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Dust Bowl Migration

Questions to Consider

Who were the Dust Bowl refugees?

Why did they come to California?

How did they get to California, and how did they live during their travels?

What effect did their migration have on California?

About the Images

These images show the devastation that drove the Dust Bowl refugees to leave their homes and migrate to California. They also depict the lives of these families on the road west.


In 1931, a severe drought hit the Southern and Midwestern plains. As crops died and winds picked up, dust storms began. As the "Dust Bowl" photograph shows, crops literally blew away in "black blizzards" as years of poor farming practices and over-cultivation combined with the lack of rain. By 1934, 75% of the United States was severely affected by this terrible drought.

The one-two punch of economic depression and bad weather put many farmers out of business. In the early 1930s, thousands of Dust Bowl refugees — mainly from Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico — packed up their families and migrated west, hoping to find work. Entire families migrated together (such as the men shown in "Three generations of Texans now Drought Refugees") in search of a better life. Images such as "Midcontinent — Family Standing on the Road with Car," "Drought Refugees," and "Untitled, ca. 1935 (Worn-Down Family in Front of Tent)" offer a glimpse into their experience on the road, and show that cars provided many families both transportation and shelter on the road.

About 200,000 of the migrants headed for California. The state needed to figure out how to absorb the thousands of destitute people crossing its borders daily. One of their tactics was to document the plight of the refugees. In 1935, photographer Dorothea Lange joined the Rural Rehabilitation Division of the California State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA), a section of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She was assigned the job of using her camera to document the growing number of homeless Dust Bowl refugees migrating to California. She worked with Paul S. Taylor, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was researching conditions of rural poverty in order to make recommendations on how to improve the workers' conditions.

The work by Taylor and Lange played an important role in helping to raise public awareness of the crisis. The reports they made for the government included both data and striking images that revealed the desperate conditions in which the migrants lived and confirmed the need for government intervention. Stark images such as "Home of Oklahoma Drought Refugees" resonated with the public, and portraits of drought refugees like "Ruby from Arkansas" and others shown in this topic humanized the migrants for more fortunate citizens. In March 1936, Lange took what became one of her most famous images, "Migrant Mother." This image of a 32-year-old woman became an icon for the suffering of ordinary people during Great Depression.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 11:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.4 Write historical investigation reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver oral reports on historical investigations.
2.4 Delivery multimedia presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.5)

Grade 11:

11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government. (11.6.3)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

Who was Dorothea Lange?

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), a great American photographer, is perhaps best known for her photographs of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression.

General note about Lange’s images

Due to the limits of technology and the scanning process used, the digitized versions of Dorothea Lange’s photographs in some cases do not accurately represent the high quality of the original images.