Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains

A massive drought ruined farms on a large scale throughout the plains states. Coming in the midst of the Great Depression, the so-called Dust Bowl exacerbated an already desperate situation, driving hundreds of thousands of people out of the Great Plains and prompting them to migrate westward to California.

Summary of Event

Farmers all across the Great Plains apprehensively watched the skies during the spring of 1934. Day after day, the weather offered no relief. Instead, there was intense sun, wind, drought, more sun, and then gales. Massive clouds of dust blotted out sunlight over western Kansas. At first, the wind raced along the surface, tearing at the stunted wheat and kicking up the topsoil. Then the dust thickened into low, heavy, dirt-laden clouds. From a distance, the storm had the appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it was black, not white; and it seemed to eat its way along with a rolling, churning motion. [kw]Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains (1934-1939)
[kw]Great Plains, Dust Bowl Devastates the (1934-1939)
[kw]Plains, Dust Bowl Devastates the Great (1934-1939)
Dust Bowl
Great Depression;Dust Bowl
Great Plains, Dust Bowl
Drought, Dust Bowl
[g]United States;1934-1939: Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains[08570]
[c]Economics;1934-1939: Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains[08570]
[c]Environmental issues;1934-1939: Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains[08570]
[c]Agriculture;1934-1939: Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains[08570]
[c]Disasters;1934-1939: Dust Bowl Devastates the Great Plains[08570]
Geiger, Robert
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Soil Erosion Service
Bennett, Hugh Hammond
Silcox, Ferdinand A.
Davis, Chester C.
Lange, Dorothea

As the storm swept toward Oklahoma and Texas, the black clouds engulfed the landscape. Birds and jackrabbits fled before it, and people scurried to safety. For those engulfed in the storm, there was an eerie sensation of silence and darkness. There was little or no visibility, and wind velocity hit forty to fifty miles per hour. That spring was exceedingly hot, with the temperature often above one hundred degrees. On May 10, the wind returned. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light brown fog that spread over an area nine hundred miles long. During the next day, an estimated twelve million tons of soil fell on Chicago, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland. On May 12, dust hung like a pall over the entire eastern seaboard. These two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the plains.

The Dust Bowl was an elusive and constantly moving phenomenon. The entire decade of the 1930’s was unusually hot and dry. In 1930, there was a drought in the eastern half of the nation. In 1931, the drought shifted to the northern plains of Montana and the Dakotas, and local level dust storms throughout the plains became more common. The storm that first brought the Dust Bowl to national attention, however, and gave it its name, was the one in May, 1934, which originated mostly on the northern plains and drew the dust high into the atmosphere, allowing the jet stream to deposit it over much of the eastern United States and even into the Atlantic Ocean. After that, the worst storms shifted to the southern plains and were typically more localized in extent. By many statistical measures, 1937 was the peak year for dust storm occurrence and severity, but in popular memory, the worst of the Dust Bowl over the largest area was probably in the early spring of 1934, including the famous “Black Sunday” storm of April 14. Black Sunday (Dust Bowl)

The heart of the Dust Bowl is usually considered to be an area of 300,000 square miles in western Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas and eastern Colorado and New Mexico, although conditions in the northern plains were, at times, equally deserving of the name Dust Bowl. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off the wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal mud balls.

The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, burying fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloth and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from “dust pneumonia.” The black blizzards struck so suddenly that people became lost and disoriented and occasionally suffocated, some literally within yards of shelter. As a result, more than 350,000 people fled the Great Plains in the 1930’s. These “Okies” loaded their meager household goods on flivvers and struck out along Route 66 for California.

Wind and drought alone did not create the Dust Bowl. Nature’s delicate balance of wind, rain, and grass had been disturbed by human settlement. Fifty years earlier, a strong protective carpet of grass had covered the Great Plains. The grass held moisture in the soil and kept the soil from blowing away. In dry years, the wind blew out huge craters, later mistakenly called “buffalo wallows”; but as long as the turf remained, the land could recover. After the Civil War, farmers began staking out homesteads in regions once considered too arid for use as anything but range land. Wherever they went, they plowed under the grass. During World War I, the demand for wheat, along with the invention of the tractor, led them to plow larger areas of the virgin grassland. Between 1914 and 1917 the area of wheat planted increased to twenty-seven million acres; more than 40 percent of this land was being plowed for the first time. After the war, the plowing continued. Larger tractors and combines, new machines that could harvest and thresh grain in one operation, inaugurated the age of the wheat kings. By 1930, there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as ten years earlier, and the tractors were still tearing open the turf. The plow exposed the land to rain, wind, and sun. By 1932, the earth on the plains was ready to blow.


The Dust Bowl speeded the development of long-range federal programs in the new field of soil conservation. A veteran conservationist, President Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1933 created the Soil Erosion Service, later the Soil Conservation Service Soil Conservation Service (SCS), with Hugh Hammond Bennett as its head. The SCS’s task was to supply technical assistance and leadership, while local soil-conservation districts carried out Bennett’s program of strip cropping, contour plowing, stubble-mulch farming, and terracing. In 1934, the Forest Service, under Ferdinand A. Silcox, started planting a shelter belt of trees within a zone one hundred miles wide from Canada to the Texas Panhandle. Ten years later, more than two hundred million trees were serving as windbreaks and helping to conserve moisture. In 1936, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), directed by Chester C. Davis, adopted soil conservation as a subterfuge to get around an unfavorable Supreme Court decision. On the Great Plains, however, soil conservation was a legitimate part of the AAA program. Farmers received government checks for both acreage reductions and wind control practices.

After 1936, the New Deal added little to its conservation program. Roosevelt did appoint two special committees, one to study Dust Bowl conditions and the other to recommend specific legislation. Congress passed a water-storage bill along the lines that the latter committee had suggested, but it did little else. In documenting the extent of the Dust Bowl and providing information and arguments to support their own programs, however, federal agencies created a wealth of documentary information on the Dust Bowl, including human responses to it, as recorded in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. Photographers;Dorothea Lange[Lange]

There has continued to be a lively debate over who or what—government programs, conservation practices of individual farmers, or Mother Nature—should receive most of the credit for bringing the Dust Bowl to an end, with the majority of scholars placing the greatest responsibility with nature. In any case, by 1938, the scale of wind erosion had dropped dramatically, and by 1941, temperature and rainfall levels had returned to near or above normal and the Dust Bowl had effectively disappeared. More to the point is the question of its possible recurrence. In the 1970’s, Great Plains farmers were once again plowing “fence row to fence row” for export, grasslands were plowed up for irrigation farming, and the shelter belt had mostly been destroyed or allowed to deteriorate. Whether the government and the people of the plains learned the appropriate lessons from the terrible experience of the Dust Bowl remains an open question. Dust Bowl
Great Depression;Dust Bowl
Great Plains, Dust Bowl
Drought, Dust Bowl

Further Reading

  • Bonnifield, Mathew Paul. The Dust Bowl: Men, Dirt, and Depression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979. Emphasizes the roles of nature and government policy in creating the Dust Bowl, and the efficacy of grass-roots human responses in alleviating the problem.
  • Clements, Frederic, and Ralph Chaney. Environment and Life in the Great Plains. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1937. Written during the Dust Bowl crisis, this brief work contains Clements’s ideas for land management and agricultural practices based on ecological principles.
  • Cunfer, Geoff. On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Study of the agricultural and environmental history of the area at the center of the Dust Bowl. Includes a chapter on the drought and its impact. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Comprehensive history and analysis of the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl, beginning with agricultural developments in the first years of the twentieth century. Map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Historical study of the migrants from Oklahoma and other southern Great Plains states who settled in California in the 1930’s. Excellent social history, with emphasis on the continuity in culture and traditions among the Oklahoma migrants as they became part of California’s complex social and ethnic mix.
  • Hurt, R. Douglas. “Agricultural Technology in the Dust Bowl, 1932-1940.” In The Great Plains: Environment and Culture, edited by Brian W. Blouet and Frederick C. Luebke. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. Succinct summary of the changes in agricultural techniques and technology in response to the drought of the 1930’s, with emphasis on the work of the Soil Conservation Service.
  • _______. The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History. Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981. A broad historical survey of the Great Plains region during the 1930’s. Contains much useful information on economic conditions, agricultural practices and technology, and the human responses to the crises of the era.
  • Lange, Dorothea, and Paul Taylor. An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1939. Lange’s stunning photographs of the Dust Bowl and migration to California provide some of the most famous images available of those events.
  • Lowitt, Richard. The New Deal and the West. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. A well-written synthesis that presents the national, political, and economic background for New Deal programs that had an impact in the Great Plains. Also discusses the impact of national policies in the context of regional, state, and local political and economic conditions.
  • Sears, Paul. Deserts on the March. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935. A contemporary assessment by a pioneering popular writer in the field of ecology who attempted to explain the Dust Bowl as an example of a long-term worldwide trend. Controversial and stimulating.
  • Svobida, Lawrence. An Empire of Dust. 1940. Reprint. Farming the Dust Bowl: A First-Hand Account from Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986. A classic account of the Dust Bowl, written by a Kansas farmer who battled the Dust Bowl conditions for almost a decade.
  • Watkins, T. H. The Great Depression: America in the 1930’s. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. Readable, informed general history of the decade; includes a brief but insightful section on the Dust Bowl. Companion volume to a public television program.
  • Worcester, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Great Plains in the 1930’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Well-researched, thought-provoking analysis of the economic and cultural causes of the Dust Bowl, the strengths and weaknesses of the government and private-sector responses to the crisis, and long-term consequences of the experience.
  • _______. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A survey of the evolution of ecological thought from the 1700’s to the 1970’s. The arrival of agriculture on the Great Plains and the development of the Dust Bowl are important episodes in the emergence of ecological theory in the twentieth century. Glossary is helpful for introductory students.

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