“The Grasshopper War of 1855 and the Provo Sugar Miracle,” Ensign, Feb. 1986, 60–61
The cricket and gull incident of 1848 is one of the Latter-day Saints’ best-known stories. It has been memorialized in sculpture and painting, retold in Primary lessons and Pioneer Day celebrations.
But the cricket plague was not a singular event. In the nineteenth century, such devastating infestations were common. And it was not uncommon for gulls to eat these pests. However, the Saints saw a true miracle in the number of gulls that came and the number of crickets they destroyed.
In 1855, another great plague this time of grasshoppers descended, bringing with them the threat of starvation. Young Mary Knowlton Coray Roberts witnessed the grasshopper war of 1855. From her journal comes evidence that then, as in 1848, the Saints acknowledged with faith and gratitude their miraculous deliverance:
“Away back in the fifties when I was a little girl living near Salt Lake City and just on the border of Great Salt Lake, there was a terrible grasshopper war that raged in most all the towns in Utah. In this little town where we lived they were a fright. In order to save something the whole town turned out with flags and brush to drive them into a thicket, that had been prepared, and burn them. I went with the others, a slender delicate little girl of seven. …
“The next morning I did not wake up very early, and the first thing [I] heard was a shout from the children crying, ‘Oh! look, look, see the birds.’ I hurried into my clothes and [rushed] out doors. The sight that met my eyes I shall never forget. The whole heaven seemed filled with gulls. They alighted on the fields of grain, then rose like trained soldiers. One or two would rise and make a round sweep. Then others would follow in quick succession. As they rose they formed an immense funnel, then flew off to the great lake and dropped their load of grasshoppers they had gathered in a pouch under the neck, then flew back and repeated the act over and over again, until the fields were cleared from grasshoppers and the people were saved from starvation. I have seen reefs of grasshoppers as high as a house salted down on the shore of Great Salt Lake, and did not have to drive them with a flag. I only sat on the top of a fence or hay stack and watched the beautiful birds, whom God had sent to save his people.” (Journal entry, December 1912.)
During the difficult summer of 1855, the Saints in the new settlement of Provo, Utah, experienced another form of heaven-sent rescue, reports historian Donald Q. Cannon.
“About two-thirds of the grain in Utah county is destroyed,” wrote eyewitness George A. Smith, “and a large black bug is devouring the potatoes. All the farms south … are nearly a desert. This is rather a dark picture, but I regret to say it is not overdrawn. Myriads of grasshoppers, like snowflakes in a storm, occasionally fill the air … as far as the eye can reach.” (Works Projects Administration, Provo: Pioneer Mormon City, Portland, Oregon: Binsfords & Mort, 1942, p. 84.)
In addition to grasshoppers and Indians, the Provo settlers had faced other serious threats to their survival. During the severe winter of 1854–55, cattle, sheep, horses, and other animals froze to death. That spring, streams and rivers flooded homes and farms.
Already near poverty level, the grasshopper-stricken Saints had to make do with whatever food they had on hand. Children were not allowed to cook or help with meals for fear of wasting precious flour and sugar.
Then, having prayed for divine help, they experienced a miracle not unlike that of Moses’ people in the Paran Desert. At the end of July 1855, the people of Provo discovered a sugary substance on the leaves of trees near their homes. They called it “honey dew” or “sugar-manna,” and word of its discovery spread quickly through the frontier community.
Many speculated on the origin of the sticky, sweet substance. Some maintained that it came from cottonwood leaves; others that it was found on other leaves and even on rocks. Deposits as thick as window glass were reported.
Whatever its nature, the sugar-manna was badly needed. Sugar cost a dollar a pound and was in short supply. So the people set about gathering and processing the sugary substance. Sister Lucy M. Smith, wife of George Albert Smith, described with some pride the process she used:
“We had a very dry warm spring and summer and we were very destitute of sweet, so the Good Provider set HoneyDew to the Cottonwood and willow leaves, and so Brother George Adair and wife, Sister Hannah and myself took the necessary utensils, went among the bushes, cut bows washed off the sugar flakes into tubs, strained the sap, cleansed with milk and eggs then skimmed as it boiled. I understand the process necessary, as I had seen my Mother manufacture sugar from Maple sap. We four worked two days, made 50 lbs of nice sugar, besides feasting on Pancakes and Molasses, and making a quantity of candy for the children.
“Brother Adair carried over tithing to the Bishop, he said ours was the best of any brought in he wished to know the reason, I told him that he had an old sugar hand along that understood the business.” (“Historical Record of Lucy M. Smith,” Lucy M. Smith Papers, Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.)
Between three and four thousand pounds of sugar was made in this way. When Bishop Elias H. Blackburn of Provo took the tithing sugar to the General Tithing Office in Salt Lake City, he met President Brigham Young, who said that it was sugar from the Lord. (See Thomas C. Romney, The Gospel in Action, Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School, 1949, p. 4.)
Botanist Larry St. Clair notes that a sugary substance commonly accumulates on leaves of trees infested by aphids. But the fact that the Lord may work through natural means does not diminish the miraculous nature of the experience of these faithful Saints.