Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936; gelatin silver print; courtesy the Library of Congress

Dust Bowl Refugees
1931–41

"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.

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