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How the Dust Bowl Made Americans Refugees in Their Own Country

As they traveled west from the drought-ravaged Midwest, American-born migrants were viewed as disease-ridden intruders who would sponge off the government.

Eight decades ago hordes of migrants poured into California in search of a place to live and work. But those refugees weren’t from other countries, they were Americans and former inhabitants of the Great Plains and the Midwest who had lost their homes and livelihoods in the Dust Bowl.

Years of severe drought had ravaged millions of acres of farmland. Many migrants were enticed by flyers advertising jobs picking crops, according to the Library of Congress. And even though they were American-born, the Dust Bowl migrants still were viewed as intruders by many in California, who saw them as competing with longtime residents for work, which was hard to come by during the Great Depression. Others considered them parasites who would depend on government relief. 

As many of the migrants languished in poverty in camps on the outskirts of California communities, some locals warned that the newcomers would spread disease and crime. They advocated harsh measures to keep migrants out or send them back home.

Migrants Fled Widespread Drought in Midwest

The Dust Bowl that forced many families on the road wasn’t just caused by winds lifting the topsoil. Severe drought was widespread in the mid-1930s, says James N. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Washington and author of the book American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California.

“Farm communities in the larger region were also hurt by falling cotton prices. All of this contributed to what has become known as the Dust Bowl migration,” Gregory says.

The exact number of Dust Bowl refugees remains a matter of controversy, but by some estimates, as many as 400,000 migrants headed west to California during the 1930s, according to Christy Gavin and Garth Milam, writing in California State University, Bakersfield’s Dust Bowl Migration Archives.

READ MORE: How Photography Defined the Great Depression

Unlike Central American migrants who head north on foot, Dust Bowl migrants squeezed into trucks and jalopies—beat-up old cars—laden with their meager possessions and headed west, many taking the old U.S. Highway 66.

“Dad bought a truck to bring what we could,” recalled one former migrant, Byrd Monford Morgan, in a 1981 oral history interview. “There were fifteen people to ride out in this truck, in addition to what we could haul”—including the family’s kitchen table, sewing machines, sacks to use in picking cotton, and five-gallon cans packed with cookies baked by Morgan’s stepmother. Along the way, the family camped out by the side of the highway.

When the family got to California, they stopped at farms and asked if they needed workers, and picked everything from tomatoes to grapes, Morgan said.

More people from the drought-ravaged plains actually settled in the Los Angeles area than in the San Joaquin Valley and other agricultural areas in California, according to Gregory. But migrants made up a bigger percentage of the population in the state's rural areas, and it was there that journalists recorded the dire poverty and desperation that John Steinbeck described in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Police Officers Tried to Block Migrants at the Border

As the migrants’ numbers swelled, efforts were made to thwart the migration. Police officers sometimes met migrants at the state line and told them to go away, because there was no work, in what was called the “bum blockade.” Officers stopped one mother with six children at a checkpoint and demanded that she pay $3 for a California driver’s license, though they relented when she said that she only had $3.40 to her name and needed that money to buy food for her family, according to a L.A. Times account.

Those who got into California often found themselves continually on the move from farm field to farm field in search of work. They lived in spartan quarters provided by agricultural growers or squatted in “Hooverville” shanties on the outskirts of towns, before the federal government started setting up migrant camps to accommodate them, according to the U.S. National Archives.

“Yes, we ramble and we roam, and the highway that’s our home,” folk singer Woody Guthrie sang in “Dust Bowl Refugee.

READ MORE: Remembering the Dust Bowl's Worst Storm on Black Thursday

Californians derided the newcomers as “hillbillies,” “fruit tramps” and other names, but “Okie”—a term applied to migrants regardless of what state they came from—was the one that seemed to stick, according to historian Michael L. Cooper’s account in Dust to Eat: Drought and Depression in the 1930s. One California businessman described the newcomers as “ignorant, filthy people,” who should not “think they’re as good as the next man.”

Some warned that the newcomers would sponge off the government, although relatively few of them actually sought benefits, as State Relief Administration director Harold Pomeroy explained in a 1937 Desert Sun article.

Migrants Were Feared as a Health Threat

A local official in Madera, California complained in 1938 that the migrants crowded into the camps presented a health threat, noting that “these conditions are not to be blamed o the growers, but on the people themselves, [for] having lived in squalor for many generations” back in their home states. One riverbank shantytown that was home to 1,500 migrants was burned to the ground by disease-fearing Californians in 1936.

Ironically, it would be a war—World War II—that would finally boost migrants’ fortunes. Many families left farm fields to move to Los Angeles or the San Francisco Bay area, where they found work in shipyards and aircraft factories that were gearing up to supply the war effort.

By 1950, only about 25 percent of the original Dust Bowl migrants were still working the fields. As the the former migrants became more prosperous, they blended into the California population.

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