It’s grasshopper season, which in my time and place means mild annoyance at the invading insects and watching the cat play with and eat them. I’ve never seen a real grasshopper devastation, what is called a “plague of locusts,” what God told Moses to deliver to the Egyptians:
“God told Moses to stretch out his hand over the land of Egypt to bring a plague of locusts. The locusts covered the face of the land and swallowed up every crop and all the fruits of the trees. Afterwards there was nothing green in the trees, and all the crops in the fields had been destroyed.”
That must have been what Joel Palmer, Indian Agent for the Oregon Territory and co-convener with Isaac Stevens of the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855, had in mind when he told the Indians that white settlers would be “like grasshoppers on the plains.” Biblical images were powerful in our early history.
The audacity of Stevens and Palmer at that Council has always impressed me. There were reportedly 5,000 Indians, 2,000 Nez Perce alone; and the two convenors, artist Gustav Sohon, a couple of interpreters and scribes, and 46 military men drafted for treaty duty at the last minute when rumors of disgruntled Indians surfaced. The white men brought meat and potatoes, and put up an impressive treaty awning; the Indians encircled and looked on in the thousands.
The Indians undoubtedly knew grasshoppers, and the stories that had been passed on from tribe to tribe about white settlers and military groups were definitely in their ken. We don’t know exactly how much they knew; what stories of whites the Plateau people had heard from Delaware and Iroquois Indians they’d met through the fur trade; what stories had trickled in from the Ohio Country or the Great Plains by 1855. But we know what white people wrote down:
In 1831, 20,000 European immigrants arrived in the United States; in 1854, 400,000! And new states in the Midwest were advertising for immigrants in European newspapers as well as writing letters to the old countries about “free land” in America.
Between 1500 and 1800, 2.5 million immigrants arrived in all the Americas from Europe; in the decade running up to the Walla Walla Council, 1845-1854, another 2.5 million arrived in the United States alone.
And in the Ohio country, despite some fierce Indian resistance, there were 300,000 white settlers by 1815.
Not to mention the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the displacement of thousands of Eastern tribes.
The Yakima, Walla Walla, Cayuse Umatilla, and Nez Perce had plenty of reason to take Palmer’s analogy seriously, and the Nez Perce especially deserve strong praise for holding out for their own reservation and holding on to most of their traditional lands—despite Stevens’ stated goal of placing all of the inland tribes on just two “confederated” reservations.
But the white settlers kept coming, and the image of locusts ravaging a land, from east coast to west, seems as apt today as it must have to the Indians gathered at Walla Walla in 1855.
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