The Dust Bowl
From the early 1870s, white families settled into prairie states which had been “set aside for the perpetual home for the red man.” As with the rest of the country, indigenous peoples were forcibly evicted from their lands.
Many of the white migrants came from the hill country of the rural South: a restless, violent folk inured to a hardscrabble existence. They left behind them soil depleted by the dreadful farming practices which they brought with them.
These tenants and sharecroppers quickly overworked the Great Plains as they had the soils they had tilled before. Topsoil washed away, and with it all prospects for a decent life.
This was self-destruction through ignorance. Native sod that was an indispensable buffer against wind and drought was plowed in long straight furrows, often parallel with the wind. Large fields were left bare. Diverse vegetation was supplanted by a single cash crop which could not hold the soil.
The western plains were blessed with plentiful rain and moderate winters in the 1920s. Then the weather turned for the worse. The summer of 1930 was unusually dry. Succeeding years turned dryness into drought.
The wind whistles on the western plains at 15 miles per hour on an average afternoon. In the spring of 1934, the whistle became a relentless howl. Thus birthed what became known as the Dirty Thirties.
Tens of tonnes of dirt were dumped in Chicago and on the eastern seaboard. Soil sifted into the White House and settled onto ships at sea.
This was not the first dust storm of significance on the Great Plains. Serious storms had raged in 1886, 1894, 1913, 1932, and 1933. The difference was only of scale and sustained intensity. The weather reaped a disaster which farmers had sown.
On 14 April 1935 – Black Sunday – winds raged across the Great Plains from Texas to Canada, turning day into night. By that time, the United States, which had been the world’s breadbasket, had to import wheat from elsewhere.
The scraping of the western plains continued to 1941, when the winds relented, and record rains came.
Loose dirt was not the only export during the Dust Bowl. Out of the plains and hills of once-peaceful native lands came the Okies: a people who had quickly transformed a rich land into what Carey McWilliams called “a sumphole of poverty.”
Writers at the time portrayed a natural disaster that gave landlords and banks the chance to put people off their valuable land. It was nothing of the sort. Farmers themselves brought about their own calamitous fate.