The idea that movement occurred during the Great Depression due to the Dust Bowl devastation is well-documented. The perception exists that these migrants were mostly from Oklahoma and were farmers moving to California for agricultural work. The textbook I use in the classroom and even the famous movie and book, The Grapes of Wrath, do indeed support this idea. This idea has been researched through the writings of both Walter J. Stein’s California and the Dust Bowl Migration and James. N. Gregory’s American Exodus.
In Dust Bowl Legacies, James N. Gregory reasons that the Dust Bowl Migration came from more than the area of the Dust Bowl. In fact, he discusses the fact that people migrated from all over the Southwest region. This region included the states of Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri. He further determines that this migration continued over a longer period of time than just during the period of the Great Depression. The migration began after World War I, with the largest number coming during the World War II period. In 1960, about one-eighth of the population of California consisted of migrants from the Southwestern region. 1
Gregory determines that many of the migrants were of middle class statue. Many came from the city and towns and not from the agricultural regions of the Southwest. There were migrant farmers as the stereotype leads us to believe, but not as many as this stereotype has fostered in the beliefs of many. The public image of these Dust Bowl Refugees was fed through the songs of Woody Guthrie, John Steinback’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and the photographs of Dorothea Lange. The common driving force among these groups was that their home region was played out and the driving lure of California offered them hope that had been long expired in their homes. They were hoping to rebuild their fortunes and settled in various parts of California to fulfill their dreams. The Los Angeles area received the most migrants, with the San Joaquin Valley ranking second in the settlers. As expected, those settling in the Los Angeles area fared better economically than those who settled in the San Joaquin Valley. Those who settled in the metropolitan areas also were more well-received than those who sought settlement in the agricultural areas. The migrants who settled in the agricultural areas were confronted with a community that did not receive them, and the economic opportunities that they had hoped for were not available. For the poor migrants, disengagement was the line of defense against those who did not accept them. Contact with the outside was often limited, and the migrants of higher economic status would soon conform to image expected of them from the people of California. The culture of these migrants permeates through the area and is defined in the music and the many churches that had come to serve as a refuge for them. These rural poor give the Okie migration the public image that has segregated them for years beyond the Great Depression.2
Walter J. Stein, in California and the Dust Bowl Migration, sees the migrants as the focus of many of the problems in California and not as the cause. These migrants were seen as intruders who would take the jobs of the residents. Federal Programs for the Okies focused on temporary camps that provided food and a place to stay. He believes that the federal government saw these displaced workers differently and believes this is why there were no federal programs to assist the displaced workers in obtaining their own land. While in these camps, workers would try to rehabilitate the ignorant, conservative, individualistic and proud Okies into a mold that was envisioned by the leaders in the department. Consequently, this contributes to the resentment felt by the residents of California towards the Dust Bowl migrants.3
The prevailing theme in the beliefs of the public regarding the Dust Bowl Migrants has been fed through the prevailing images as personified through the pictures and writings of those famous from the era. Rarely, is the image of the migrant shown as a middle-class migrant in search of new beginnings in California. Gregory’s longitudinal study of the migration patterns provides anecdotal evidence that the migrants’ reasons for migration were varied. California is seen as the Promised Land, a land of fertile ground, movie stars and great economic opportunity. This opportunity is provided through many decades prior to and beyond the Great Depression era. Prevalent in photos and magazines, one can find many ads that lured the migrant to this Promised Land. Many migrants continued to move about and stayed in temporary settlements set up by the Farm Security Administration as they followed the harvest seasons of the varied crops throughout California. Their housing was temporary, as was necessary to follow this pattern of the seasonal migrations. Despite the economic frustrations faced by many of the immigrants, stories abound of economic success. The plight of the small farmer was overcome by the economic progression of larger more efficient farms. This agricultural reorganization led to the reduction in the need for farmers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers. One can ascertain that the collapse of the agricultural systems in America was a byproduct of the industrial push, and that the migration was eminent in this process.
The examination of the research on the Great Depression migration has illuminated the misconceptions that prevail in the literature used in the classroom. The plight of the migrant is well-documented, however, the reality and disillusionment faced by the migrants is amiss in the classroom literature. Okies were from a broader area than just Oklahoma, and the difficulties they faced with the natives of California were a product of the Great Depression times. Competition for jobs was great, and at the unfortunate expense of the migrants, their reception was ill-received. Faced with the difficulties of the Great Depression themselves, compassion for the migrants would have been difficult. The small migrant farmer was a product of the changing agricultural situation in America. The reform in the agricultural system from small farms to large farms that still exist today, happened at a time when the nation was faced with limited resources to absorb that changes that occurred during this time. The lure of the West offered hope prior and during the Great Depression offering the hope that the migrants sought.