Major Howard Egan Family Foundation

Sailor Rope Maker Captain in Nauvoo Legion Bodyguard to Joseph Smith Mormon Battalion Envoy Captain of the 9th 10 of the original 1847 Pioneer Vanguard Company Gold Rush Trading Post Owner Trail Blazer Cattle Drover Major in Utah War Pony Express Rider & Superintendent of Line from Salt Lake to California Stage Station Owner Friend & Missionary to Indians Salt Lake City Policeman Bodyguard to Brigham Young
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Mormon Crickets: Food for Indians

Mormon Crickets: Food for Indians

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crickets 2The Mormon cricket, Anabrus simplex (Orthoptera: Tettigoniidae), was an important insect food of the Indians, all over the West. It is not really a cricket, being more closely related to katydids. It is a large insect, about two inches in length, wingless, and it travels in large, dense bands. Bands may be more than a mile wide and several miles long, and with 20-30 or more crickets per square yard. It is sometimes damaging to crops or range vegetation and has been a pest target of the U.S. Department of Agriculture since before the turn of the century.

Major Howard Egan1 described, in his delightful first-person style, a Mormon cricket drive that took place in about 1850. The procedure was basically to dig a series of trenches, each about 30 to 40 feet long and in the shape of a new moon, cover the trenches with a thin layer of stiff wheat grass straw, drive the crickets into the grass covering the trenches, and then set fire to the grass. As the drive began, Egan thought the Indians were going to a great deal of trouble for a few crickets: “We followed them on horseback and I noticed that there were but very few crickets left behind. As they went down, the line of crickets grew thicker and thicker till the ground ahead of the drivers [men, women and children] was black as coal with the excited, tumbling mass of crickets.” After the grass had been fired, Egan observed that in some places the trenches were more than half full of dead crickets: “I went down below the trenches and I venture to say there were not one out of a thousand crickets that passed those trenches.”

Once the drive was over, the men and children had done their part and were sitting around while the women gathered the catch into large baskets which could be carried on their backs. We should remember that this was long before the days of the women’s’ movement, as Egan says, in obvious admiration:

“Now here is what I saw a squaw doing that had a small baby strapped to a board or a willow frame, which she carried on her back with a strap over her forehead: When at work she would stand or lay the frame and kid where she could see it at any time. She soon had a large basket as full as she could crowd with crickets. Laying it down near the kid, she took a smaller basket and filled it. I should judge she had over four bushels of the catch. But wait, the Indians were leaving for their camp about three or four miles away. This squaw sat down beside the larger basket, put the band over her shoulders, got on her feet with it, then took the strapped kid and placed him on top, face up, picked up the other basket and followed her lord and master, who tramped ahead with nothing to carry except his own lazy carcass. There were bushels of crickets left in the trenches, which I suppose they would gather later in the day.”

Egan learned that the crickets were used to make a bread that was very dark in color. They were dried, then ground on the same mill used to grind pine nuts or grass seed, “making a fine flour that will keep a long time, if kept dry” (this was often referred to as “desert fruitcake” by early settlers). Egan’s Indian companion told him “the crickets make the bread good, the same as sugar used by the white woman in her cakes.”

There were other efficient methods of harvesting Mormon crickets. One of them was to drive the crickets into a stream, circa 1864, as described in the journal of Perter Gottfredson2: “The squaws [placed] baskets in the ditch for the crickets to float into. The male Indians with long willows strung along about twenty feet apart whipping the ground behind the crickets driving them towards the ditch …. [The crickets] tumbled into the ditch and floated down into the baskets . . . . They got more than 50 bushels.” In this instance, service berries and wild currants were mixed with the crickets to form the loaves of bread. In a similar account of floating the crickets into baskets, John Young states that they were caught by the tons.

Another method was to simply scoop up the crickets by the bushel when they were clustered under vegetation and too cold to be active. Beatrice Whiting3 wrote of the Paiute: “The women went out early in the morning and caught them, were back by sunrise, and spent the rest of the day roasting, drying, and pounding them and putting them in bags to be cached for the winter.”

Footnotes

1. Egan, W.M. (Ed.). 1917. Pioneering the West 1846-1878: Major HowardEgan’s Diary. Richmond, Utah:

2. Gottfredson, P. 1874. Journal of Perter Gottfredson, From the Gottfredson Family History. Ms. on file, Utah State Hist. Soc., Salt Lake City, pp. 15-16.

3. Whiting, BeatriceB. 1950. “Paiute sorcery.” Viking Fund Publs. Anthropol. No. 15, New York, pp. 17-19.

Source

Some Insect Foods of the American Indians: And How the Early Whites Reacted to Them, The Food Insects Newsletter, November 1994.

 


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