After Halting Native Burning, Came Grasshoppers

Barely ten years following the stopping of tribes setting fires in the Willamette and Umpqua valleys, signs of the change visited the settlers. Settlers saw scourges of mice, lice, and grasshoppers in numbers they could not control. These insects and rodents would have been annually controlled by tribal traditional ecological stewardship practices of the Kalapuyans and other tribes. Recordation of the anthropogenic fires of the valley tribes begins with that of Jesse Applegate in his Boyhood Times book where he recalls native women setting fires on the grassy plains in the fall in the area of Salt Creek west of Rickreall and Dallas.

It was a custom of these Indians, late in the autumn, after the wild wheat was fairly ripe, to burn off the whole country. The grass would burn away and leave the pods well dried and bursting. Then the squaws, both young and old, would go with their baskets and bats and gather the grain. It is probably we did not yet know that the Indians were wont to baptize the entire country with fire at the close of every summer; but very soon the fire was started somewhere on the south Yamhill, and came sweeping up through the Salt Creek gap.  Jesse Applegate (recalling 1844)

But soon after 1844, vast numbers, thousands, of settlers would come to Oregon over the Oregon trail and settle every acre of land in the very, each claiming a miles square land claim, 640 acres. By 1851 every acre of land useful in farming was claimed. These farmers plowed up the native grasses and tubers, used by the Kalapuyans for food.

By the Kalapuyans, camas was harvested in the early summer, and other tubers and roots throughout the summer. Wild grains, oats and tarweed seeds would be gathered after the tribal women set the fires in the prairies and roasted the seeds on the stalk. The tribes had woven baskets, trays and bats to collect the roasted seeds from the burnt prairies. These grains would be dried, shelled, and cooked into flatbreads and stews. However, after white farmers plowed up these prairies, the food sources declined. Then the settlers suppressed the other cultural practice, of setting fires to the prairies as they did not want to see their agriculture burnt up. Interestingly, Applegate’s quote above does not mention farms fields burning, nor any danger to the houses of settlers. This lack of detail is explained by the concept of cool burning. When natives set annual fires, there is no build up of fuels and so the fires that are set do not burn deeply and long, but only burn over the present year’s growth. Still native fires were discouraged and stopped altogether, likely sometime in the early 1850s.

The following letter and editorial is the result of five to ten years of fire not being set by natives in the prairies. The editorial writer probably had no knowledge of native set fires, and may have arrived in Oregon after the cultural practice was halted. Reading the editorial now is an ironic experience. William Wirt Boone (Polk Co DLC OC 2128 ) the letter writer clearly has hit upon the solution to grasshopper plagues, perhaps getting a clue through the native people still inhabiting the lands of the two valleys. But there is nothing of the native practices of fire setting, and their likely impact on both mice and grasshopper populations, mentioned in his piece.  What is clear is what is missing, the complete lack of native knowledge in both writings.  It was quite common for settlers (and all scholars) for generations to not think tribal people knew anything about their lands, they being savages and clearly not civilized enough to have useful knowledge. But it was probably the reality that the native anthropological practices were what was controlling the populations of insects and rodents in the valley. That the removal of tribal practices likely caused the plagues of both mice and grasshoppers.

Firing the land is still the most efficient way to control both types of plagues even today, even considering the use of pesticides and herbicides, which are effective but not as effective as annual fires. In this era of the mid 1850s, science was seen as the answer to everything.

The editorial below now reads as if it is trying to beg the question, and from a native perspective perhaps making fun of the lack of serious consideration of firing the prairies. While the reality is, that the writer did not know that Native peoples were successfully firing their lands for the previous 10,000 years. I wonder about where we would be today as a society of native peoples and their knowledge had been respected and included in the knowledge of how to appropriately steward these lands. Today, science is playing catch-up with tribes and tribal knowledge since its clear that many of the land management policies practiced for over a century have utterly failed.


Grasshoppers, Lacreole Valley, Oct 6, 1855

Mr. Adams: -Dear Sir- ‘Tis a well known fact that the grasshoppers are increasing in this valley with a fearful rapidity, and that in Umpqua they have this season destroyed a large amount of small grain, besides the injury done to young orchards.

An evil so extensive to the farming community should be looked after. Hence Mr. J.B. Bell and myself have been making some little research as regards their generation. Where the first grasshopper sprung from we don’t pretend to know, but their method of propagation we believe to be as follows: in May and June they first begin to lay their eggs on the young leaves of the oak trees and bushes. This may seem ridiculous to some, but let every one examine for himself. If you will burst an oak ball that grows on the leaf, and burst the outside shell, you will find a small ball inside, in which, if you will open carefully, you can catch a grasshopper in an embryo state. Now the old way to kill them, that I can see, is to burn off our hills and valleys while the grass and leaves are dry.  W.W. Boone

[editorial begins]

Friend Boone’s theory of grasshopper “generation” may be (and probably is) correct. But we think he must put his wits to work to devise some different plan to rid the country of them, from “burning off our hills and valleys.” If it were possible to fire the l country at all, it could only be done during some of the dry fall months. At this time the leaves containing the eggs are yet on the trees, and remain here till after the weather has become too damp to admit of firing. We are inclined to think that grasshoppers, like squirrels, mice, and locusts, are temporary periodical scourges, which sweep over given districts committing fearful ravages, and finally disappear, nobody knows how. Whence they came and whither they go, no man knoweth. The fact that they have swept the whole country south this year, is no certain sign that they will do so next. Some three years since the mice swept some parts of the country, destroying all the grass and vast quantities of grain. It was feared by many that the next season would witness fearful accessions to their army.  But in accordance with the general laws governing such scourges, instead of multiplying they almost entirely disappeared during the following winter.

If the grasshoppers do come down on us next summer, we know of no way to help ourselves, but must make up out minds to “grin and bear it.” If some lucky discoverer will hit upon a feasible plan for destroying them, we shall be glad to publish his discovery…. In warring with grasshoppers and mice , we hope we shall be able to kill more that one at a time. We can not say that we have much faith in the plan proposed of burning off the leaves in the fall. In fact we cannot see that the thing would be possible.

[The Oregon Argus., October 20, 1855, Image 3, Historic Oregon Newspapers, https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83025129/1855-10-20/ed-1/seq-3/%5D

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