Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Monumental Legend

(This is an urban legends research paper I wrote about twenty years ago. The website where I originally posted it has disappeared into the mists of time.)

And it's an Urban Legend, to the extent that it is told as if it really happened, with appropriate insertion of people and places to suit the telling.

Most Mormons (Latter Day Saints) know the story of the miracle of the seagulls. It is taught in Utah public school as fact, and the state has ponied up tens of thousands of dollars to establish monuments to the dirty, noisy birds.

The essence of the story is best represented by a bit of quotation, as told by someone named Priddy Meeks:

"Apostle Rich stood in an open wagon and preached out of doors. It was a beautiful day and a very salom one to. While preaching he says, brotherin we do not want you to part with your wagons and teams for we might need them intimateing that he did not know but we might have to leave.... At that instant I heard the voice of fowels flying over head that I was not acquainted with. I looked up and saw a flock of seven gulls. In a few minutes there was another larger flock passed over. They came faster and more of them until the heavens were darkened with them and lit down in the valley till the earth was black with them and they would eat crickets and throw them up again. A little before sundown they left for Salt Lake.... In the morning they came back again and continued that course until they had devoured the crickets and then left Sinedie and never returned. I guess this circumstance changed our feeling considerable for the better."

This story, or variations on it, is told in every Utah history book I was able to lay my hands on when I researched the matter last week. Each time the story includes details like describing the size of these crickets as unusually large, "as large as a man's thumb." The gulls are described in at least two instances as being unknown, or, in one instance, "come here from the distant ocean." Throwing up the crickets is an important part of the story, and is explained in one case by claiming that the crickets were poisonous to the birds.

These are the facts. The crickets had always been around, described by the earliest settlers as "common, about the size of a man's thumb." Indians ate them before the Whites arrived, and even Mormon settlers learned to eat the crickets during times of hardship.

The seagulls are a migratory species local to the Great Salt Lake. They arrive at the lake every spring, and leave for the south when the weather turns cold. It is possible, of course, that the late spring that year left the new settlers who had just arrived the previous year, unaware of the presence of the birds. However, trappers who had been in the valley long before Brigham Young arrived had already noticed the loud aggressive birds.

That spring, 1848, was a bit rough, with frosts as late as May 28 creating worries that the crops might not be enough to feed the people. The crickets didn't help, eating the grain as fast as it grew. But in all that the authorities, who might be expected to make note of such remarkable events, said only, "the crickets have done a considerable damage to both wheat and corn, which has discouraged some, but there is plenty left if we can save it for a few days. The sea gulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the crickets as they go; it seems the hand of the Lord is in our favor."

According to The Great Salt Lake, the book where I finally found real information, "on June 21 all that the authorities had to add on the subject was that the crickets were "still quite numerous and busy eating, but between the gulls our efforts and the growth of crops we shall raise much grain in spite of them." By the next year, when the crickets returned, the story had grown to its present day proportions.

The legend is instructive in its pervasiveness. Even when faced with "incontrovertible" evidence contrary to the legend, people in Utah will continue to take it as a given. Most curious of all, in spot interviews with non-Mormons living in Utah, the legend has the power of, well, of legend. The miracle of the seagulls has become a matter of pride with Utahns, which isn't likely to fade in spite of all the white spots on people's windshields.