Dust and Dreams: Colorized Remembrances of the Great Depression's Harsh Realities

May 2, 2024

A Migrant Child Living in an Oklahoma City Shantytown in 1936

In the 1930s, severe droughts plagued the Great Plains states, causing extensive dust storms and erosion on farming homesteads. As a result, approximately 3 million residents, starving and broke, migrated from parts of affected states – Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas – to seek work in more fertile places such as California.

The Dust Bowl spawned the greatest domestic migration the country had ever seen. Families loaded up their pickup trucks and jalopies with their belongings and set out into an uncertain future. Physical and financial hardship followed in their wake. The country's Great Depression only exacerbated their troubles as they fought to survive.


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Photographer Dorothea Lange snapped this photo of a girl who lived in a migrant encampment in Oklahoma City in the mid-1930s. These temporary settlements were also known as “shantytowns,” a term referring to the makeshift nature of the buildings, which were little more than unsightly shacks. Of the many families that ended up in shantytowns during the Great Depression, some were Dust Bowl refugees just passing through while others ended up staying longer.

In the early 1930s, approximately 10 percent of the displaced farm families in Oklahoma lost their land through foreclosure rather than natural disaster. The poor economy, government subsidies for not growing certain crops and big agricultural conglomerates all contributed to this phenomenon. Many who lost their land moved to shantytowns while determining what to do next. Local officials and residents frowned upon shantytown squatters who built patchwork structures on land they didn’t own and lived without power, plumbing and sanitation.

From Dreams to Dust: The Big American Migration


1930 marked the beginning of disaster, ushering in a killing drought on the heels of the productive 1920s. Homesteaders who had staked claims on millions of acres of government land grants on the American prairies had razed the soil-saving grasses to plant cash crops. An extended drought and prairie winds desiccated these farmlands, lifting up gigantic black clouds of loose topsoil, locally known as “black rollers,” and carrying it away, along with their dreams of prosperity.


With no prospects for quick recovery and no resources to buy food or pay off their farm loans, people began leaving. Sickened by blowing dust and weak from starvation, they took to the highways, many heading west toward the rumored land of plenty. Due to the Great Depression, though, which coincided with the horrible Dust Bowl conditions, most migrants faced a daunting struggle to feed their families. They had to fight for the few migrant jobs available to them and learn to live in makeshift one-room shacks that were all they could afford.