This is a story about grasshoppers, crosses, a priest, a hike, faith, and the town of Jefferson in Union County, Dakota Territory. It was May, 1876, about a month before General George A. Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry would lose their battle with Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and a host of Sioux warriors on the rolling plains of the Little Bighorn in Montana.
Six hundred miles southeast of the Little Bighorn, farmers and settlers in Dakota Territory were immersed in a battle of their own. With the Rocky Mountain Locust — or grasshopper.
Grasshoppers had been having their way with crops on the Great Plains throughout the 1870s. Untold acres of crops, and even towns, had been destroyed by the insects. The U.S. Entomological Commission estimated damage from the 1874-1877 grasshopper plagues cost American farmers west of the Mississippi $200 million in damages – about $116 billion in today’s terms.
Two years earlier — in 1874 — an invading cloud of grasshoppers wiped out crops in the community of Kampeska City thus ending the existence of that settlement, the predecessor of Watertown in Codington County, SD.
In 1876, however, the farmers near Jefferson in Union County put their trust in God rather than men. The Federal Writers Project of the Works Project Administration, The South Dakota Guide” (1938) said farmers, frenzied with grief from the devastation of the grasshopper plague, they “decided to ask for Divine Aid,” and Father Pierre Boucher, the pastor of Jefferson’s St. Peter’s Catholic Church announced at mass that a pilgrimage was to take place.
Protestants and Catholics alike came to the church the next morning — many of them barefoot. Led by the priest bearing a cross, a procession formed two miles south of Jefferson and then proceeded north six miles.
Next, the party marched from east to west in the form of a cross.
At each of the four points they placed a simple cross and, in the church cemetery at Jefferson, a larger one.
Not long after the event great heaps of dead grasshoppers were found along the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers.” (Works Project Administration, 1938, p. 332)
Though the grasshoppers came again in later years, apparently the area within the crosses was never touched. Today the largest of the crosses is adjacent to St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Jefferson, SD.
Another one of the crosses can be seen at the Morin farmstead 4 miles northwest of Jefferson on County Road 1B near the Southeast Farmers Coop Elevator, and the third cross is on County Road 23 west of Jefferson on the Dale Chicoine farm.