The Dust Bowl: Effects & Significance

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about a phenomenon known as the Dust Bowl. We will learn how it impacted an already troubled nation, and highlight key themes and developments.

Definition and Causes

Have you ever returned from a day at the beach only to find sand everywhere? We're talking sand in your hair, between your toes, in your ears, in places you didn't even know you had. Think of this, but imagine it a thousands times worse and you may have some idea of what it was like to live through the ''Dust Bowl.''

The Dust Bowl is a term used to describe the series of severe dust storms that ravaged the American Midwest throughout the 1930s. It brought devastation to Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and other states as well. These storms were so powerful, they reached all the way to the East Coast, dumping dust on cities like Washington, D.C. The worst storms took place in the second half of the 1930s.

A large dust storm looms over a farm in Texas during the Dust Bowl.
dust

Here's the tricky part. Sometimes the term is used as a time period, for example: ''The Dust Bowl was horrible time in American history.'' Other times it is used as a geographic location: ''Living in the Dust Bowl was a horrible experience.'' So be aware of the different contexts in which the term is applied.

Why did these cataclysmic storms happen? There are actually a number of different theories, and most-likely it was caused by a combination of factors. However, most historians now believe much of the Dust Bowl could have been prevented.

See, in the years leading up to the 1930s, farmers had basically over-aerated the soil of the Great Plains. They converted vast tracks of grassland into shallow cropland. After periods of drought, this loose soil turned to dust and was swept up into the storms that became known as ''black blizzards''.

Characteristics

The Dust Bowl was no joke. This can't be overstated. Fine dust was blown into homes, depositing layers on beds, tables, and everywhere else imaginable. Food couldn't be eaten. In some cases, entire homes were buried in feet of dust. If you happened to be outside when a storm struck, it was blinding. Imagine black all around you.

Automobiles were rendered useless after dust was blown into the engines and other mechanized parts. The Dust Bowl killed off livestock, leading to further food shortages. Dust inhalation was probably the most dangerous aspect. The dust was so fine that it was almost impossible not to inhale. Many people, especially children, died from dust pneumonia, a lung condition resulting from inhaling excessive dust.

Black dust clouds blanketed the Midwest for days at a time. On occasion, these storms blew dust from the Midwest into Eastern cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

What was so awful about the Dust Bowl is that is took place at a time when America was already at its lowest point. The Great Depression began in 1929 with the Stock Market Crash, and was in full swing throughout the 1930s. The Great Depression left a quarter of Americans unemployed. Many were rendered homeless. The Dust Bowl only compounded the misery left by the Great Depression.

Impact

The Dust Bowl cost the United States millions of dollars. Many regions were stripped of 75% of topsoil. Only though years of proper agricultural practices did the Dust Bowl subside. Let's look at some of the impacts on an individual and government level, as well as the arts.

Individual Response

As a result of the Dust Bowl, many Midwest farmers decided to abandon their farms and relocate. The Dust Bowl exodus was an unparalleled migration considering its short period. During the 1930s some 3.5 million people left the Great Plains. Many moved to California where they hoped to fair better and begin anew. It was not uncommon to see automobiles piled high with belongings making their way across New Mexico and Arizona.

A woman leaving the Dust Bowl for better opportunities elsewhere.
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Government Response

To combat the destruction left by the Dust Bowl, the federal government took an active role. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during this time, and under his New Deal, the federal government was heavily involved in regulating the economy.

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