The Dust Bowl was the name given to a period of severe dust storms caused by extreme drought and high winds coupled with improper farming in the Southern Plains region of the United States. It would contribute to the Great Depression making it much worse.
A series of federal land acts motivated pioneers to move to the Great Plains. For a small filing fee, Americans were given 160-acres of public land under President Lincoln’s Homestead Act in 1862. The Kinkaid Act of 1904 followed along with the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, resulting in a massive influx of settlers to the Great Plains. Most of the people had experienced farm life and did not understand the area’s climate.
Dry conditions and high winds were common in the Southern Plains region - the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, southeastern Colorado, and southwest Kansas. During the late 19th and early 20th century, many people believed “rain follows the plow,” because misinformed scientists observed the region’s climate during a wet season of the rain/drought cycle.
The new settlers began to turn over sod during the wet season using tractors and powerful plows and the first harvests were good.The demand for wheat from Europe sent prices soaring in 1910 through the 1920s, and this motivated farmers to plow 35 million acres of native grasslands to plant wheat, corn, and other crops. But when the Great Depression hit, the prices of wheat plunged. The onset of drought in 1931, caused the crops to fail, and since the protective cover of the native prairie grassland was destroyed, the bare land was susceptible to wind erosion. The drought lasted for the rest of the decade. In 1931, massive dust storms began, followed by a series of droughts. The 35 million acres of overplowed land and another 125 million acres had lost its topsoil. For many weeks in the year 1934, the temperature exceeded 100 degrees causing the soil to dry out. Researchers called it the worst drought year of the last millennium.
The severe black blizzards carried the topsoil of the Great Plains as far as New York City and Washington, D.C., and even covered boats in the Atlantic Ocean. The dust clouds would cause the sky to appear dark for days. The dust fell like snow, making its way through the cracks of doors and windows of homes, leaving the interiors coated with dust. Farm equipment, barns, and homes were buried in dust and livestock perished. People had difficulty breathing and chest pain known as “dust pneumonia,” which attributed to the deaths of several thousands of Americans. One agency that only counted the major black blizzards reported 14 in 1932 and 38 in 1933, but the worst was yet to come. A massive cloud storm about two miles high made its way to the East Coast, covering the Statue of Liberty and the U.S Capitol with dust on May 11, 1934.
On the morning of April 14, 1935, the sun was shining, the sky was finally clear, and the winds died down making people feel optimistic after enduring months of brutal conditions. Some attended church while others did chores around their homes. A cold front from Canada clashed with the hot air and the temperature dropped more than 30 degrees creating a violent dust cloud that grew thousands of feet high and hundreds of miles wide carrying an estimated 3 million tons of topsoil all the way from the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, southeastern Colorado, and southwestern Kansas. People feared for their lives and were forced to take cover in their barns, basements, under their beds, and at fire stations and tornado shelters. Drivers had to pull over and hide for their lives on the floorboards. It was the worst black blizzard of the Dust Bowl and it lasted for several hours. The event was named Black Sunday by newspapers. Near the end of 1939, regular rainfall finally returned to the area, but it would be another decade before the region recovered. About 2.5 million people relocated from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Colorado, becoming the largest migration in all of American history. Many of the migrants, nicknamed Okies regardless of what state they were from, lived in make-shift tents and shantytowns as they made their way to California, where they took menial labor jobs that paid low wages and faced discrimination. President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935, a program that had local farmers planting trees to create windbreaks on farms along the Great Plains. The Soil Erosion Service, now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, implemented new farming techniques that would tackle the issue of soil erosion.