Behold, a Seagull Miracle!
We all know the story. We're practically taught it from the first day of school.
A persistent series of hardships had already befallen the weary desert dwellers when hoards of insidious insects descended upon their fields. So numerous were those vindictive little demons that they reportedly "covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened," and they ate "every herb of the land" in a mere three days. Fearing the year's crops would be lost, the people's leaders convened and agreed to pray and ask the Lord to remove the spiteful infestation. Thankfully, their prayers had been heard: A mighty force stirred from the west, and the pests were swept away and disposed of in the nearby sea.
It's a classic tale indelible to our history. By now, the story is so firmly engrained in our culture that we're past the point of questioning its origins. It's become an allegory for all times, repeated in perpetuity under the guise of new circumstances.
This canonized legend, of course, is the tale of Egypt's plague of the locusts, made famous in the book of Exodus.
But here's an even better story, which Utahns refer to as "The Miracle of the Gulls":
It begins in 1848, after the Mormons had successfully endured their inaugural winter in the Salt Lake Valley. The fiercely determined band of pioneers had prepared fields of grain the previous autumn so that they would be ready to grow the following spring. At first, it appeared their savvy agricultural efforts would be rewarded. But, so the story goes, their luck changed for the worse.
Susa Young Gates, in her 1930 biography of her father, Brigham Young (second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and first governor of the Utah territory), chronicled this tribulating event in Mormon history:
"Just as the crops were giving promise of a much needed harvest, swarms of crickets hovered over the ploughed lands like a devastating army, darkening the earth for miles around, eating off every blade of grass and every growing thing."
According to Gates, the pioneers tried everything to drive away the crickets, but to no avail. Eventually they resorted to a "three-day fast and prayer," which yielded miraculous results.
"And behold, a miracle! Rising from the borders of the lake appeared myriad snow-white gulls. From whence they came and what was their purpose, the pioneers could not determine. Settling upon fields, black with the millions of crickets, the gulls seized them and swallowed them as if unable to fully gorge themselves. When their crops were full, the birds would hop over to a ditch, bank or convenient hillock and disgorge themselves, and then return again to feed upon the countless crickets. The people stood in awe at this direct answer to their prayer."
Alas, the Mormons were saved by the seagulls' ravenous appetite for (and intermittent repulsion of) cricket meat.
As a result of this and other, similar accounts of seagull salvation, the California seagull has evolved into a revered Utah symbol. Various monuments have been constructed in its honor, including one at Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. The "sea gull" was adopted as Utah's official state bird in 1955 through an act of the state Legislature. Salt Lake City even once hosted a minor league baseball team nicknamed the "Gulls," until the team moved to Calgary in 1985 and became the "Cannons."
Behold, a Seagull Skeptic!
This is a great story. You're gonna love it.
Back in the 1980s, Utah archaeologist David Madsen would stop by his father's house once in awhile to visit and chat. His father, renowned Utah historian Brigham Madsen, was enjoying the outset of a fairly energetic retirement at this point in his life, still immersed in research and various writing projects. One day, the two were talking about the seagull story we've all heard since birth, and it got the elder Madsen wondering.
"He started looking into it," David recalls, "and he couldn't find hardly any written evidence that there was anything like what was claimed to be this seagull miracle."
While he did come across utterances of cricket infestations from Mormon diarists, Brigham didn't find quite the same desperation and despair over crickets that the typical, modern-day seagull story describes. Moreover, there was very little evidence that seagulls played a significant role in resolving any cricket problem. Though there are accounts of seagulls and other birds eating the crickets, many journals from the time didn't even mention seagulls.
But perhaps the biggest problem with the "miracle" is a very practical one. In fact, it's so simple that I can't believe it never occurred to me: Crickets are food, too.
"A lot of Native American foragers were eating insects of one kind or another," David points out. "And there's a whole array of ethnographic and ethnohistorical data on how they were doing that—how they were capturing them, how they were preparing them, how they were eating them."
In other words, the original Salt Lake Valley residents would have viewed a cricket invasion as a bountiful blessing, not a plague. Actually, a cricket harvest would be especially facile and plentiful compared to just about any other food source in the West. To illustrate, Madsen uses a colorful comparison: "I estimate that if a whale fell out of the sky, you could get more calories just eating the crickets than you could cutting up that whale."
The Mormons were not uninformed about the insect-foraging strategies of Native Americans. Pioneers from that era commonly noted the locals' use of insects as a food source, and the more open-minded and/or pragmatic pioneers would even partake in a buggy meal every now and again. But ethnocentric attitudes toward agrarianism strongly influenced the early Mormons' reaction to the crickets—one Mormon pioneer described them as appearing to be possessed by "a vindictive little demon." Eating bugs was at best a last resort for the picky Mormons, but at least they had a pretty solid backup plan if their crops did fail.
Given all this evidence, the Madsens had discovered an alternate seagull story—one so firmly entrenched in history and science that they were beyond the point of believing the classic tale. So to set the record straight, they co-wrote an essay titled, "One Man's Meat Is Another Man's Poison: A Revisionist View of the Seagull 'Miracle,'" and they sent it off to Utah Historical Quarterly for publication.
At first, it appeared their savvy academic efforts would be rewarded. But, so the story goes, their luck changed for the worse.
"They refused to publish it," David remembers, "and not because it wasn't scholarly or anything, but because—and I think this is the quote: 'It's too fun-poking.'"
Obviously, the Madsens disagreed. But David had a hunch as to why the state's self-proclaimed "premier history journal" rejected the piece: "I guess it just ran too counter to the accepted story."
In his 1998 Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Western Historian, father Brigham (who died in 2010 at the age of 96) goes a step further in speculating why the essay was spurned. "We had first submitted this quite serious and scientifically oriented article to the Utah Historical Quarterly as a relevant narrative for Utah readers," he wrote. "But the reviewer, a professional Utah historian and a solid member of his Mormon faith, disapproved it on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for Mormon readers and that, besides, the title was an attempt to be 'cute.'"
The Madsens had to resort to printing their seagull story in the fall 1987 edition of Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. The publication ran it as their lead article. Despite this, there were no ensuing calls to bulldoze the Seagull Monument in Temple Square, and the "sea gull" was retained as Utah's official state bird. However, when minor league baseball returned to Salt Lake City in 1994, the new team abandoned the nickname "Gulls" and became the "Buzz" instead.
Behold, a Seagull Legend!
Personally, I had never expended the intellectual energy to thoroughly question the veracity of the seagull story until recently. I always doubted the spiritual elements of it, as I tend to apply due skepticism to any claims of miracles and answered prayers. But aside from the supernatural stuff, the story seemed at least plausible, if not entirely verifiable.
I felt reassured for my ignorance after David admitted he'd experienced a similar deference to the traditional narrative. It wasn't until he had thoroughly studied the subject when David began to have doubts.
"It was just so pervasive in Utah growing up, in school and wherever else, that you just accepted it as the truth."
But the real truth isn't all that far from fiction. If you live in Utah, crucial elements of the more sensational accounts are evident in our lives today. Seagulls are everywhere in the Salt Lake Valley, and, yes, they do eat bugs—although it's worth pointing out that they'll eat almost anything, up to and including garbage. Flocks of seagulls are a familiar sight at the Salt Lake County Landfill according to Salt Lake County Sustainability Manager Ashlee Yoder. She estimates somewhere between 500-800 seagulls visit the site daily, lured by the 1,200 tons of new trash taken there per day.
"Seagulls are a problem at landfills because they can interfere with the equipment operators' ability to see clearly," Yoder politely explained to me in an email. She added, "Sorry, I can't think of a better way to say they poop on the windshields, making good visibility difficult."
Yoder sees the problem of the winged visitors as minor; just an "inconvenience." However, she notes that the food items that draw the seagulls to the landfill could be reduced if Utahns recycled more food into compost. In fact, she said about 65 percent of what we throw away could be recycled.
As far as the crickets go, many locals are familiar with the grotesque sight of millions of thumb-sized Mormon crickets (that's really what they're called) darkening roadways and devouring every growing thing. It doesn't happen with much regularity, but these swarms are known to recur every year or so.
It's just so dang easy to believe in a seagull miracle. By now the story is so firmly entrenched in our culture that we're past the point of doubting its cromulence. It's become an allegory for all times, repeated forever under the guise of new events.
Still, it took years for the story to transform into "The Miracle of the Gulls." In their essay, the Madsens mark 1853 as a subtle early turning point. That September, during the Mormon church's General Conference, Apostle Orson Hyde lent authority to claims of divine intervention when he said of the seagulls, "The hand of Providence prepared agents, and sent them to destroy the destroyer; a circumstance that was rare, one that was never known to exist before, and never since to any extent." It's worth noting that, by his own admission, Hyde was in Europe in 1848, not the Salt Lake Valley.
It wasn't until decades later in 1913 when the Seagull Monument on Temple Square was "erected in grateful remembrance of the mercy of God to the Mormon pioneers," as its plaque informs. Arguably from that moment forward, "The Miracle of the Gulls" became a legend for all times, repeated forever.
Behold, a Seagull Folklore!
So prevalent is the seagull story that Utah State University's Merrill-Cazier Library has committed to preserving associated relics in its Fife Folklore Archives. It's a fascinating collection of journal entries, oral histories and other such items of folk record, with each piece presenting its own unique deviations.
A charming 10-verse folk ditty from 1952 places the seagull story in 1849, but it sounds like it would make a catchy tune, regardless:
'Twas sea gulls feathered in angel-white,/ And angels they were forsooth./ These sea gulls there by the thousands came/ To battle in very truth./ They charged down upon the cricket hordes/ And gorging them day and night,/ They routed the devastating foe/ And the crickets were put to flight.
By the way, Mormon crickets don't fly, and they're not even technically crickets; they're katydids. Also, seagulls do eat Mormon crickets, but when they disgorge, they're only upchucking the parts they can't digest.
One 1937 retelling leaves seagulls out of the seagull miracle altogether. In this version, the feathered snow-white agents are replaced by a mighty wind that "blew the insects with such force, against fences and buildings that they lay in great heaps." Also in this version, the cricket menace rages "for several years" instead of a single growing season.
Then there's the inevitable habit of rediscovering the seagull story under the guise of new events. Writing about the 1976 Teton Dam flood one year later in Logan's Herald Journal, a columnist recalled initial concerns about an overwhelming mosquito infestation in the region. "Then the gulls came," she said. "No one knew from where, Gunnison Island in the Western Great Salt Lake or from the Pacific Ocean? They lighted on ponds and pools and in a week all larvae and mosquitoes were gone, and the gulls left—for where? Miracles still happen."
A year prior, a 19-year-old woman was recorded as believing recent "invasions by 'Mormon Crickets,' cattle mutilations, numerous reports of UFOs and an earthquake" in her hometown of Malad all correlate with biblical end-times. "To me," she added, "the facts speak for themselves."
But maybe the most bizarre and off-putting artifact is a joke. There are 15 variations of this joke included in the collection, but it basically goes like this:
Setup: Why are crows black?
Punchline: Because they wouldn't help the seagulls eat the crickets.
Occurrences of this racist wisecrack seem to come almost entirely from the 1970s, which is right around the time the LDS church ended a longtime ban on people of color entering the priesthood.
Behold, a Seagull Truth!
After spending a day combing through old stories about seagulls, I later catch up with Randy Williams, USU's Fife Folklore Archives curator and oral history specialist. I had hoped she could draw a fine line between history and folklore, so I asked her what the difference is between the two.
"There isn't one," she says.
"They can be the same thing," she continues. "So, something can historically happen, and then generated out of that could be a legend cycle. And just because it's a legend cycle, doesn't mean that it's not true. It just means that people are repeating it, and maybe massaging it to fit the needs of the telling."
Furthermore, Williams suggests that the truth isn't necessarily found only in the factual details of an historical event. There's a bigger, capital-T truth that's captured in the retelling and remixing of a story. It's a truth about the people who share the story—their beliefs, their values, their ideas, their virtues and biases.
"Folklore isn't false lore," Williams says. "It is distilled information that is presented in a group that's sort of like shorthand language to help teach and perpetuate the group identity."
That's why the Madsens faced such a backlash for telling their factual version of the seagull story: They told the truth, but not the whole Truth. And David understood that.
"If you start attacking those stories that are propagated to sort of bind people together, then you're not really attacking the story itself," David says. "You're attacking the way that those people are bonding together. We have to tell these stories to create a group identity."
Behold, a Seagull Ending!
As a ravenous fan of The Simpsons, I couldn't help but recall an episode called "Lisa the Iconoclast" this whole time. It's a great story. You're gonna love it.
The town of Springfield is gearing up for its own bicentennial celebration. Accordingly, Lisa Simpson embarks on a research project focusing on the town's "cromulent" founder Jebediah Springfield, who reportedly led a "fiercely determined band of pioneers" out of Maryland in 1796 "after misinterpreting a passage in the Bible." But Lisa stumbles upon a handwritten confession wherein Jebediah divulges his true identity: murderous pirate Hans Sprungfeld. Despite the factual evidence supporting her claim, both her teacher and a local historian shun her revelation. Still she persists, saying, "I refuse to believe that everyone refuses to believe the truth." Finally, Lisa gets up in front of the entire town during the bicentennial celebration to announce the truth, but suddenly, she can't do it. "The myth of Jebediah has value, too," she explains moments later to the local historian. "It's brought out the best of everyone in this town."
If you're now wondering how a seagull story ended with a Simpsons reference, then you don't know me and you certainly don't know minor league baseball: The Calgary Cannons, formerly the Salt Lake Gulls, moved to New Mexico in 2003 to become the Albuquerque Isotopes. The new nickname is a reference to a Simpsons episode in which Homer prevents the Springfield Isotopes, the town's minor league baseball team, from moving to Albuquerque.
It's a classic tale indelible to TV history—much like the seagull story is tied into ours. By now, The Simpsons is so firmly ingrained in pop culture that I'm past the point of questioning its origins. It has become a series for all times, perpetuated forever under the guise of new episodes.