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The Dust Bowl. An ecological disaster on the great plains during the great depression. The Dust Bowl .

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the dust bowl

The Dust Bowl

An ecological disaster on the great plains during the great depression

the dust bowl1
The Dust Bowl

During the 1930s, a long period of drought and poor soil conservation resulted in an ecological disaster on the great plains. Farmers who had plowed millions of acres of drought stricken land could only watch helplessly as the great plains, quite literally, blew away.

the great plains region impacted by the dust bowl
The Great Plains Region Impacted by the Dust Bowl

The worst areas of the Dust Bowl are pictured here – the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, the western reaches of Kansas, and the eastern portions of Colorado and New Mexico were essentially reduced to bedrock. Families were forced to migrate from the Great Plains just to survive.

the dust bowl2
The Dust Bowl

This map illustrates the impact of the Dust Bowl on other regions – the dry soil literally blackened the skies. It covered the ground, smothering living things – plants, animals, and humans alike. Crops were destroyed by Dust Bowl storms from the plains of South Dakota to the Gulf Coast of Texas, and ships sailing across the Atlantic were coated in a thin filmy layer of dust from the atmosphere.

clouds of dust on the great plains
Clouds of Dust on the Great Plains

This image captures much of the problem – the land is arid to begin with, but years of drought reduced the soil to a fine silt, dusty and ready to take flight. When the winds picked up, clouds of dust lifted off, blotting out the sun.

ecological devastation
Ecological Devastation

Once profitable homesteads were now reduced to unproductive deserts. The families who lived on these farms slowly lost profits, had their homes foreclosed on by banks, and were forced to leave simply for the sake of survival.

a family in transit
As crops withered away in the fields and farmland was reduced to sandy dunes and bedrock, migrant families were forced to abandon their homesteads. Many families found themselves in a plight similar to this family’s – they had to walk their way off the plains, discern where buried roads were located, and evacuate the region with nothing. A Family in Transit
escaping the great dust storm
Escaping the Great Dust Storm

Traveling over dirt roads, roads which were often difficult to navigate due to a lack of visibility and shifting dunes, many American families made there escape. The Dust Storms could stop travel – choking an engine the same way they choked American children on the Great Plains.

the dust bowl in colorado
The Dust Bowl in Colorado

Those who decided to stay faced clouds of dust which literally darkened the sky – smothering plant life and making the air too dusty to inhale. Families were forced to head indoors or underground just to breathe. Many suffered from asthmatic attacks or lung disease afterwards.

dust storms handicap the economy
Dust Storms Handicap the Economy

Automobile engines were choked by clouds of dust lingering in the air, and small business in the Middle West was crippled as entire communities abandoned the area – migrating west to take menial jobs in the agriculture industry.

migrant families struggle west route 66 and the okie migration
Frequently, banks foreclosed on the farms and houses of families who could not afford to pay the mortgage. Their primary source of income – crops – had been devastated. When all else failed, many families decided to pack up all of their possessions, load up an old jalopy of an automobile, and head West.Migrant Families Struggle West – Route 66 and the Okie Migration
Since the first migrant Americans to head west were generally from the devastated areas of the Oklahoma panhandle, migrants were assigned the pejorative label “Okies” as they traveled West. Often, entire communities traveled together, holding on to what they had left – each other.“Okies”
the landscape leaving the plains
The landscape which these families crossed as they migrated West was just as unforgiving as their former homes. Route 66, a national highway which ran roughly from the Great Lakes Region (Chicago) to Southern California (modern-day Los Angeles) , crossed some of the most barren and treacherous desert land in the United States. The road took its toll on those courageous enough to travel down it. The Landscape – Leaving the Plains
flat tires overheated cars and misery
The road took its toll on the old jalopies which attempted to conquer it. It also took a human toll, as thousands of Americans died along the route. Elderly passengers, the sickly or weak, and the unfortunate simply passed away. The storyline of John Steinbeck’s classic American novel The Grapes of Wrath is barely embellished in this regard. Flat Tires, Overheated Cars, and Misery
migrant families usually camped on the side of the roads
This was no family vacation, of course. Groups camped on the side of the road, attempting to maintain some form of normalcy for their children. But as the trip progressed, conditions invariable deteriorated. Migrant Families usually camped on the side of the roads.
migrant camps and the photo essays of dorothea lange
Migrant Camps and the Photo-Essays of Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange was a photographer hired by the Works Progress Administration to record the lives of ordinary Americans during an extraordinary times – The Great Depression. Her ability to capture the raw emotion – helplessness, despair, courage, and fortitude – makes her photography especially memorable.

the harvest gypsies
Often, families sought work where their cars broke down. Then, they followed the crops as they came into season – harvesting lettuce first, then peaches, then cotton, then corn – all depending on the season and the wages a family might earn. While the families hoped to combine resources and save money to buy land, most found that high prices at local stores and the ability of factory farmers to slash wages made it impossible to get ahead.“The Harvest Gypsies”
john steinbeck american novelist
John Steinbeck – American Novelist

The Harvest Gypsies - One of Steinbeck’s first works, this photo-essay dramatized the plight of American workers during the Great Depression

The Grapes of Wrath – Perhaps Steinbeck’s greatest work, this novel chronicles the migration of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression.

the grapes of wrath
The Grapes of Wrath

“…the dispossessed were drawn west – from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty-thousand and fifty thousand, and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless, restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.”

the dust bowl s redemption the rains of 1939
The Dust Bowl’s Redemption – The Rains of 1939

As with all trying times, the Dust Bowl would come to an end. In the fall of 1939, the rains returned. Although efforts at soil conservation would take decades to succeed, much of the Dust Bowl region has become productive agricultural land again – thanks to American mechanization, fertilization, irrigation, hybrid crop experimentation, and good old fashioned work ethic.

the end of the great depression
The End of the Great Depression

What brought the Great Depression to an end is decidedly more complicated. Many historians give partial credit to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which inspired confidence in many Americans, revitalized the banks, and even restored productivity in certain markets. But even in the early 1940s, the USA was no where near the prosperity of the 1920s – and many New Deal programs failed to have the expected positive impact.

the bombing of pearl harbor
The Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Everyone agrees on this point, though. The Great Depression came to an immediate end on December 7th, 1941 - the day the Japanese launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On December 8th, everyone in America had a job to do, and a new chapter in American History began.

the dust bowl reader
The Dust Bowl Reader

Answers to the guided reading Activity

severe wind erosion during the dust bowl
Severe Wind Erosion During the Dust Bowl


New Mexico






North Dakota

South Dakota

how did the dust bowl disturb daily life in the midwest
How did the Dust Bowl disturb daily life in the Midwest?
  • Breathing became difficult.
  • Food was covered in chalky dust.
  • Exercise was impossible.
  • Businesses were forced to close.
  • Schools shut down.
  • Crops were destroyed.
what book by john steinbeck described the life of emigrants from the great plains
What book, by John Steinbeck, described the life of emigrants from the Great Plains?

The novel The Grapes of Wrath, which described the fictional Joad family’s trials and tribulations during the Dust Bowl, gave many Americans a glimpse into the life of the so-called “Okies” who had been forced to abandon their homes.

the causes of the dust bowl poor soil conservation methods drought wind
The Dust Bowl was caused by a variety of factors, and can be considered both an environmental, or ecological disaster, or a man-made disaster. The three main causes were:

1. Drought

2. Soil erosion

3. Wind storms

Together, these three factors would result in the transformation of prairies into deserts over the course of the decade.

consequences of the dust bowl
Consequences of the Dust Bowl

1. The Great Plains were destroyed by soil erosion, and drought. The land was no longer productive.

2. Farmers lost their land and were forced to emigrate from the Dust Bowl region.

3. In California, migrant workers were crowded out other groups of pickers: Mexican-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans among others.

4. The health of the people – due to lung diseases and later due to malnutrition, pellagra, and communicable illnesses – was damaged.

5. Farmers learned new techniques of soil conservation and crop rotation.

the five 5 most heavily damaged states
The Five (5) Most Heavily Damaged States:





New Mexico

route 66
Route 66

Route 66 is the classic American highway which connected Chicago to Southern California during the early part of the 1930s. Most of the migrants who fled the Dust Bowl and headed west elected to pack up their jalopies and head west along this road. There were many who died along the way. Those who made it to California usually struggled for a long time before economic recovery was achieved. Often, families struggled until the World War II munitions jobs began to encourage recovery.