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

June 6, 2024

From Dreams to Dust: The Big American Migration

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.



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.

Typical Migrant Housing: A Shack on the Edge of a Pea Field


Many Dust Bowl migrants found work harvesting the pea fields of California, which peaked primarily in May. Nearly two-thirds of the 21,000 pea harvesters employed in 1935 were migrant workers. Once the pea harvest was complete, they moved on to harvest the next crop that was ready to pick. The derogatory term “pea picker” originated during the influx of migrant labor from the Dust Bowl, meant to describe uneducated, unskilled workers.

Due to the transitory nature of the work, migrant workers and their families would occupy makeshift housing, such as the shack in this photograph. Cobbled together from scrap wood, cardboard, mud and newspaper, these one-room, temporary dwellings often sheltered families with young children during the harvest season. Typically, they lacked plumbing, electricity and furnishings other than a cooking stove, but they provided penniless migrant families in distress with a place to shelter and sleep, even though the roof might leak.