Water, as we know, is a precious resource - in the arid western portions of Texas and Oklahoma battles about water rights are waged
even today. When the expected rains do not materialize, the precariousness of water supplies becomes even more evident. In 1931, the
cyclical drought of the High Plains wrecked havoc. The overuse of land by tractors and single crop farming methods, coupled with major
erosion by wind and dryness, caused the fragile top layer of soil to drift away. What remained was a barren landscape of sand dunes and
piles of dead animals.

The Real Refugees
However, we tend to think that all refugee farmers who left the Midwest during the 1930s were exodusters - meaning they lived in the
Dust Bowl. In fact, only 2-3% of farmers who moved west hailed from drought country. The majority of migrants comprised folks from all
over Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.

Prior to 1932, Oklahomans and Texans who lived outside of big cities didn't really feel the pinch of the failed market. The main concern of
family and tenant farmers was the falling prices of livestock and crops, the rains that stayed away, grasshoppers and boll weevils, and
the larger farms that mechanized. In southeast Oklahoma and northeast Texas, cotton farms withered. In the western valley, sand
replaced the soil. While the late 1920s oil boom sustained many communities for a while, it didn't have an effect on most farmers.
Instead, as they did not own the mineral rights, farmers found themselves thrown off the land by oil companies who bought their
mortgages. As the local  banks, facing closure, recalled loans and lost life savings, farmers suddenly found themselves penniless,
landless, and starving.

Going to California
During these desperate times, handbills advertising work began to arrive in towns all along the Red River. California, the sheets said,
was a land of milk and honey. Thousands of acres of rich crops awaited thousands of agricultural workers. Pay was decent and land to
cultivate was available to buy. With nothing to lose, families loaded up their cars or trucks with their meager belongings and made the
long drive west in search of work.

road didn't always prove a salvation, however. Cars ran on bald tires, with rope doing makeshift duty for broken fan belts. Spare
tires had to be sold for gas money. If the car broke down completely - a great possibility given that they were old and driving thousands
of miles through the New Mexican and Arizona deserts - families ended up walking.

The refugees made their homes in camps alongside the road, living in tents or under cardboard. They'd eat their rations of salt pork and
canned vegetables, but more often than not, women would make fried dough balls out of flour, grease, and water. Unencumbered by
formal schooling, kids were free to help out by bringing in food such as frogs, squirrels, and birds. The plight of the migrants was vividly
portrayed by WPA photographers like Dorothea Lange, who captured the mass migration as research for Roosevelt's relief programs.

Once in California, the refugees found limited work opportunities. They competed against thousands of others for picking jobs, at
depressed wages. They also faced discrimination. With disdain, they  were called "Okies," and their ways were mocked as "white trash."
Migrants moved into "Okievilles" or "Little Oklahomas," shanty towns built at the edges of fields where they could live among "their own
kind." Black families fared even worse, as they had to wait until whites found work before they were hired. Latino migrant workers found
themselves repatriated to Mexico, although many were actually Americans!

Red River Viewpoint
Migrants didn't necessarily feel a sense of shame over their condition. Rather, and rightly so, they blamed agricultural mechanization
and do-nothing politicians. Oklahoman Peggy Terry told Studs Terkel in his oral history collection,
Hard Times, that "...we all had an
understanding that it wasn't our fault. It was something that had happened to the machinery. Most people blamed Hoover..." (P. 47). It
came as no surprise, then, that Red River Valley citizens who stayed put elected more progressive leaders. Oklahomans voted for
governor William Murray, a.k.a Alfalfa Bill, and then Ernest W. Marland, both progressives - the latter one a New Dealer. They also
elected Will Rogers as state representative. Northeast Texans found a champion in Representatives Sam Rayburn and C. Wright Patman,
who fought corruption in Washington while appropriating work relief funds. Socialists also gained a larger margin in state votes, at times
garnering up to 15%.

The Oklahomans and Texans who moved  to California needed a voice in Washington, too. However, being landless and penniless,
barred from voting by militant Californians, they had to fight injustices themselves. Laborers of all colors and creeds banded together to
go on strike for better wages and working conditions, the most successful being the 1933 San Joaquin Valley strike. Labor organization
persisted up until World War II, which makes one wonder what America would look like today if it hadn't engaged in the war.

President Roosevelt's New Deal slowly but surely raised most people out of the Depression, and when sustaining rain fell on the Great
Plains in 1939, grown men cried. The rapid arms build-up for World War II and its resulting infrastructure finally ended the greatest
economic crisis in modern American history.

The migration of thousands of Oklahomans and Texans to California  definitely changed the cultural landscape of all three states.
California was introduced to southern ways; Texas and Oklahoma became (briefly) much more progressive in their outlooks. The Great
Depression, therefore, is not old history but a vibrant legacy that touches us to this day.
Caddo, Bryan County, Oklahoma during the Great Depression by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress.
Migrant family from Muskogee, Oklahoma. By Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress.
An Oklahoma landlord tells how he threw out his tenant farmers:
In '34 I had I reckon four renters and I didn't make anything. I bought tractors on the money the government give me and get shet o' my
renters. You'll find it everywhere all over the country thataway. I did everything the government said - except keep my renters. The renters
have been having it this way ever since the government come in. They've got their choice - California or the WPA.
Donald Worster. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 58.
Migrant family from Idabel, Oklahoma on the road to California. From the Library of Congress.
When the land betrays: dust storm in the Texas panhandle (Library of Congress)
Desperation Road: The Great Depression
Inside this building was once a New Deal relief agency, the Farmer's Crop Insurance Corporation, in Pecan Gap, Texas.
Poverty does not know race at a farmer's meeting in Oklahoma. Library Of Congress.
Read an account of a farming family who lived in the Dust Bowl

Learn the
"routes of flight" for many tenant farmers and sharecroppers fleeing the farming breakdown
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com
Silting up in Carter County, Oklahoma (Library of Congress)