A newspaper reporter coined the term "Dust Bowl" for the area of the United States that was hit by a massive drought and dust storms between 1930 and 1940.
Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico and Kansas were part of the Dust Bowl, while western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, northeastern New Mexico, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles were in the specific Dust Bowl areas.
Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota were hit with severe drought.
The Dust Bowl even reached the province of Saskatchewan, Canada.
The migration out of the aforementioned Dust Bowl states during this time period was probably the largest mass migration within the United States over a short period of time.
Because many farmers could no longer work the land, they could not pay their mortgages. The drought and dust storms left an estimated 500,000 people homeless, and an estimated 2.5 million people moved out of the Dust Bowl states. The people moved to Arizona, Washington and Oregon.
Approximately 200,000 people moved to California. There they were called "Okies," a nickname for people from Oklahoma because many of the Dust Bowl migrants who settled in California were from Oklahoma. However, people from Missouri and Arkansas who had moved to California as Dust Bowl migrants were sometimes called Okies. Many people from Saskatchewan moved to urban centers such as Toronto, Ontario.
Approximately 500 people from the Dust Bowl states died of dust pneumonia; others died from malnutrition. Some people suffocated because of the dust storms.
"Some people thought the end of the world was at hand when every ray of daylight was obliterated at 4 p.m. (on Sunday, April 14, 1935),” read an account in the Liberal News in Liberal, Kan., on April 15, 1935.
According to some eyewitnesses, the dust storms were so thick that people could not see 5 feet in front of themselves. On at least one occasion, a dust storm reached the eastern U.S. seaboard from the Dust Bowl states.
What caused the Dust Bowl?
NASA scientists believe the jet stream changed course, the ocean temperatures were unstable and the normal supply of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico had been reduced.
According to a 2004 Science Magazine article, it is also believed that part of the problem was a result of over-farming and overgrazing of the land, which allowed the topsoil to be blown away by the extreme wind storms.
Florence Leona Christie Owens Thompson, who was born Sept. 1, 1903, in Cherokee Strip, Okla., was probably the most famous Dust Bowl migrant. After her husband, Cleo Owen,s died in 1931, she left Oklahoma in 1934 and moved to Merced Falls, Calif.
As a single mother, she brought six of her seven children with her. The seventh child was left in Oklahoma to be raised by Thompson’s mother, Mary Jane Cobb Christie Akman, and Mary Jane's husband, Henry Akman.
Thompson’s face was well-known because of Depression era photographs — taken in March 1936 in Nipomo, Calif. — which were shot of her and some of her children and widely publicized.
In 1939, the U.S. government did a survey of 116,000 families who arrived in California in the 1930s.
Of the families surveyed from the Dust Bowl states, surprisingly only 43 percent were farmers before arriving in California. Nearly one-third of all Dust Bowl state migrants who came to California were professional or white-collar workers.
Many Dust Bowl migrants became migrant farm workers after moving to California.
According to James N. Gregory, author of the book “American Exodus: the Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture of California,” when America entered World War II, jobs became plentiful, and many people entered the military, and Dust Bowl migrants assimilated into the states they moved to.
Millions of Americans have Dust Bowl ancestors, and if you are tracing them, a good place to start would be the 1930 U.S. census. This is the last federal census before the start of the Dust Bowl. For a fee, you can view the 1930 federal census at Ancestry.com to see where your Dust Bowl ancestors lived (or anyone else for that matter).
Many archives and libraries subscribe to Ancestry.com, so you could find the information free of charge. The LDS Church is currently indexing the 1930 U.S. census using the website familysearchindexing.org.
As an example, from January to March 2011, I have indexed hundreds of names from the 1930 census for Colorado, Kansas and South Dakota. At some point, this information will be placed online for free and will be available to everyone.
In 2012, the United States government will release the 1940 federal census. There will be the massive undertaking of indexing this census and placing the information online. Many people will discover that they have Dust Bowl ancestors and find out where they settled after leaving the Dust Bowl states.
If you have family members who lived in the Dust Bowl states during the 1930s, I would encourage you to interview them and preserve their stories. This story is one of the most important parts of American history.