Look Out—Locusts!

Even though my research for the forthcoming Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts covers aspects of history not focused on in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, one episode that I just cannot get out of my head is the plague of locusts that destroy the family’s crops in Minnesota. The family’s powerlessness to combat the locusts and the insects’ seemingly mysterious departure four years later have lodged themselves in my mind. And so I dig into research of the plague. William Watts Folwell’s 1926 A History of Minnesota , volume 3, devotes the entirety of Chapter 4 to “The Grasshopper invasion, 1873-77.” The locusts that descended on the people of Minnesota left a lasting impression on the state’s history. As Wilder described it, Rocky Mountain locusts swooped from the sky, “their wings a shiny white making a screen between us and the sun. They were dropping to the ground like hail in a hailstorm faster and faster.” (Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, p. 79) Folwell quoted another eyewitness as saying that seeing the locusts flying “‘may be likened to an immense snow-storm, extending from the ground to a height at which our visual organs perceive them only as minute, darting scintillations.’”(History of Minnesota, p. 95).

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The Ingalls and others were helpless when it came to protecting crops from Rocky Mountain locusts, c. 1870. Minnesota Historical Society

Imagine locusts as a hungry, eating, chomping snowstorm! Such devastation boggles the mind; yet, while scientists believe the Rocky Mountain locust is extinct, such plagues of locusts continue to devastate farms and crops in other parts of the world. In 2015, locusts destroyed crops in Russia, and in 2016, northern Argentina experienced their worst season of locusts in sixty years. In a quotation given to the New York Times, Juan Pablo Karnatz reported farmers seeing “locust clouds that were more than four miles long and nearly two miles high” (Jan. 26, 2016). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations issued a report in November 2015 that unusually heavy rains in “northwest Africa, the Horn of Africa and Yemen could favor Desert Locust breeding” (www.fao.org). The increasing number of extreme weather events attributed to climate change could bring more frequent and more intense swarms of locusts to these regions.

In the 1870s, the Ingalls could do little to fend off the attacks. Charles Ingalls attempted to defend his wheat by setting fires near the crops, reasoning that the smoke might discourage the insects. It was a futile effort, and eventually he left the family homestead to find work farther east in order to send money back to help the family survive the winter.

Jacob Jurss

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L’Étoile du Nord State

The sun is rising over the prairie grasses and I’m on the road again. Instead of an old wagon and horses, I’m relying on the horsepower of a Uhaul truck and a rusted-out ’99 Pontiac Grand Am to take me east. This fall I accepted a post-doctorate fellowship position teaching Native American and Indigenous studies and the history of the American West at the University of Minnesota, Morris. I’ll be trading the grasslands of the Great Plains for the woodlands at the edge of the prairie. Don’t worry—I will still be researching and blogging for the Prairie Girl Project. Perhaps it is serendipity that as my research on Pioneer Girl: The Revised Texts turns towards the North Star state I will now make my home there.

Moving is never easy. Ferrying boxes back and forth from an apartment to the truck is not walking from Wisconsin to Kansas, but it shares some unpleasant characteristics with that task. Harder still are the goodbyes to good friends. Though technology helps to shorten the distance, nothing replaces the good-morning smiles that working with the folks of the South Dakota Historical Society Press provided. Thank you Nancy, Jeanne, and Jenny for making my time in South Dakota so wonderful.

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Garth Williams illustrated the 1953 edition of Little House on the Prairie. On page twenty-eight, he depicts Caroline Ingalls using a cast-iron “spider skillet.” 

As my last day in Pierre approached, I found myself smiling at the comparison of a covered wagon to my soon-to-be overstuffed Uhaul. My smile quickly vanished as we piled a second couch into the truck. A box with kitchen goods contained an old cast-iron skillet bought from an antique dealer near Watertown, South Dakota. The first such skillets came into widespread use in the late 1800s, and the Ingalls family found them useful when traveling or on the homestead. And while Laura Ingalls Wilder may have appreciated my ever-growing home library, Charles Ingalls may have asked whether I could condense the collection a bit to ease the weight in the wagon.

My family came to help me pack and begin a new chapter in Minnesota. With the last box safely stored in back, my dad and I climbed into our rig. I guided the truck down a hill and out across the grasslands. As I transition from the edge of the West to the northern outpost of the Midwest, stay tuned in coming weeks for essays on the Dakota War of 1862, maple sugaring, and plagues of locusts.

Jacob Jurss

Follow the Breadcrumbs, Find Missouri

The Pioneer Girl Project is always on the lookout for new information, and sometimes, thanks to the courtesy of readers like you, it just turns up out of the blue—or in this case, out of Minnesota. Here’s the story as Project staff experienced it.

During their second stay in Minnesota, the Ingallses were neighbors of Mr. and Mrs. Pool and their grown daughter, Missouri, who kept house for her parents. In Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder remembers Missouri’s wonderful garden full of beautiful flowers and how she would smoke “a very small, white clay pipe” as she told “stories of Missouri, the state for which she was named.” Missouri even helped to care for Mary Ingalls during the illness that caused her blindness.

According to Wilder, Missouri had several siblings and was the only one not married. At last they learned the reason: Missouri’s mother, hoping to keep her daughter home to care for her in her old age, had been working to thwart Missouri’s courtships. Yet, despite her mother’s machinations, Missouri did finally marry and return to Missouri—only to die tragically during childbirth.

That’s Wilder’s memory. The editors of the Pioneer Girl Project read Wilder’s account and asked, as they had before, “What can we verify?”

Census data got us nowhere; there simply was no Missouri Pool listed in Minnesota at the right times. However, Nancy Tystad Koupal’s close reading of the Redwood Gazette for the years 1876–1879 turned up a Thomas Pool, who lived in Walnut Grove, Redwood County, Minnesota, “with his wife and daughter.”  Armed with this information, we went back to the census: was there ever, anywhere in the United States, a Thomas Pool with a daughter Missouri? There was—and moreover, there was plenty of information to confirm that his family was the one Wilder remembered and to confirm that Thomas Pool and his wife Annie had moved to nearby Brown County, Minnesota, in 1880. But—now here’s the thing—in 1880, Missouri Pool is gone. She’s enumerated with her parents in 1870, but by 1880, she was either married, dead, or both. With no married name, it was impossible to track her beyond that point (Missouri was a more common first name than you might think). So there the matter rested. “There is no further trace of her,” was the conclusion in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. “She would have been about forty years old” (p. 141n76).

Enter Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck.

These residents of Willow Lake Township in Redwood County read this annotation and recognized a familiar local name. They let us know that Missouri Evans, née Pool, was buried on a nearby farm. When we contacted them to follow up, they even went out and took some pictures of the grave marker for us. As you can see, Missouri Evans died in early 1881 at the age of forty—about the right age for our Missouri Pool. Was it the same woman?

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Photograph taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck

Yes, it was. Now that we had her married name, everything fell into place. Missouri Evans’s 1880 census data matched what we would expect to see in Missouri Pool’s. The census data led to marriage records, and soon we had a clearer picture of Wilder’s friend. Missouri Pool married widower Henry Evans on March 14, 1880, in Brown County but she died thirteen months later. No death records are immediately available, but according to the Irlbecks, local tradition says that Missouri, like too many women of the nineteenth century, died in childbirth. Clearly, she did not return to her name state of Missouri, as Wilder believed, but had stayed nearby in Minnesota. By the time of her death, however, the Ingalls family themselves had moved on—to Dakota Territory and the Hard Winter.

Incidentally, two of Henry Evans’s other wives are also buried in this private cemetery: Anna, who died February 27, 1880 (we know, right?!), and Amelia, who died March 29, 1884. The women of Minnesota must have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the multiple widower packed up and moved to Canada—taking one final wife with him.

Jennifer McIntyre & Rodger Hartley

We thank Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck for contacting the South Dakota Historical Society Press with information on Missouri Pool and for taking the pictures of the Evanses’ gravesites.

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Photographs taken and provided by Vincent and Dawn Irlbeck