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Black and white photo of car packed with people and goods.
Oklahoma dust bowl refugees. San Fernando, California, Dorothea Lange, 1935. Prints and Photographs Division.

Climate Migrants of the 1930’s Dust Bowl

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The Dust Bowl was a phenomenon in the first decade of the Great Depression (1930’s) characterized by dust storms resulting from extended drought along with farming and ranching beyond the capacity of the soil in the Great Plains region of the United States. Some of these dust storms reached all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The predominately agricultural panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas as well as parts of Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico found itself at the epicenter of the Dust Bowl resulting in many of its resident to foreclose on or abandon their unproductive farms and migrate out of the area in search of jobs. Roughly 2.5 million people migrated out of the Dust Bowl states as one of the largest migrations in American history.

Road map of the central United States. Roads are in red and state lines in yellow.
Portion of National Atlas: Southern Plains States by the Geological Survey, US, 1976, Geography and Map Division. Shows epicenter of the Dust Bowl.
A black and white photo showing the desert with scrub brush and a telephone line in the background with looming black clouds.
Heavy black clouds rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas, Arthur Rothstein, 1935, Prints and Photographs Division.

The photo above shows the choking black clouds of dust which killed many people, livestock, and crops during the Dust Bowl, prompting migration to areas with better living conditions and labor markets. The 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance map below shows the small town of Hooker, Oklahoma (also shown on the map above within Texas County in the panhandle of Oklahoma), which was in the center of the Dust Bowl. This detailed sheet, 1 of 4 map sheets covering the town, reveals a farming/ranching dependent community with light grain and milling, farm implement equipment, and lumber supply businesses, as well as 2 banks which most likely held loans for many farmers in the area.

Building level detail map showing building footprints in Hooker Texas. Most buildings are yellow indicating frame interspersed with red brick buildings.
Sheet 2, Hooker, Oklahoma, Sanborn Fire Insurance Company, 1922, Geography and Map Division.
Detail of sheet 2 from the 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Hooker, Oklahoma showing bank and farm implements businesses.

Nearly half a million people (sometimes referred to as Okies) migrated out of Oklahoma, many of them tenet farmers who were forced to abandon their farms, about half of which ended up migrating to California during this period seeking jobs in places such as the profusely agricultural San Joaquin valley. Many of these Dust Bowl refugees from the Great Plains traveled along Route 66, known as “the mother road” due to its distinction as the main migrant road, to get to California. The Arizona and New Mexico map below from the 1970 National Atlas of the United States shows much of Historic Route 66 (now Interstate 40) which began in Chicago, Illinois and ended in Los Angeles, California, but ran through the center of the Dust Bowl at Amarillo, Texas.

Colorful map of Arizona and New Mexico showing the various types of geology in the region. Also covered with roads.
Shows Route 66, also known as Interstate 40, running east west through center of map. Arizona and New Mexico, National Atlas of the United States, Geological Survey, U.S., 1970, Geography and Map.

The “Oakie” migration began around 1935 and peaked around 1938.  Route 66 took them to Barstow, California where they had to decide to continue southwest on to Los Angeles (about two fifths of them did) or northwest toward the city of Bakersfield into the San Joaquin valley where the majority arrived, often to an unwelcome reception. Los Angeles police briefly established a “bum blockade” in 1936 to keep out undesirable migrants.

Shows portion of Route 66 running between Flagstaff, Arizona and Los Angeles, California. Section of California, National Atlas of the United States, Geological Survey, U.S., 1970, Geography and Map Division.

Many seeking work on farms in the San Joaquin Valley received depressed wages due to the influx of labor. Unlike the predominant crops of wheat and corn grown in the Great Plains, California’s San Joaquin Valley grew crops like cotton, grapes, peaches, apricots, peas, and onions that had relied on seasonal migrant labor which left when the season was over. The “Okies” tended to stick around in the off-season, many living in tents and shantytowns (often called Hoovervilles after President Hoover) in squalor along irrigation ditches, roads, and stream banks drawing distain from much of the local population.

Map of California by the Rural Rehabilitation Division showing areas where different crops are grown, proposed location of initial camps for migrants, and routes of migration, [1935], Prints and Photographs Division.
Black and white photograph showing an old car outside of a tent with a family standing to the side. Other makeshift homes in view in the background.
Hooverville of Bakersfield, California. A rapidly growing community of people living rent-free on the edge of the town dump in whatever kind of shelter available. Approximately one thousand people now living here and raising children, Dorothea Lange, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division.

On April 30, 1935, as part of a response to this massive migration and types of settlements, the Resettlement Administration emerged out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and was responsible for developing 95 resettlement camps for 75,000 people, which was just a small fraction of the people in need.

Sketch map of the western United States showing resettlement areas.
Resettlement Administration Projects Region 9 from Resettlement administration program, United States Farm Security Administration, 1936, Library of Congress General Collections.

Located on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, the Arvin Federal Government Camp (also known as the Sunset Labor Camp, Weedpatch Camp, or Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center) was one of these camps which was built by another one of Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies called the Works Progress Administration in 1935. The Arvin Migratory Camp is identified on the Resettlement Administration Projects Region 9 map as RF 26 in the south San Joaquin Valley near Bakersfield, CA. The section of the Bus and Truck Map of Kern County, California below shows the area that contained the Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center near the town of Lamont, southeast of the city of Bakersfield, California.

City map showing buildings and roads with blue ink.
Section of Sheet 7, Bus and Truck Map of Kern County, California, 1938, Geography and Map Division.
Map showing buildings as black boxes and roads in red with yellow highlighted areas.
This section shows the Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center. Detail of Weed Patch Quadrangle, California, Kern County 7.5 Minute Series Topographic, Geological Survey, U.S., 1955, Geography and Map Division.

The Arvin Farm Labor Supply Center is shown in more detail in the 7.5 minute topo map above as well as in the photograph below (View of Kern migrant camp showing one of three sanitary units). The camp was built with running water, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and wood platforms for tents to help alleviate many of the health issues faced by migrants often characterized by tuberculosis and high child mortality.

Black and white photos tents surrounding a white building with two men walking on road in front.
View of Kern migrant camp showing one of three sanitary units. California, Dorothea Lange, 1936, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Arvin camp was also significant because it was a model for other government camps and also was the camp on which John Steinbeck based his award-winning fiction book The Grapes of Wrath (1939) in which the Arvin camp is referred to as “Weedpatch Camp.” The Arvin camp still exists today with the community hall, post office, and library on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Dust Bowl area of the Great Plains eventually recovered. The satellite image below shows recent farming patterns in the vicinity of Hooker, Oklahoma. Dark green represents healthy vegetation, which is revealed in rectangular or circular scattered pattern, showing a more conservative growing process compared to the pre-1930’s practice of over ploughing and tilling of the soil and natural grasslands which when combined with drought caused the Dust Bowl.

Image is in shades of green with circles and portions of circles dotting the landscape.
Landsat 8, bands 4 & 5 Normalized Vegetation Difference Index, (LC08_CU_013011_20220719_20220729_02), NASA/USGS, July 19, 2022. Image visualized by author using Landsat image bands 4 and 5 to develop a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index.

 

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for this! I recently watched the 1936 short documentary, “The Plow That Broke The Plains.” It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of the Great Plains post-Civil War and leading up to the Dust Bowl. Directed and written by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Resettlement Administration, the film was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1999. I should note that the soundtrack of the film was carefully curated by Lorentz with help from Virgil Thomson and the NY Philharmonic. You can view “The Plow That Broke The Plains” on the U.S. National Archives online channel. “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) film, directed by John Ford, picks up the story as families abandon the Great Plains and head to California. “Grapes of Wrath” is also on the National Film Registry. Both of these films are a wonderful accompaniment to this blog post, and share a very important part of our nation’s history and growth as a nation.

  2. Very interesting and well done! It would be interesting too to compare groundwater depletion maps with the irrigation maps. Thanks for a great article!

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