Was There a "Miracle" of the Seagulls?

By Bill McKeever

Monument recognizing the 1848 "miracle of the seagulls"Located east of the Assembly Hall on Temple Square is a golden monument recognizing the 1848 “miracle of the seagulls.” LDS tradition tells how tens of thousands of seagulls miraculously appeared to devour millions of crickets that were attempting to destroy the crops of the Mormon pioneers who had arrived a year before.

However, because this event receives virtually little attention at the time it supposedly happened, some students of Mormon history have concluded that this account may be nothing more than folklore. For instance, David H. Bailey noted in his review of Samuel W. Taylor’s book The Kingdom or Nothing that Taylor “blandly points out that nowhere in the journals of John Taylor or Parley P. Pratt, or in other reliable sources for that time, is mentioned any instance of a spectacular crop rescue by cricket-eating seagulls.”

To this Bailey states, “Thus it appears that this favorite anecdote of Church history may well be apocryphal” (Sunstone 1:3/85, Summer 1976). Samuel Taylor was the grandson of third LDS President John Taylor.

In his book Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer, biographer Stanley B. Kimball drew the same conclusion as Samuel Taylor. Said Kimball,

“The now-famous cricket scourge and the seagulls which had eaten the crickets and saved some of the crops had occurred during the preceding May and June. Curiously, despite the miraculous nature of this event in current Mormon thought, it was not commented on much at the time and was hardly mentioned in the First General Epistle of the First Presidency of April, 1849. Cricket and grasshopper plagues were common terrors for many years in Utah” (pp.188-189).

In an article titled “Dealing With Dissonance: Myths, Documents, And Faith,” history Professor Richard D. Poll (Emeritus,  Western Illinois University), a person who describes himself as a “Mormon of the Liahona persuasion,” (not sure I really understand what that means) spoke of several aspects of Mormon history that are suspect, including whether or not Brigham Young really uttered the now famous phrase “This is the Place.” Professor Poll wrote that, “most dictionaries insist that a myth must be fictitious–like a fairy tale.  However, that is not what it means to us historians.  A historical myth is an idealized version of someone, or something, that once existed. It is what the memory of an event becomes after people have transformed it so that it is more useful, usually for reasons involving group values. The process of myth-making distills from the past elements that motivate people to be more patriotic, generous, loving, or virtuous in some other dimension.” In that context he goes on to write, “A clear indication of the mythologizing process is the visual myths that gradually emerge–the pictures of the Pilgrims landing, or the seagulls devouring the crickets.  The statue of Joseph and Emma at the Nauvoo visitors’ center is a beautiful idealization of these very important people.  The statue of Brigham Young on the BYU campus is another.  It’s fair to say that you may know you have become a myth when they make a statue of you.  Unless, of course, you are a demagogue who commissions your own statue–a clear sign that you expect to become a myth.” See Sunstone 12:3/18 (May 88).

Retired BYU Professor John L. Sorenson, in his article, Ritual As Theology, puts the seagull story in the same sentence with the Three Nephites: “Myth and lore also communicate values and beliefs.  Answers to ultimate questions are found in the telling of a sacred story. Mormon missionaries do little more than relate the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision when they want to explain our view of the nature of God and the need for restoration.  Among ourselves, a recital of the tale of the crickets and seagulls or of an appearance of the Three Nephites serves similarly as a shorthand affirmation of a shared belief.” See Sunstone 6:3/11 (May 81).

In his review of Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-1869, Professor Richard W. Sadler (Weber State) compliments author Eugene E. Campbell for  “his uncompromising search for historical truths. On one occasion in describing his method of teaching he said, ‘I will never knowingly teach my students something they will have to “unlearn” later on’ (p. ix).” He also notes that “During virtually all of his professional career, Campbell was employed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He began as a seminary teacher in Magna and later became an Institute of Religion instructor and director in Logan. From 1956 until 1980, he was a member of the history faculty at Brigham Young University, serving part of this time as chair of the department.”

Sadler states that “Campbell details the Saints’ early irrigation and agricultural experiments in the Great Basin, including the seagull and cricket ‘miracle’ of 1848, and notes: Although little was said about the role of the gulls in saving the crops at the time, the inspirational aspects of the episode were emphasized over time until it came to be regarded as a unique incident in Mormon history. Such an interpretation ignores the fact that gulls and other birds returned regularly each spring to Mormon settlements, devouring crickets, grasshoppers, worms, and other insects. But the episode was providential to the colonists who needed food. (p. 30).” See Dialogue, Vol. 22, No. 3.

It is also interesting to note that retired BYU Professor John L. Sorenson, in his article, “Ritual As Theology,” puts the seagull story in the same sentence with the Three Nephites: “Myth and lore also communicate values and beliefs.  Answers to ultimate questions are found in the telling of a sacred story. Mormon missionaries do little more than relate the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision when they want to explain our view of the nature of God and the need for restoration.  Among ourselves, a recital of the tale of the crickets and seagulls or of an appearance of the Three Nephites serves similarly as a shorthand affirmation of a shared belief.” See Sunstone 6:3/11 (May 81).

Though 1848 is credited for the date of the “miracle,” in their article “Pestiferous Ironclads: The Grasshopper in Pioneer Utah,” historians Davis Bitton and Linda C. Wilcox state that insects were a regular problem in early Utah. They note however, that “The worst year, by any measurement, was 1855, when grasshoppers invaded the territory from the far north through Iron County, wiping out the third sowing of some crops in Salt Lake County, destroying all or nine-tenths of the grain in some Iron County towns, and denuding whole fields elsewhere.” Bitton and Wilcox cite an 1855 correspondence where Heber C. Kimball described the devastation to his son William:

From this place south as far as we went, the grasshoppers have cut down the grain, and there is not fifty acres now standing of any kind of grain in Salt Lake Valley, and what is now standing, they are cutting it down as fast as possible. In Utah county the fields are pretty much desolate; in Juab Valley not a green spear of grain is to be seen, nor in Sanpete, nor in Fillmore. In Little Salt Lake they are still sowing, also at Cedar City, that county being so much later the grain is not yet up, but the grasshoppers are there, ready to sweep down the grain as soon as it comes up. In the north as far as Boxelder the scenery is the same…. and to look at things at this present time, there is not the least prospect of raising one bushel of grain in the valleys this present season…. I must say there is more green stuff in the gardens in G. S. L. City than there is in all the rest of the counties; still there is a great many of the gardens in the city entirely ruined. Brother Wm. C. Staines told me this morning that he had 500,000 young apple trees come up and they are all cut down to the ground, and many gardens where the peach trees were full of peaches, every leaf and peach are gone.


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