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The Seagull Miracle

Wikipedia definition [as of June 3, 2011]:The 'miracle of the gulls' is often credited by Latter-day Saints ("Mormons") for saving the Mormon pioneers' first harvest in Utah. According to Mormon folklore, seagulls miraculously saved the 1848 crops by eating thousands of insects that were devouring their fields.

Traditional Story

After Brigham Young led the first band of Latter-day Saints into what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, the pioneers had the good fortune of a relatively mild winter. Although late frosts in April and May decimated some of the crops, the Mormons seemed to be well on their way to self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, swarms of insects appeared in late May.

These insects, now called "Mormon crickets" because of this incident, are not true crickets, but instead belong to the katydid family. Having ornamental wings, they are unable to fly, but instead travel in huge devouring hordes. Mormon crickets eat all plant material in their path, but they also cannibalize any insects that die on the way, including their own species. They're known to cyclically swarm in some areas of the Mountain West, especially in Utah and Nevada. These insects threatened the livelihood of the Mormon pioneers; stomping on the pests did not dissuade them from entering farms as others would advance. This is a reproductive strategy similar to mast reproduction in oaks, overwhelming predators with sheer numbers allowing a percentage of the population to survive to reproduce. Mormons, prolific journal writers, often cast this disaster in Biblical terms like the 8th plague of locusts.

According to some pioneers' accounts, legions of gulls appeared by June 9, 1848. Many letters and diaries recount that these birds, native to the Great Salt Lake, ate mass quantities of crickets, drank some water, regurgitated, and continued eating more crickets. Ornithologists don't regard this as particularly unusual because the seagulls around the Great Salt Lake often eat insects in the adjacent valleys, but some pioneers saw the gulls' arrival as a miracle, and the story was recounted from the pulpit by church leaders such as Orson Pratt and George A. Smith. (Pratt 1880, p. 275; Smith 1869, p. 83) The traditional story is that the seagulls annihilated the insects, ensuring the survival of some 4,000 Mormons who had traveled to Utah. For this reason, Seagull Monument was erected and the California gull is the state bird of Utah.

Critical Analysis

The traditional story is somewhat controversial and contains what some consider contradictions with modern research. Some historians believe that the gulls were neither as widespread nor as effective against the insects as is often supposed. (Hartley 1992, p. 137)

Many pioneer journals recount the frosts, the swarms of insects, but no gulls. From these differing accounts it seems that gull intervention might have occurred in relatively isolated places. Nonetheless, by fall several Mormons credited the gulls and divine intervention for having any crops left at all. This story was quickly incorporated into Mormon folklore.

Also, other more mundane events may have helped save the crops. Some pioneer diaries recount success had by forming lines and thrashing through infested fields together. This forced all of the crickets into adjacent areas. Some of these accounts also describe gulls at the edge of the field pecking away at the exodus of bugs. With or without gulls, this technique may have saved much of the Mormons' first harvest in Utah. Historical evidence furthermore suggests that the gulls arrived after much damage had already been wreaked by frost and drought and that the "miracle" was not commonly recognized as such until up to 30 years after it occurred

Summary by a BYU Professor

Chapter 8 of New Mormon History is entitled: "Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: a New Look at an Old Story" by William G. Hartley

In this heavily referenced essay, Hartley (a BYU professor of history and church history) makes the following points:

1) The gulls were not strangers to the valley. They are natural enemies to various insects including crickets.
2) Gulls habitually regurgitate the indigestible parts of insects they have swallowed.
3) Gulls did not arrive until after severe cricket damage had already occurred in 1848.
4) In 1848, Mormon crops were seriously damaged by three enemies--frost, crickets, and drought. The Gulls dealt with only one problem and too late at that.
5) The "miraculousness" of the event was not clearly recognized by contemporaries (including newspapers, diaries, and official church correspondence).
6) Since 1848, gulls frequently have been on the wing to feast on crickets and other insects, making the 1848 encounter hardly unique.

Like other popular accounts of important and unusual historical events, over the years the details of the cricket war of 1848 have been oversimplified, improved upon, and been given somewhat legendary characteristics.

It is a good article and clearly shows how a perfectly natural event was made into a myth/miracle to advance the faith of the masses and illustrate how God is taking care of his people.

Did it happen again in 2009?

GRANTSVILLE, Utah (ABC 4 News) - Grasshoppers infested a Grantsville backyard last Wednesday.

Homeowner Karla Baum said the grasshoppers destroyed her garden, and were thick enough to coat her entire screen door.

Baum said, however, that her prayers were answered when a flock of seagulls landed and ate the insects in the backyard.

She accredited her LDS faith and mentioned her ancestors' experiences in which seagulls came to eat grasshoppers and saved crops in Utah back in 1848.

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food said that this happens naturally from time to time.


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