The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American prairie lands in the 1930s, particularly in 1934 and 1936. The phenomenon was caused by severe drought coupled with decades of extensive farming without crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops and other techniques to prevent wind erosion. Farmers grew more and more crops, as the prices of each of the crops started to decline. Deep plowing of the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains had displaced the natural deep-rooted grasses that normally kept the soil in place and trapped moisture even during periods of drought and high winds.
Thus, during the drought of the 1930s, the soil dried, turned to dust, and blew away eastward and southward in large dark clouds. At times, the clouds blackened the sky, reaching all the way to East Coast cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. Much of the soil ended up deposited in the Atlantic Ocean, carried by prevailing winds, which were themselves strengthened by the dry and bare soil conditions. These immense dust storms—given names such as "black blizzards" and "black rollers"—often reduced visibility to a few feet. The Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres, centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, and adjacent parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.
This catastrophe intensified the economic impact of the Great Depression in the region. Millions of acres of farmland were damaged, forcing farmers—already suffering from depressed prices and declining incomes—to abandon their operations. Hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. More than 500,000 Americans were left homeless. Over 350 houses had to be torn down after one storm alone.
Owning no land, many displaced people became migrant workers, traveling from farm to farm to pick fruit and other crops at starvation wages . Some residents of the Plains, especially in Kansas and Oklahoma, fell ill and died of dust pneumonia or malnutrition. Others attempted to migrate to other regions of the country. The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history within a short period of time. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. With their land barren and homes seized in foreclosure, many farm families were forced to leave. Migrants left farms in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico. Many Americans migrated west looking for work, and most found economic conditions little better than the ones they had left, given the pervasiveness of the Great Depression.
Lange's Migrant Mother, age 32
More of the migrants were from Oklahoma than any other state, earning them the nickname "Okies. " The names "Arkies" and "Texies" were also used, but less common. Ben Reddick, a free-lance journalist and later publisher of the Paso Robles Daily Press, is credited with first using the term Oakie, in the mid-1930s, to identify migrant farm workers. He noticed the "OK" abbreviation (for Oklahoma) on many of the migrants' license plates and referred to them in his article as "Oakies. " Californians began calling all migrants by that name, even though many newcomers were not actually Oklahomans. Many West Coast residents and some politically motivated writers used "Okie" to disparage these poor, white (including those of mixed American Indian ancestry, the largest tribal group being Cherokees), migrant workers and their families. Will Rogers, a famous movie star with Oklahoma roots remarked jokingly that the Okies moving from Oklahoma to California increased the average intelligence of both states.
Author John Steinbeck later wrote The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Of Mice and Men, about these migrant workers and their struggles. The music and writings of Woody Guthrie were also inspired by the migrant workers and the Dust Bowl.
Dust Storm in Texas, 1935
Source: Boundless. “Dust Bowl Migrants.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 21 Jul. 2015. Retrieved 01 Feb. 2016 from https://www.boundless.com/u-s-history/textbooks/boundless-u-s-history-textbook/the-new-deal-1933-1940-25/social-costs-of-the-depression-194/dust-bowl-migrants-1074-4462/