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What was the Dust Bowl?

The dust bowl was the name given to the Southern Plains region of the U.S. in the 1930s, when severe drought, dust storms, and the resulting economic hardship forced many farmers to leave the area and head west.

Causes of the Dust Bowl

A man digs the black soil out of his field in Oklahoma in 1936.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War, the government coaxed many people to migrate from the eastern U.S. to the Great Plains by giving incentives for people to farm in this region. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided farmers with 160 acres of land to start their farms. While this Act and others brought people by the droves, many of those people were inexperienced or even new farmers.

Many of those who came out to the Great Plains believed that just by coming, they would make the rain come to this semi-arid (dry) grassland, which would make the soil more suitable for farming. Indeed in the first few decades there were regular rains and the region. In the 1910’s and 20’s the First World War helped to raise demand for Wheat, which brought prices up. This jump in prices encouraged many farmers in the area to plough even more of their land to take advantage of the high prices. But when the Great Depression hit in the 1930’s, farmers tried to tear up even more of their land to grow more crops so they could break even. Unfortunately, tearing up the grasslands in such a way had a disastrous consequence.

When the drought hit in 1931, the dry weather exposed the soil and without the grass to hold it in its place, it began to blow away.

The Dust Bowl and the “Black Blizzards” of the “Dirty Thirties”

In all, the era of the Dust Bowl, or the ‘Dirty Thirties,’ lasted for roughly ten years but the economic impact stayed in the area for much longer.

On top of the drought of 1931, severe dust storms, called “black blizzards” began to hammer the region. Some of these storms carried soil as far east as New York City. During these storms, black clouds of dust would billow in the sky. Soil would fall like ashes on people’s homes and even found its way in their homes, coating their furniture, their food, and their skin.  People became sick with “dust pneumonia” and it is estimated that hundreds or even thousands of people may have died from the infection.

Amidst skies of dark black clouds and living on farms that could no longer support crops, many people chose to migrate west.

The Okies Make their Way West

Two children stricken by poverty during the Dust Bowl era.

Over the course of the 1930s, roughly 2.5 million people left the dust bowl region: Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Colorado for states further west, especially California.  Oklahoma alone lost 440,000 people during this time.

Many of these people were very poor, hungry, and desperate for work. When they finally did reach California, they had to live in shantytowns and work menial job for low wages. They faced discrimination and were referred to as “Okies” even if they weren’t from Oklahoma.

Regular periods of rainfall returned to the area by 1939, bringing the Dust Bowl era to an end.

Dust Bowl Fun Facts

  • Author John Steinbeck wrote his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath about a family migrating from Oklahoma to California during the Dust Bowl
  • Folk Artist Woodie Guthrie’s first album Dust Bowl Ballads was a semi-autobiographical look at his journey from Oklahoma to California
  • Artist Alexander Hogue painted dust bowl landscapes
  • Photographer Dorthea Lange documented rural poverty caused by the Dust Bowl