"And then the dispossessed were drawn west — from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless — restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do — to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut — anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."
–John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939
The Dust Bowl
By the early 1930s the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression. Millions of unemployed and poor Americans were without basic food and housing, and were suffering the sense of hopelessness that comes with extreme poverty. The tragedy of the Dust Bowl hit the southern and midwestern plains just two years after the stock market collapse of 1929 set off the Depression. It began in 1931 with a severe drought that ruined crops and baked the landscape.
A Strain on the Land and Farmers
Great Plains farmers had been overworking the land for several years before the drought started. During the recession that followed the end of World War I, crop prices fell dramatically. Farmers needed to produce more and more crops in order to make ends meet. Many sought bank loans to pay for the equipment and supplies that would enable them to cultivate more land and plant multiple cycles of crops in the same acreage. This placed a great strain on the land and on the farmers. Due to over-farming, the soil lost its ability to retain moisture and nutrients. When drought hit, the farmers were already falling far behind on repaying their bank debts.
The Dust Bowl Exodus — One of the Largest Migrations in American History
With their farmland stripped and their homes abandoned or seized in foreclosure, more than 2 million people fled the Dust Bowl. They came from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico. 40 percent of Oklahoma’s residents left the state. Between 315,000 and 400,000 of these poor and hungry families packed their meager belongings in cars and trucks and headed west to the Golden State.
Big agricultural farms needed workers to pick the crops, and they wanted them cheap. Flyers reached Dust Bowl-struck states promising abundant work in the fields. Newspapers and ads placed by California boosters promised a “poor man’s heaven,” with abundant crops and long growing seasons. The promise of work and the images of a sunny green landscape, trees dripping with ripe oranges and vineyards full of purple grapes, indeed pointed toward a happy new beginning.
The Road to California
Though the journey was not an easy one, the 1927 opening of the east-west interstate highway known as Route 66, later called the Main Street of America, provided migrants with a direct route to California.
Life for the Dust Bowl migrants in California was vastly different from the paradise they had dreamed of and seen advertised.
The weather was mild and the fields were lush with produce, but California’s basic infrastructures had not escaped the ravages of the Depression. The flood of hundreds of thousands of poor migrants to the state was not welcome. After the long and difficult journey to California, many were turned away at the border.
Those who made it through found that jobs were scarce. Those who did find work were paid extremely low wages. With whole families working, including the elderly and children, these farmworkers could not make enough to pay for basic food and housing. Although some government camps did exist for migrant workers, most were forced to set up camp along irrigation ditches. These crowded ditchbank camps had no running water or sanitary systems. Disease and illness quickly spread among the exhausted and malnourished workers. Workers were forced to move from camp to camp in search of work, following the growing seasons of various crops.
California had been hit hard by the Depression, and work was hard to come by even before the new migrants arrived. Californians did not look favorably on the impoverished Dust Bowl migrants who lined the landscape in makeshift camps. Often called “Okies” or “Arkies” due to their roots in Oklahoma and Arkansas, the migrants were ridiculed for their tattered and dirty appearance, coarse accents, and general lack of education. Although the Dust Bowl migrants were predominantly white, their ties to the Southern Great Plains marked them as outsiders.
Highway signs welcomed tourists to California but warned the unemployed to seek work elsewhere. Dust Bowl migrants were considered uneducated, impoverished, and dirty, and were deemed a danger to public health.
Revealing the Migrants' Struggles and Hardships
Although many Californians resented the migrant workers, others sought to humanize their struggles. Famed country band leader Bob Wills penned a number of migration-themed songs such as “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” His lyrics reflected the class struggles of the time: “Poor man picks the cotton, rich man gets the money.” Folk music legend Woody Guthrie, himself born to Oklahoma farmers, traveled with the migrants and was inspired by their struggles to write the anthem “This Land is Your Land” and many other songs of migrant life and struggle. Other sympathetic portrayals of migrant life and poverty included a famous collection of photographs by Dorothea Lange, produced throughout the 1930s as a commission by the Farm Security Administration; and John Steinbeck’s epic novel The Grapes of Wrath, which was published in 1939 and adapted as a movie the following year.
Settlement in California
Throughout the 1930s, almost half of the Great Plains migrants settled in rural areas of California. Later, in the early 1940s, after a decade of struggling to find work in agriculture, many more moved to Los Angeles to find work in the new defense industry that sprang up during World War II.