and frost as well as from crickets. When fall harvest came, the pioneers had learned that planting later in the season was provident, the choice of soil was important, that crops needed to be irrigated, and despite the sea gulls, crickets and grasshoppers were a formidable foe. (CHC, 3:333-334.) When Brigham Young arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the fall of 1848 after returning to Winter Quarters in 1847, he predicted that the crickets would disappear in a few years "so that there would hardly be a speciman left," a very unlikely promise at the time that was in later years fulfilled. (Biographical Encyclopedia 1:318, by Andrew Jensen.)
So grateful were the settlers for the work of the gulls that in 1849 "a fine of five dollars was placed upon the head of anyone that killed a seagull," wrote Aroet Hale in his autobiography.
Now, 150 years later, the "Miracle of the Gulls" continues to be a significant event in pioneer annals. The sea gulls lifted the spirits of the pioneers and preserved the remnant of their crops during a scanty period. Their timely rescue of the pioneers' crops continues to be a source of inspiration and encouragement for those of the present as it was for pioneers of the past.