On the Trail of the Grasshopper Crosses

Grasshopper Cross Sign
SD Historical Society marker for the Grasshopper Cross in front of St. Peter’s Church in Jefferson, SD.

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.

Grasshopper Crosses_St Peters Historic Marker_12.15.17[2162]
SD Historical Society marker about St. Peter’s Catholic Church at 400 Main St. in Jefferson, SD.
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.

St Peters Church
St. Peter’s Catholic Church today. Catholic services were held occasionally before the arrival of the first permanent priest, Father Pierre Boucher, in 1867. A small log building to the north of the present church had been used as a schoolhouse and chapel since 1862. Father Boucher was responsible for a pastorate which extended across the Southeastern Dakota Territory, centered on the 25 French-Canadian families in Jefferson.

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.

Grasshopper Crosses_west_Chicoine Place_Horizontal_12.15.17[2157]
The sun sets behind the Grasshopper Cross standing on a farmstead 4 miles northwest of Jefferson on County Road 1B near the Southeast Farmers Coop Elevator.
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. 

Copy of Grasshopper Cross_Donor Plaque_12.15.17[2154]
A plaque on the side of the Grasshopper Cross in front of St. Peter’s Catholic Church identifies the donor who paid for the replacement cross.
Grasshopper Cross
A replica of the original Grasshopper Cross placed in the St. Peter’s Catholic Church Cemetery in May, 1876. The original deteriorated to the point of needing to be replaced. This replacement was made in 1967 and placed in front of the church.

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.

Grasshopper Crosses_west_Chicoine place_12.15.17[2159]
The Grasshopper Cross standing on the Chicoine farmstead near the corner of 330th Street and 480th Avenue west of Jefferson.
You can purchase photographs of Jefferson, SD and the area’s Grasshopper Crosses at my photo sharing site

6 thoughts on “On the Trail of the Grasshopper Crosses

  1. Hi Judy! Thanks for visiting and commenting. To subscribe/follow my blog just go to this comments page. Just to the right of the feature photo is a “Follow” button that you can click on. I believe then you will be notified whenever I put up a new post on the blog. By the way, that’s a nice thing to say about your mom. I sure miss her.

  2. Thumbs Up Gary, great read and pics. Somewhere in one of my albums I have photos of a grasshopper “invasion” near Scenic, SD. It was devastating and educational.

  3. Thanks, Norm. Grasshoppers really used to do some damage. I’d like to see those photos of the grasshopper invasion near Scenic. Maybe you could put them up on Facebook sometime.

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