When we meet Sallie Myers, we find her pondering nature, life, death, and the hereafter. Elizabeth Salome Myers faithfully kept a diary from some point in the 1850s through much of the rest of her life. A portion of that has since been published by a descendant as Ties of the Past: The Gettysburg Diaries of Salome Myers Stewart, 1854-1922.
Grasshopper Plagues during Sallie Myers’ Youth
The incident depicted here seems like a straightforward case of sensitivity versus cruelty, but context of the times is important. In the 1850s, Sallie lived through three major grasshopper plagues that struck the Midwest:
- The Great Grasshopper Plague of 1854: This infestation affected various states, including Pennsylvania. Massive swarms of grasshoppers descended upon agricultural lands, devouring crops and causing widespread devastation. Farmers in Pennsylvania, particularly in rural areas, experienced significant losses as their fields were stripped bare by the voracious insects.
- Grasshopper Plague in Berks County (1856): In Berks County, Pennsylvania, farmers faced a severe grasshopper infestation in 1856. The infestation was so intense that it prompted the local authorities to take action. The county commissioners authorized the purchase of chemicals, including sulfur and camphor, to combat the infestation and protect the crops.
- Grasshopper Invasion in Lancaster County (1859): Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was also struck by grasshopper invasions during the 1850s. In 1859, a particularly destructive infestation occurred, resulting in extensive damage to agricultural fields. Farmers had to resort to desperate measures, such as setting fires and using smoky substances to repel the grasshoppers.
So while Sallie is deeply sensitive about one small living creature, the sentiment of farmers was certainly the opposite.
Sallie Myers’ Religious Beliefs
In the chapter, we see Sallie pondering about life and death and reflecting on the Bible. Sallie and her family attended the Gettysburg Methodist Episcopal Church at 55 East Middle Street (the building still stands today but is a Grand Army of the Republic post). The following are thought to be major tenets of the church in that era:
- Emphasis on Personal Piety: Methodism placed a strong emphasis on personal piety and the pursuit of holiness. This included the belief in the necessity of an individual’s personal relationship with God and the importance of spiritual growth and transformation.
- Wesleyan Theology: The Methodist Episcopal Church adhered to the theological teachings of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. This included beliefs in salvation by grace through faith, the possibility of Christian perfection or sanctification, and the importance of living a life of piety and good works.
- Opposition to Dancing and Worldly Amusements: Some Methodists, particularly during the 19th century, held conservative views regarding dancing and worldly amusements. They believed that such activities could lead to temptation, moral corruption, or distraction from spiritual devotion. It’s possible that Sallie’s personal beliefs aligned with this perspective—in her journal, Sallie recorded attending what she assumed was a small party only to find that dancing was involved, and she indignantly left.
Rewards for Runaway Enslaved People during Sallie Myers’ Youth
During the 1850s, capturing and returning runaway slaves was incentivized through the offering of rewards. The exact size of these rewards varied, but they typically ranged from a few dollars to several hundred dollars, depending on the circumstances and the perceived value of the escaped slave. Rewards were often advertised in newspapers, and individuals or groups would take advantage of the system to track down and apprehend runaway slaves. Slaveholders, slave catchers, and even ordinary citizens could claim these rewards by delivering captured individuals to the designated authorities. While some rewards were legitimately pursued to reclaim stolen property, others were motivated by financial gain or racial prejudice. It is estimated that a significant number of runaway slaves were captured and returned during this period, further reinforcing the oppressive nature of the institution of slavery and the challenges faced by those seeking freedom.