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The Dust Bowl in the Red River Valley

The western valley especially testified to this internal refugee crisis


Simple wooden slat house on a field covered in sand.
An abandoned farm home amid sand dunes - once a wheat or cotton field - in Hollis, Harmon County, Oklahoma in 1938 (FSA).

During his 1806 expedition into Colorado, Zebulon Pike had described the Great Plains as "the Great American Desert, suitable only for bison and the nomadic Indian." The United States heeded this advice until the 1862, when the Homestead Act encouraged non-Native American settlement in the Great Plains to push the native people onto reservations.


This strategy brought about the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty of 1867 and the 1866 Treaties that dissolved most national autonomy for the Choctaws and Chickasaws. The United States mimicked the tactic with the first Dawes Act of 1887 that preceded the Oklahoma Land Rush. Remember, kids, that the US did not allow Indians to actually hold title to land until fairly recently!


Not every "homesteader" who settled in the Great Plains found success, but those who did could thank a long period of sufficient rainfall that allowed the Great Plains to become the "Bread Basket of the World," as newspapers would gloat.


By the 1920s, the rains had diminished, while the planting had increased exponentially thanks to the market demand from post-war (Great War) Europe and increasing farm mechanization. The native, drought-tolerant grasses of the Plains that anchored the soil had been replaced by wheat, and as the crops baked in the heat, the parched soil had nowhere to go but up into the sky, creating desert-like conditions throughout western Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and eastern Colorado and New Mexico.


The worst year of the Dust Bowl occurred in 1936, when a record heatwave, brought about by the prolonged drought and the dust particles that super-heated the air, scorched the Plains throughout the Summer months. Thousands of families in the areas affected fled their homes. A large portion of them were tenant farmers, as they were pushed off the land due to ill-advised government programs that rewarded farmers *not to plant* in order to conserve and replenish the soil. The owners did just that, booting off the renters and sharecroppers in the process.


Then, in 1937, record rainfall in Louisiana, Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma and Texas left even more tenant farmers homeless. As crops drowned and the government programs compensated the owners but not the workers, sharecroppers became "refugees;" this was not the first mass migration of people fleeing from climate catastrophe, but it was the first time this migration was recorded as such.


The Dust Bowl affected everyone in the Red River Valley. Exacerbated by the Great Depression, the worst economic disaster in modern history, the Dust Bowl and heat wave of 1936 and then, the 1937 floods, left people scrambling to survive. No where was this more evident than along the western Red River near the 100th Meridian, where the photographers from the Farm Security Administration bore witness.


Husand, wife, and five children with cart and baby carriage walking down a paved road.
A family from Arkansas lost everything and took to the road during the 1937 flood. They were found by the Farm Security Administration walking near Memphis, Hall County, Texas (FSA).

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