52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Storm Clouds

It was 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War. Thomas Bunn and Mary (Baker) Ferguson were slowly regaining their economic status. While large battles of the war took place in the east, little notice was given to the brutal skirmishes on the Kansas/Missouri border. Commerce, almost brought to a standstill, caused great suffering. 

The Fergusons lived in the Fort Scott, Kansas area. They owned land on the Missouri side of the border in Richland township. In 1870, their farm and estate were valued at $3,000.00. [1] Considering the privations experienced during the war, they were doing well. 

Living on the prairie, stormy weather came in a variety of ways. The day could be lovely until storm clouds appeared on the west. In a matter of moments, heavy rain or hail could destroy crops and all hopes of a successful year of farming.

At other times, writhing clouds filled with millions of individual eating machines would descend upon the crops and devour them in a matter of moments. Locusts were not a new phenomenon on the prairie. Periodically masses of locusts would appear eating anything in their way. And, they would lay their eggs to hatch the following year. Farmers were used to this scourge of the land. 

“Between 1873 and 1877, the locusts caused $200 million in crop damage in Colorado, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and other states, covering an area equal to the landmass of California. In one year, 12 trillion locusts devastated the Great Plains with the weight of all the bugs in the swarm estimated to be in excess of 27 million tons.” [2] 

Public Domain, Courtesy of Jacoby’s Art Gallery

In late May of 1875, the storm clouds of grasshoppers, or Rocky Mountain locusts, descended upon the eastern part of Kansas and western Missouri. The Leavenworth Times reported, “The destitution in the western part of Missouri seems to be much worse than any section of Kansas.” The article continued that the spread of the locusts was due in part to the destruction of the wildfowl, ie. the grouse, turkey, woodcock, and prairie chicken. [3] 

The Newton Kansan reported fifteen barrels of locusts were shoveled and hauled away from the base of the courthouse fence in Independence, Missouri. Each barrel weighed 220 pounds. [4]

No doubt the Fergusons had a mess on their hands. I feel for them. Mary had given birth to their son Walter earlier in the month. And, two-year-old Adeline still needed looking after. Mary probably wasn’t much help to Tom, but being a tough pioneer woman, I’m sure she did what she could. They most likely lost their early crops to the scourge. If there was any bright side to the ordeal, the timing of the locust infestation gave farmers a chance to replant the crops for harvesting in the fall. But poor Tom. He endured the physical hardship of planting seed twice within a short period of time.

Both Mary and Tom had a hard life. Mary lost her father Augustus Baker to Bushwhackers. Tom lost his mother, father, and brother early in his life due to illness. Somehow, through all their stormy weather, they managed to raise a family of upstanding, resilient children. 

[1] 1870 U.S. census, Vernon, Missouri, population schedule, Richland, Vernon County, Missouri, USA, p. 636A, dwelling 52, family 54, Samuel Shackleford household; digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 18 Aug 2012); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm M593, roll M593_924. Cit. Date: 5 Nov 2012. 

[2] Legends of Kansas, https://legendsofkansas.com/grasshopper-plague/

[3] “The Plague,” The Leavenworth Times, 29 May 1875, p. 2, col. 1; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 5 Nov 2021).

[4] “General Items,” Newton Kansan, 27 May 1875, p. 2, c. 4; digital images, Newspapers.com (http://www.newspapers.com : accessed 5 Nov 2021).

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