The term Dust Bowl was coined in 1935 when an AP reporter, Robert Geiger, used it to describe the drought-affected south-central United States in the aftermath of horrific dust storms.
Historically, the Dust Bowl was a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies during the 1930s.
Severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent the aeolian processes (wind erosion) caused the phenomenon. The drought came in three waves: 1934, 1936, and 1939–1940, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years.
As high winds and choking dust swept the region from Texas to Nebraska, people and livestock were killed and crops failed across the entire region.
The Dust Bowl intensified the crushing economic impacts of the Great Depression and drove many farming families on a desperate migration in search of work and better living conditions.
The photography of Dorothea Lange, as shown in this collection, is as closely associated with American farmers’ struggle against drought and dust in the Depression era.
In the depths of the worldwide Depression, 1933, some fourteen million people in the U.S. were out of work; many were homeless, drifting aimlessly, often without enough food to eat. In the midwest and southwest drought and dust storms added to the economic havoc.
During the decade of the 1930s some 300,000 men, women, and children migrated west to California, hoping to find work. Broadly, these migrant families were called by the opprobrium “Okies” (as from Oklahoma) regardless of where they came from.
They traveled in old, dilapidated cars or trucks, wandering from place to place to follow the crops. Lange began to photograph these luckless folk, leaving her studio to document their lives in the streets and roads of California.
She roamed the byways with her camera, portraying the extent of the social and economic upheaval of the Depression.
Lange developed personal techniques of talking with her subjects while working, putting them at ease and enabling her to document pertinent remarks to accompany the photography. The titles and annotations often revealed personal information about her subjects.
Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million people moved out of the Plains states. In just over a year, over 86,000 people migrated to California.
This number is more than the number of migrants to that area during the 1849 gold rush. Migrants abandoned farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, but were often generally referred to as “Okies”, “Arkies”, or “Texies”.
Terms such as “Okies” and “Arkies” came to be known in the 1930s as the standard terms for those who had lost everything and were struggling the most during the Great Depression.
However, not all migrants traveled long distances; most migrants participated in internal state migration moving from counties that the Dust Bowl highly impacted to other less affected counties.
So many families left their farms and were on the move that the proportion between migrants and residents was nearly equal in the Great Plains states.
An examination of Census Bureau statistics and other records, and a 1939 survey of occupation by the Bureau of Agricultural Economics of about 116,000 families who arrived in California in the 1930s, showed that only 43 percent of Southwesterners were doing farm work immediately before they migrated.
Nearly one-third of all migrants were professional or white-collar workers. Specifically for farmers, while some of them had to take on unskilled labor when they moved, leaving the farming sector commonly led to greater social mobility in the future as there was a far greater likelihood that migrant farmers would later go into semi-skilled or high-skilled fields which paid better.
Non-farmers experienced more downward occupational moves than farmers, but in most cases, they were not significant enough to bring them into poverty, because high-skilled migrants were most likely to experience a downward shift into semi-skilled work.
While semi-skilled work did not pay as well as high-skilled work, most of these workers were not impoverished. For the most part, by the end of the Dust Bowl, the migrants generally were better off than those who chose to stay behind according to their occupational changes.
After the Great Depression ended, some migrants moved back to their original states. Many others remained where they had resettled. About one-eighth of California’s population is of Okie heritage.
The crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many hired during the Great Depression by the federal government. For instance, the Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers to document the crisis.
The work of independent artists was also influenced by the crises of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Author John Steinbeck, borrowing closely from field notes taken by FSA worker and author Sanora Babb, wrote The Grapes of Wrath (1939) about migrant workers and farm families displaced by the Dust Bowl.
Babb’s own novel about the lives of the migrant workers, Whose Names Are Unknown, was written in 1939 but was eclipsed and shelved in response to the success of Steinbeck’s work, and was finally published in 2004.
Many of the songs of folk singer Woody Guthrie, such as those on his 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads, are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression when he traveled with displaced farmers from Oklahoma to California and learned their traditional folk and blues songs, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour”.
(Photo credit: Dorothea Lange / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons).