There’s a difference between book smart and bar smart. You may not be book smart, but this series can make you seem educated and interesting from a barstool. So, belly up, pour yourself a glass of something good, and take notes as we look at America’s most destructive stampede of squirrels this side of Independence Day.
When you hear the word “stampede,” what kinds of animals come to mind? Bulls, elephants, Black Friday shoppers, and wildebeests (RIP, Mufasa) might make your list, but squirrels probably don’t crack the top 10.
If you live in Hamilton County, Indiana, however, you just celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Great Squirrel Stampede of 1822. In the fall of that year, a swarm of squirrels descended from the woods and ate everything in sight. The number of squirrels “could not be estimated,” according to one eyewitness, while another reported that a single farmer killed 248 bushytails in three days.
For many years, the Great Squirrel Stampede was nothing more than an urban legend in Hamilton County. But that was before county historian David Heighway began looking into it. He unearthed firsthand accounts of the unprecedented squirrel migration, and he’s convinced the Squirrel Stampede is true history.
“Oh, this actually happened. There's absolutely no question,” he told WRTV. “I go through a lot of the old history books, finding oddball stories and things like that. And my job is either to prove them or to shoot them down, both of which I've done on a regular basis. And the squirrel thing was in original history, Augustus F. Shirts, 1901.”
Shirts was a lawyer from Noblesville, Indiana, and in his history of Hamilton County, he claims that the hordes of squirrels couldn’t be stopped by man or beast.
“The squirrels passed through this county from west to east,” he said. “The number could not be estimated. The time occupied in passing was about two weeks. They destroyed all the corn in the fields they passed over. They could not be turned in their course, but went straight on in the route taken.”
When they hit the White River, they didn’t break stride. They swam straight across and “it was never known from whence they came or where they went.”
In one eyewitness account unearthed by Heighway, an Indianapolis resident named Calvin Fletcher wrote in a letter to his brother that “the corn this year was literally destroyed by grey and black squirrel.” He reports that many people lost entire cornfields, and he speculates that the squirrels ate the corn because the oaks “entirely fail’d” to produce acorns.
Another longtime resident of Indianapolis, Oliver Johnson, told his grandson that nearly every fall he could count on seeing “a spell of travelin’ squirrels.” They weren’t always destructive, but one year they raided corn fields “by the thousands” for several days. Johnson’s father tasked him and his brother with patrolling the fields with their rifles, and he once shot 18 squirrels from a tree “without changin’ position or missin’ a shot.”
Heighway reports that 1822 wasn’t the only squirrel stampede on record in central Indiana. Another big migration occurred in 1845, and smaller movements occurred throughout the century. In other states, Heighway found accounts of several multi-state migrations, including an 1842 stampede that swept from Iowa to Wisconsin.
While it’s easy to look back on these events as innocuous or humorous, Heighway told MeatEater that it would have been a “traumatic” experience for the pioneers. While most were able to recover from the damage, the area had only been open to settlement for about six years. These folks had just started trying to eke out a living, and they likely weren’t expecting to lose entire crops to squirrels.
With so many accounts in the historical record, there’s no question that squirrel stampedes occurred at various points during the 19th century. But it’s unclear why those migrations began—and why they don’t seem to happen anymore.
To help answer these questions, I reached out to Dr. John Koprowski, who you may remember as the “Squirrel Doctor” from Episode 259 of the MeatEater Podcast.
Koprowski said these squirrel movements were not part of a regular migration but an environmentally induced regional emigration. Squirrels don’t migrate during regular intervals like elk or mule deer, but they have been known to emigrate to different regions if a mast crop of acorns or chestnuts fails.
“Squirrels can detect a single black walnut tree that has ripe fruits from miles away. If you have huge forests of chestnuts that have a bumper year, that smell is moving huge distances and could be a cue for movement,” Koprowski said.
If a late spring frost wipes out the acorn or chestnut crop in a particular area, squirrels will move to wherever they can smell food. They have the ability to navigate long distances, Koprowski said, and if they run across a cornfield or two along the way, so much the better (for them).
While squirrel emigrations still occur in rural areas, they don’t happen as often or on as large of a scale. Koprowski identified several reasons for this change. First, forests have been fragmented and replaced with obstacles that make mass emigration difficult.
“The habitat is a lot less continuous,” Koprowski said. “Having mass numbers of animals moving at a regional scale is probably not even possible when you think about all the open space, cities, towns, and highways.”
The extinction of the American chestnut tree has also reduced squirrel densities so that even when squirrels do emigrate, the numbers are far less noteworthy.
“Squirrels ate lots of chestnuts, but those trees were lost about the same time you stop seeing these large-scale movements,” Koprowski said.
Squirrels that live in urban or suburban areas don’t need to move because people keep their trees alive and alternative food sources are available, Koprowski pointed out. The animals living in more remote areas might move to find food, but those movements aren’t always documented.
Hunters might hope for a return of squirrel stampedes, but even small game hunters in 1822 agreed that when it comes to squirrels, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Kentucky was visited by tens of thousands of squirrels in 1822, according to the Indiana State Sentinel, and thousands were killed by “men, boys, and dogs” with guns, stones, clubs, and spears fastened to long reeds. Another stampede occurred in 1833, but by that time “the sport had lost its interest.” Squirrel hunters had had their fill of bushytails, and “the unoffending pests were permitted to pursue their way.”
You’re unlikely to see a squirrel stampede in your neck of the woods, but if you do, you’ll want to keep a few good recipes on hand. Buffalo squirrel dip is sure to please at your next party, squirrel noodle soup will keep your bones warm this winter, and it’s hard to go wrong with an old classic, squirrel and dumplings.