(NEXSTAR) – It’s been nearly a century since an economic collapse and ecological crisis uprooted Americans during the Great Depression, forcing farmers from their lands.
After the stock market crashed in 1929 and a brutal, seven-year drought followed two years later, hundreds of thousands of people from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri journeyed west to escape the infamous Dust Bowl.
The Dust Bowl was the “greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history,” according to California’s Capitol Museum website.
When World War I started, the government encouraged farmers to grow wheat as land was cheap in the Great Plains and there was a need – in both the U.S. and war-torn parts of Europe – for the crop. Unfortunately, wheat replaced the native grasses that kept the soil from eroding. When it stopped raining, the earth dried out and strong winds choked the air with dust.
While the flood of migrants found a more comfortable climate in California, where agriculture was thriving – they could not escape the Great Depression. The wave of migrants far outnumbered the available jobs, and the vast supply of workers brought down the going wage rate.
“Even with an entire family working, migrants could not support themselves on these low wages,” according to the Library of Congress. Unsanitary “ditchbank” encampments sprung up along the irrigation ditches in farmers’ fields, and instead of settling down the migrants were forced to travel throughout the state based on the various harvest times for different crops.
Many migrants never even made it into the state after an arduous cross-country trip – they were turned away at the border.
During this time, California, along with several other states, forcibly sent roughly 2 million people of Mexican ancestry to Mexico as part of a Mexican Repatriation Program designed to save jobs for “real Americans,” according to UC Davis. California, which removed an estimated 400,000 people, passed a bill in 2005 officially apologizing for the “unconstitutional removal and coerced emigration of United States citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent, between the years 1929 and 1944, to Mexico.”
After the start of World War II in 1939, the U.S. and Californian economies improved thanks to the defense industry’s new need for production. Some migrants who had desperately been looking for jobs on farms ended up joining the military or finding work at shipyards and defense plants along the West Coast.
Over the years, many of the migrants who were once derogatorily referred to as “Okies” and “Arkies,” regardless of the state they left, would go on to settle down in California, finding stability and laying down roots for future generations.