Dust in the wind:
and the human erosion
of the Dust Bowl refugees
in the Imperial Valley
Presentation by Chris Austin
This is a segment in a larger project that will document the history of the
Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, which is why this particular slideshow
focuses only on the Imperial Valley.
It is important to note that during this period of time, conditions were bad in
all the agricultural areas of California, not just the Imperial Valley.
It was one of the largest migrations of people across the United States.
Like dust in the wind, and not unlike the dust that covered and devastated their homes,
the migrants of the Dust Bowl were blown westward, most ending up in California.
During the “Dirty
in the Midwest.
Cimarron County, Oklahoma
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, FSA
A severe drought coupled with deep plowing and a lack of modern-day soil
conservation techniques caused massive crop failures, and left the exposed dirt
vulnerable to the strong continental winds.
Photo: NOAA Historical Collection
One of the worst days, dubbed “Black
Sunday”, occurred on April 14, 1935,
when 20 of these “Black Blizzards”
swept through the plains, turning day
Photo: NOAA Historical Collection
100 million acres of farmland in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New
Mexico, Colorado and Kansas were rendered useless.
Hundreds of thousands of people were forced
from their homes in the face of the devastation.
Photo from USDA, WikiMedia Commons
Entire families uprooted themselves, leaving their devastated farms and
heading to California in search of jobs.
On average, 6000
people a month
crossing the border
between 1935 and
Dorothy Lange was
perhaps the migrant’s
using her camera to
document the ‘human
erosion’ that was
occurring, as well as to
show the industrial side
of agriculture and its
Working for the Farm Security Administration, she was given a mandate to
document the conditions of the rural poor, plus any inroads the government
might be making to improve their situation.
She would visit the Imperial four times between 1935 and 1939.
To the refugees who had only known farming all their
lives, California had seemed like an ideal place to go.
Popular songs and
stories of the time
depicted the state as
a veritable promised
land, farm labor
jobs, and with its mild
climate and long
growing season, it
sounded like a
However, the promised land was definitely not
what they found when they arrived.
They had to compete
for work with Mexicans
and other immigrants
who had already been
working the fields for
And statewide, things weren’t any better. During the Depression, California
suffered with its own share of unemployment, and the influx of migrants
greatly stressed the state’s already over-burdened relief and health
The Imperial Valley was something of an Eden to the drought refugees, many of
whom headed there after Boulder Dam was built, guaranteeing a secure supply
of water for the Imperial Valley. “I heard tell of this here irrigation, plenty of
water and plenty to eat,” said one of Dorothy’s interviewees.
The technology of
baffled the displaced
Here in California, agriculture developed differently than it had in the rest of the
country. The small acreage family-farm ideal embodied within the Homestead
Act was never predominant here. This was the case especially in the Imperial
Valley, which from the start was an entrepreneurial enterprise with the end
result being large landholdings by relatively few landowners.
This made farming more of an “open air food factory” which was distinctly and
fundamentally different from the kind of farming the Midwest refugees knew.
Cutting edge irrigation and farming technologies had turned agriculture into an
industrial enterprise …
… requiring large numbers of workers employed for short periods of time and
only during certain times of the year.
In order to maintain
a steady income,
field laborers had to
move with the
With too many workers and too little work,
wages were very low, and conditions poor.
Migrants set up
“ditch bank” camps
canals and ponds.
They made their homes out of whatever
they could scrap together.
These camps lacked basic facilities such as clean water and toilets, which
resulted in poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem.
The mission of the
Administration was to
combat rural poverty,
and it went about this
in many ways and in
many areas of the
country, with mixed
By 1939, the FSA was
operating a dozen
camps for migrant
These camps had
platforms for tents,
laundry facilities, a
nursery and medical
The migrants misery came to an end with
the start of World War II. Many migrants
left to join the armed services, and those
that remained eventually moved to the
city to take jobs in the West Coast
shipyards and defense plants. They
eventually put down their roots, settling
permanently in the state where many of
their descendants still live today.
Dorothea wrote of her photo subjects in
the book, An American Exodus:
“ … the migrants are the
most ragged, half-
element in our
but with a surprising morale in the midst of misery, and a will to work. …
… These people are not hand-
picked failures. …
… They are the
by the process of
human erosion. …
… They have been
scattered like the
shavings from a clean
cutting plane, or like
the dust of their farms,
literally blown out”.
For more information on Dorothea Lange:
• The Library of Congress page on Dorothea Lange:
• Artist Hero: Dorothea Lange, a biography by Susannah Abbey:
For more information on the Dust Bowl:
• Wikipedia entry : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_bowl
• Voices from the Dust Bowl: Trampling out the vintage, newspaper article
regarding the Imperial Valley:
OTHER SOURCES FOR THIS
• Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange, by Elizabeth Partridge
• The Impossible Land: Story and place in California’s Imperial Valley, by
Phillip H. Round
• An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, by Dorothea Lange and
Pictures used for this presentation are in the
public domain, sourced from the Library of
Congress website and WikiMedia Commons.
All pictures are from Dorothea Lange
unless otherwise noted.
Map of Labor Camps from USDA
History Collection, Special
Collections, National Agricultural