the Covered Wagon
by Paul S. Taylor
Associate Professor of Economics, University of California
Photographs by Dorothea Lange
Participation in more labor
conflict doubtless lies ahead of the refugees coming to California,
for tension in that state is not abating. The bitter criminal
syndicalist trials in Sacramento were hailed by extremists as
a test of power; half the defendants were acquitted, half were
convicted. Among the latter were the chief leaders of the agricultural
strikes of 1933.
Farmers and their spokesmen
have exhibited great confidence in repression of agitators and
pickets as a means of maintaining peace in agriculture. But
still they are uneasy as the successive harvests of 1935 advance.
Expending as much as $35 or $50 an acre to bring a crop to maturity,
they see their entire year's return staked upon a few days of
The fifty-odd farm strikes
since December 1932 naturally have made them fearful of more
interruptions, and they have organized for self-defense. "The
Associated Farmers," said their spokesman before the Commonwealth
Club, "intend to get laws passed that will protect them against
Communists, and to see that these laws are rigidly enforced.
We are not trying to beat down wages; we are not advocating
illegal force or terrorism. But we will not willingly submit
to having twenty or thirty automobile loads of so-called peaceful
picketers parading up and down in front of our homes, threatening
and intimidating, and even blockading the highways."
Unions under conservative labels
are almost equally opposed. "If the American Federation of Labor
should form farm unions, the chances are that foreign or native-born
radicals would sooner or later get control of them, just as
they did with the longshoremen's union." Commenting on this
attitude a State Federation official said bitterly, "If we had
a strike, the farmers would conveniently find one or two Communists
"Travelin' people can't get no place to stay still"
The future of the refugees, then,
is hardly likely to be tranquil. They will be caught in whatever
rural labor struggles arise. Like their predecessors of recent
years some will find a degree of economic and physical stability
in California, but others will mill incessantly through the harvests
and live in squatters' camps and rural slums, unless a protecting
government intervenes. The refugees are conscious of their present
destitution and enforced mobility, and grope for help: "Poor folks
has poor ways, you know.""There's more or less humiliation
living this way, but we can't help it. Our tent's wore out.""Can't
we have better houses?""What bothers us travellin' people
most is we can't get no place to stay still." But the struggle
against unsanitary conditions, flies, and bad water is too much
for many people and they give up. "I hate to boil the water, because
then it has so much scum on it," said a pea-picker who drew his
water from the irrigating ditch in the usual manner.
The refugees discuss the Townsend
plan. They sense demoralization and the futility of continual
relief: "This giving people something don't do no good.""This
relief business is all a fake anyway. When they get on it they
don't want to work any more." Grasping the idea of rehabilitation,
a refugee recipient of relief said, "If they'd a' give it to me
in one chunk I could a' gone back and bought me a little piece
o' land." But the problem is bewildering to most of them. "We
was out here nine years ago; then we could get a steady job. Now
it seems we can't stay in one place. We got to follow these little
jobs to live.""I'm not smart enough to know what ought to
be done; it sure doesn't suit me."
the border at Fort Yuma the refugees are straggling west. They
are not newly shod and clad, moved under government direction
by train and a trim army transport, nor met by mayors and brass
bands, like the drought sufferers from Minnesota bound for the
colonization of Alaska. But they constitute already a far greater,
if unplanned and almost unnoticed redistribution of the nation's
population. To the Alaskan colonists the Matanuska Valley "looks
like Heaven." To an Oklahoman who crossed the Tehachapi and viewed
the wild flowers of the southern San Joaquin Valley California
"looks like Paradise compared to what it was there."
"The drought came and burned the cotton up. There
wasn't anything to go back to"
But questions of the future,
both immediate and remote, arise. Will California continue to
look like Paradise as the harvests wear on, and the refugees realize
that they are definitely a part of the under-employed labor armywhite
Americans, Mexicans, Negroes, and Filipinosmobile and restless,
which has engaged in strike after strike? Is it conceivable that
the grandchildren of the emigrants of 1935 will take pride in
placing grandmother's cook-stove and trunk in museums beside the
gold-seeker's pan or the table which came 'round the Horn in '51?
Or will these children of distress who creep west unheralded have
no share in California history and tradition? The lure of gold
in the past, and of land, has been superseded by the expelling
forces of drought and depression in the present.
of the future, when mechanical cotton pickers invade the Old South,
making human hands unnecessary? What of the Southern tenants and
laborers under the ominous cloud of invention? What will they
do? Where will they go? Are the refugees of today the last Western
emigrants, or are they but forerunners of greater migrations of
hope and despair to come.