The Dust Bowl of The 1930s

Sep 26, 2017 1 comments

The 1930s were some of the driest years in American history. Eight long years of drought, preceded by inappropriate cultivation technique, and the financial crises of the Great Depression forced many farmers off the land abandoning their fields throughout the Great Plains that run across the heart of mainland United States. When the high winds came, it lifted the topsoil from barren lands and carried them in large choking clouds of dust for thousands of miles. Many dust storms started around the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. But eventually the entire country was affected forcing tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms and migrate in search for work and better living conditions.


A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. Photo credit: George E. Marsh

The early European explorers thought the Great Plains was unsuitable for agriculture. The land is semi-arid and is prone to extended drought, alternating with periods of unusual wetness. But the federal government was eager to see the land settled and cultivated. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, a series of federal land acts were passed granting settlers hundreds of acres of land. These acts led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.

A stretch of unusually wet weather in the beginning of the 20th century confirmed the belief that the Plains could be tamed after all, leading to increased settlement and cultivation. Farmers ploughed through the land eliminating the native grasses that held the fine soil in place. When crops began to fail with the onset of drought in 1930, the bare soil became exposed to the wind, and it began to blow away in massive dust storms that blackened the sky.

These choking billows of dust, named "black blizzards", traveled across the country, reaching as far as the East Coast and striking such cities as New York City and Washington, D.C.

"The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face," Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. "People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk... We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real."

The term “dust bowl” was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press. Originally it referred to the geographical area affected by the dust, but today the entire event is referred to as the Dust Bowl.

After the winds passed and the dust settled, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated a huge project to plant hundreds of millions of trees across the Great Plains to create a giant windbreak. Known as a shelterbelt, it consisted of 220 million trees stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from wind erosion. The shelterbelt wasn’t a continuous wall of trees, but rather short stretches protecting individual farmlands. By 1942, there was more than thirty thousand shelterbelts across the Plains. To this day it remains the largest and most-focused effort of the US government to address an environmental problem.

Now many of the shelterbelts are either gone or no longer provide the benefits that they used to. The trees that were once essential have now become a burden to the farmers whose focus is now to put more land into production. Some fear that the loss of these trees might lead to another crippling dust storm in the future.


Buried machinery in a barn lot; Dallas, South Dakota, May 1936.


A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Photo credit: Arthur Rothstein.




The huge Black Sunday storm strikes the Church of God in Ulysses, Kansas, 1935. Photo credit: Historic Adobe Museum



The huge Black Sunday storm as it approaches Ulysses, Kansas, April 14, 1935. Photo credit: Historic Adobe Museum, Ulysses, KS


Migrant agricultural worker's family. Seven hungry children. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian. Destitute in pea picker's camp, Nipomo, California, because of the failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the twenty-five hundred people in this camp most of them were destitute, March 1936. (Dorthea Lange/Library of Congress/LC-USF34-T01-009093)

One of the most famous photograph of the Depression and the Dust Bowl, The Migrant Mother, by Dorthea Lange


A migratory family from Texas living in a trailer in an Arizona cotton field. Photo credit: Dorothea Lange


Three children prepare to leave for school wearing goggles and homemade dust masks to protect them from the dust. Lakin, Kansas, 1935. Photo credit: Green Family Collection


An abandoned Dust Bowl ghost town in South Dakota. Photo credit: Paul Williams/Flickr

Dust Bowl Ghost Town

An abandoned Dust Bowl ghost town in South Dakota. Photo credit: Paul Williams/Flickr


Sign for "Nation's First Shelterbelt" located near Willow, Oklahoma. Photo credit:

Sources: Wikipedia / America's Library / Living History Farm / NPR / Wikipedia


  1. Global warming is the "Dust Bowl" of our time. People cant imagine it happening and the people who know the least about the topic - present the most vigorous denials of reality.


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