From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.


Hardy Pioneers Were Beset by Plagues, Disease and Crime

by Harry H. Seckler

Leavenworth times, February 29, 1948

When one delves into the histories of Leavenworth and Platte Counties he realizes the pioneers of those years--from the founding of Leavenworth in 1854, until after the close of the Civil War, were beset not only by disastrous plagues of grasshopper hordes year after year, and the dread of the deadly cholera, but also were called upon to make a choice of whether they were to align themselves with pro-slavery or free-state organizations.

In those days, especially from 1854 to 1861, it was said here that a man's life wasn't worth a dime." This is readily believed when one reads of the murders, killings, assassinations and gun battles which seem to have been of almost daily occurrence.

The greatest disaster, however, that affected the largest number of settlers, were the almost yearly raids of billions of grasshoppers that came, unannounced,a nd swept over this portion of the Missouri Valley. They were anticipated, as one looks for a blizzard forecast by the weather reports, yet hopes were the predictions would prove false.

Bare as Scorched Earth

No one knew, for sure, where the myriads of those destroying insects came from. Here one summer, they laid eggs in the ground to be hatched out the next spring and joined by millions of others in swarms that darkened the skies.

No method was evolved to combat them successfully; firing the dry fields; filling trenches ahead of them with water or burning oil all proved unavailing.

Growing crops of grain, everything green in field or garden; leaves on the trees and even the weeds were devoured. When they had departed the bare surface of the ground looked as tho' it had been scorched by a prairie fire.

Of the grasshopper invasions and the epidemic of cholera that struck down the weak and the strong as suddenly as does a bolt of lightning, excerpts have been taken from Paxton's Annals of Platte County, Mo., and Major Elvid Hunt's History of Fort Leavenworth 1827-1937.

Should Be Thankful

What with death by bullet, near starvation and poverty from the grasshoppers and being struck down by cholera, the present generation of humans living in this portion of the Missouri Valley should feel deeply thankful that the parent stock of pioneers was composed of both men and women who had the intestinal fortitude to withstand all of those early day calamities.

Mention of one invasion of grasshoppers in 1874 was made by the writer in The Times of May 12, 1947. That dealt in generalities only, but it has remained for Historian Paxton to relate actual experiences of Missouri Valley residents that should make the younger generation admire, more than ever before, the 'sticktuitive' qualities of their forbears.

Last Horde in '74

The first grasshopper invasion in Kansas, previous to the arrival of Paxton in Platte County about 1838, is said to have been in 1820, but only meager accounts were chronicled.

He writes that from 1838 to June 7, 1897, when he closed his annals, there were raids by hordes of the hoppers in 1854, 1861, 1866, 1867, 1869, 1873 and the last big one in 1874.

Though there have been a few of the insects in evidence each year since the invasion of Biblical days, none other than in the years mentioned above bordered on being a real calamity.

Of the on of September 27, 1865, Paxton wrote: "During the county fair the grasshoppers commenced falling like snow from the heavens. In a few days they were like the plague of locusts in Egypt in Biblical days. But they came too late to damage anything but wheat and grass. But they left their eggs in the ground and when hatched out the next spring desolation reigned."

Were Partial to Onions

The "hatching out" in the spring of 1867 must have been times that tried men's souls, both in Leavenworth and Platte Counties. Paxton relates:

"The grasshoppers are hatched out and half grown. They are devouring every tender herb. Early corn wasn't disturbed while young tender vegetation was at hand. Not a particle of dog fennel (a weed) escaped.

"An onion was to them a delicious morsel. I had a good patch of early onions. they ate all of them and burrowed into the ground for the roots. For a week their breaths perfumed the atmosphere.

"They moved in brigades. Here the army goes north; there it goes south. Hogs grew fat upon them and chickens could not be eaten with relish because they tasted of grasshoppers. Various schemes were ineffectually tried to destroy them. Fire and water were of no avail. Trees were stripped of leaves; young and tender blue grass pastures were left as bare as the public road."

Next Big Invasion

On August 21, 1874, Paxton says: "Grasshoppers have appeared in countless multitudes, but they came too late to injure the growing crops. They made little holes in the ground an inch or so deep and deposited their eggs which hatched out the first warm spell of spring, 1875, and all hopped off in the same direction.

"No two armies marched the same course, but each division seemed to be controlled by its own major general. They devoured every green thing but the paw-paws. The railroads killed so many in places that the rails became so oily from their fat the trains could not run.

Prayers in All Churches

"In compliance with Governor Hardin's proclamation," Paxton continues, "the people of Platte County generally met at the churches for prayer to God to avert the evil of grasshoppers. After the services, as the congregations came forth into the open air they saw the heavens darkened by the clouds of the devouring insects flying north. No further damage was done. "Through the West was visited by the grasshoppers in 1854, 1855, 1861, 1869, 1874 ad 1875 we have had no visitation of the pests since that day of prayer, nor for 20 years past have we had any trouble with the devourers."

In Hunt's History of Fort Leavenworth 1827-1937, mention is made of an epidemic of cholera about the same time the dread disease was chronicled as appearing in Platte County. Paxton mentions one such as having swept through Platte County in 1850, but in the Fort Leavenworth history the first mention of cholera's visitation there was in April, 1932, when the Army lost several of its members and several of the Indian tribes in the vicinity of Cantonment Leavenworth were almost wiped out of existence by the terrible disease.

Dig Own Graves

It was during that time that General Winfield Scott, commanding the department, issued the now famous order "that every soldier or officer who shall be found drunk or insensibly intoxicated, after the publication of this order, will be compelled as soon as his strength will permit, to dig his own grave at a suitable burying place large enough for his own reception as such grave cannot fail to be wanted for the drunken man himself of for some drunken companion."

The first appearance of cholera in Platte County was in the summer of 1850, when a stranger alighted from a stage coach and almost immediately commenced screaming and cramping at the postoffice.

Paxton that a hasty consultation was held by two other men and himself and they decided to lead the stricken man to a vacant house, but he fell with cramps on Main Street and screamed so as to alarm the town.

He was given the best of care, but died within 36 hours. Breath had hardly ceased before the body was hurried into a box by a trembling gang of men and buried that night in an improvised grave. His name was never learned.

Fear settled and several strangers and some citizens died from the cholera in Weston..

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