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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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It is hope that draws the refugees to California, hope of finding work, of keeping off or getting off federal relief, of maintaining morale, of finding surcease of trouble. "We haven't had to have no help yet. Lots of 'em have, but we haven't," said Oklahoma pea-pickers on El Camino Real at Mission San Jose. "All I want is a chance to make an honest living."—"When a person's able to work, what's the use of begging? We ain't that kind of people," said elderly pea-pickers near Calipatria.

To some few migrants without responsibility, there is hardly more in it all than adventure. A group of young hill billies, living in a brush hut evacuated by Filipinos, can take a day off from the carrot fields of Imperial Valley, lie about barefoot at a game of cards, and blithely play Home Sweet Home on a harmonica.

Of course, many refugees do not shun relief. A California border official reports that refugees say, "People are better cared for here than in the cotton states," correctly implying one motive for emigration. Yet many who do not receive relief and are desperately in need of it for themselves and their children, avoid seeking it as long as possible. Many who would leave cannot, for lack of resources. These, like the tenants who write hopefully from Oklahoma that "If we can make a crop this year, we'll come to California," await only a good harvest to emigrate.

Migrant Family
"God knows why we left Texas
'cept my man is in a movin' mood"

But there is agony in tearing up roots, even when these have been loosened by adversity. "God only knows why we left Texas, 'cept he's in a movin' mood," said a wife who accepted reluctantly the decision of her husband to leave.

Many families comfort themselves with the thought of return home when drought and depression are over. Many will return, but many others will not; they have burned their bridges without realizing it. Now the movement is west. A pregnant Oklahoma mother living without shelter in Imperial Valley while the menfolk bunched carrots for money to enable them to move on, made poignant request for directions. "Where is Tranquility, California?" To most of the refugees hope is greater than obstacles. With bedding drenched by rain while he slept in the open, with topless car and a tire gone flat, an Oklahoman with the usual numerous dependents could say, "Pretty hard on us now. Sun'll come out pretty soon and we'll be all right."

Unfortunately "tranquility" is not generally reached by those seeking refuge on the coast. Land is not readily available for new farmers nor is the local reception altogether friendly. Oregonians are already becoming concerned over the influx of settlers in their midst. California agricultural workers are restive at the increase of competitors. And the legislature of that state is presented with a bill to exclude all "indigent persons or persons liable to become public charges," and to deport all who enter in violation of the prohibition. In the spirit of the legislature which sought unconstitutionally to debar Chinese immigrants from California in the 50's, the present session is asked to exclude American "immigrants" without money. "The state," said one of the sponsors of the bill, "has the power to protect itself from economic disaster. This is the justification.... It transcends legalistic argument." In the Los Angeles Times "the Lancer" cries in alarm: "That 5000 indigents are coming into Southern California...leaves one appalled. This is the gravest problem before the United States...these tattered migrations." Lamenting good roads he adds: "The Chinese, wiser than we, have delayed building a great system of highways for that very reason—to head off these dangerous migrations—indigent people stampeding from the farms into cities to live on charity. Incidentally, that was one of the reasons why Rome crashed."

Migrant Family
"Pretty hard now. Sun'll come out and we'll be all right"

The drought emigrants, however, have moved into rural California rather than to the cities. For in agriculture the labor market is highly fluid, and almost anyone is free to try his hand when work is to be done; although skill is to bunch some carrots. So they gravitate naturally into a labor population which moves incessantly from harvest to harvest, which lives in poverty under generally unsanitary and inadequate conditions and which competes for work in a market so glutted that even the farmers cry for protection because strikes are readily kindled when great underemployed "surpluses" collect.

Thus the refugees seeking individual protection in the traditional spirit of the American frontier by westward migration are unknowingly arrivals at another frontier, one of social conflict. In this conflict they are found on both sides. An ex-tenant farmer picking peas in Imperial Valley complains there of the great landowners who are also the bane of his class in Oklahoma whence he came, "The monied men got all the land gobbled up." In the sheds of El Centro the lettuce packers were on strike this spring. A family of refugees in dire distress naturally helped to break strike. With the earnings they purchased an automobile needed badly for family support. They had learned what other laborers learn quickly in the highly seasonal agriculture of the coast, "A person can't get by without a car in California, like in Oklahoma."


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003