The Dirty Thirties and the Iconic Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl was the nickname given to America’s drought-afflicted Southern. The area suffered severe dust storms during the driest period in the history of the nation. During the 1930s, high winds and choking dust was sweeping the area from Texas to Nebraska. People and livestock were killed, and the crops were failing.

Abandoned Farm With Equipment That Destroyed the Naturally Rich Grazing Land at Mills, New Mexico.

Abandoned Farm With Equipment That Destroyed the Naturally Rich Grazing Land at Mills, New Mexico. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

The Dust Bowl only made the already crushing economy even worse. It further impacted the Great Depression and drove more and more farming families on migration, in desperate search of work and better living conditions. The photos alone are incredible, and you can only wonder how life back then was really like. It seems as though the dust itself was only a portion of the suffering.

What Caused the Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl was caused by a number of things, mainly economic and agricultural factors, including federal land policies, changes in weather, farm economics, and other factors revolving around the culture of the region. After the Civil War, several federal land acts enticed pioneers to move westward as farming in the Great Plains was incentivized.

Dust Clouds Over Lamar, Colorado, During The Height Of The Great Drought Of 1934.

Dust Clouds Over Lamar, Colorado, During The Height Of The Great Drought Of 1934. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

The Homestead Act of 1862 provided settlers with 160 acres of public land. It was followed by the Kinkaid Act of 1904 and then the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. All these acts led to a massive flood of new and inexperienced farmers in the region. Many of these late 19th and early 20th century settlers lived by a superstition in which “rain follows the plow.”

Manifest Destiny

Emigrants, land speculators, politicians, and even scientists had believed that agriculture would affect the semi-arid climate of the region, making it more conducive to farming. This false belief was also linked to what was called the Manifest Destiny — an idea that Americans had a sacred duty to expand the west.

Colorado: Dust Storm, 1935.

Colorado: Dust Storm, 1935. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

A number of wet years during the period created further misunderstanding and led to the intensive farming of increasingly marginal lands that weren’t being reached by irrigation. Then there were the rising wheat prices in the 1910s and 1920s, which increased the demand for wheat from Europe during World War I.

Trying to Break Even

It encouraged farmers to plow millions of acres of grassland to plant wheat, corn, and other crops. But as America entered the Great Depression, prices of wheat plummeted. Farmers had to tear up even more grassland to try and harvest a bumper crop and break even. Crops began to fail as the drought came in 1931, exposing the bare and over-plowed land.

Drought Refugees, 1936. Refugee Children From Oklahoma At A Migrant Camp In California.

Drought Refugees, 1936. Refugee Children From Oklahoma At A Migrant Camp In California. Photo By Granger/Shutterstock

Without deep-rooted grass to hold the soil in place, it started to blow away. The eroding soil led to major dust storms as well as economic devastation. It was the Dust Bowl that created the term “Dirty Thirties,” which started in 1930 and lasted for about a decade.