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Again the Covered Wagon

by Paul S. Taylor

Associate Professor of Economics, University of California

Photographs by Dorothea Lange

July 1935

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Vast clouds of dust rise and roll across the Great Plains, obscuring the lives of people, blighting homes, hampering traffic, drifting eastward to New York and westward to California. They carry the natural riches of the plains and deposit them broadcast over the nation. Exposed by cultivation which killed the protecting grasses, and powdered by protracted drought, the rich topsoil is being stripped from tens of thousands of acres by wind erosion, leaving land and life impoverished.

Dust, drought, and protracted depression have exposed also the human resources of the plains to the bleak winds of adversity. After the drifting dust clouds drift the people; over the concrete ribbons of highway which lead out in every direction come the refugees. We are witnessing the process of social erosion and a consequent shifting of human sands in a movement which is increasing and may become great.

At Fort Yuma the bridge over the Colorado marks the southeastern portal to California. Across this bridge move shiny cars of tourists, huge trucks, an occasional horse and wagon, or a Yuma Indian on horseback. And at intervals in the other traffic appear slow-moving and conspicuous cars loaded with refugees.

The refugees travel in old automobiles and light trucks, some of them home-made, and frequently with trailers behind. All their worldly possessions are piled on the car and covered with old canvas or ragged bedding, with perhaps bedsprings atop, a small iron cook-stove on the running board, a battered trunk, lantern, and galvanized iron washtub. tied on behind. Children, aunts, grandmothers and a dog are jammed into the car, stretching its capacity incredibly. A neighbor boy sprawls on top of the loaded trailer.

Most of the refugees are in obvious distress. Clothing is sometimes neat and in good condition, particularly if the emigrants left last fall, came via Arizona, and made a little money in the cotton harvest there. But sometimes it is literally in tatters. At worst, these people lack money even for a California auto license. Asked for the $3 fee, a mother with six children and only $3.40 replied, "That's food for my babies!" She was allowed to proceed without a license.

White Americans of old stock predominate among the emigrants. Long, lanky Oklahomans with small heads, blue eyes, an Abe Lincoln cut to the thighs, and surrounded by tow-headed children; bronzed Texans with a drawl, clear-cut features, and an aggressive spirit; a few Mexicans, mestizos with many children; occasionally Negroes; all are crossing over into California.

"It seems like God has forsaken us—back there in Arkansas"

The westward movement of rural folk from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and adjacent states, whence most of the refugees to California are now coming, of course is not new. The rise of cotton production in Imperial Valley in 1910 started migration of cotton pickers and growers from the Southwest. The spread of cotton culture to the San Joaquin Valley in 1919 accelerated the interstate movement; many came seasonally to harvest the cotton and returned, while others remained as a permanent accretion. The present migration, therefore, follows channels cut historically. But it moves, with the tremendous added impulses of drought and depression behind it, which increase its westward volume, and which may be expected to reduce the usual backflow.

The immediate factors dislodging people are several. Clearly, although piecemeal and in some bewilderment, the emigrants tell the story: "We got blowed out in Oklahoma."—"Yes sir, born and raised in the state of Texas; farmed all my natural life. Ain't nothin' there to stay for—nothin' to eat. Somethin's radical wrong," said an ex-cotton farmer encamped shelterless under eucalyptus trees in Imperial Valley. A mother with seven children whose husband died in Arizona enroute explained: "The drought come and burned it up. We'd have gone back to Oklahoma from Arizona, but there wasn't anything to go to."—"Lots left ahead of us—no work of no kind."—"It seems like God has forsaken us back there in Arkansas."

Curiously, not only drought and depression but also flood and the very measures which mitigate the severity of depression for some people have unloosed others. A large party of Negroes from Mississippi entering California at Fort Yuma in March reported that they had "just beat the water out by a quarter of a mile." A destitute share-crop farmer, stopping tentless by the highway near Bakersfield, with only green onions as food for his wife and children, had striven to buy a farm in Oklahoma and lost it. But he announced proudly that he had left Wagner County "clear," owing no one. In his story were echoes of crop-restriction, naturally only of its sadder side, and of conflict between cotton share-croppers on one hand and "first tenants" and landlords on the other. "It knocks thousands of fellows like me out of a crop. The ground is laying there, growing up in weeds. The landowner got the benefit and the first tenant [who finances the crop and provides. teams and tools, feed and seed] says 'I can't furnish [subsistence during the growing season] any more,' so the share-crop tenant 'on halves' goes on FERA; he's out. It's putting 'em-down, down, down. It looks to me like overproduction is better than not having it." Another refugee who had been farm laborer and oil worker in Oklahoma, said, "Since the oil-quota, I've had no work."


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003