What Was the Dust Bowl? - Definition, Facts & Causes Video

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  • 0:01 The Dust Bowl
  • 0:49 Dust Bowl Facts
  • 1:31 Causes of the Dust Bowl
  • 4:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The Dust Bowl was a catastrophic event that directly affected the American Midwest. It resulted in a massive outmigration of Midwesterners, mostly to California. In this lesson, we'll consider some facts about the Dust Bowl and some possible causes.

The Dust Bowl

Imagine a huge dust cloud swallowing up your home to the point that it can barely be seen. This was the grim reality for many Midwestern Americans between 1930 and 1940 during a catastrophic event known as the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a series of periodic dust storms in the Midwestern prairies created by wind erosion of the soil. The Dust Bowl severely destroyed the ecology of the Midwest, while at the same time forcing a massive migration out of the Dust Bowl states, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, and Texas.

In this lesson, we'll consider some basic facts about the Dust Bowl and then consider the different arguments about why the Dust Bowl occurred. Was this an unusual natural disaster, or was it a man-made phenomenon like global warming?

Dust Bowl Facts

Rather than attempting to offer a lengthy history of the Dust Bowl, here are some important facts concerning this catastrophic event:

  • Several Oklahomans and other Midwesterners migrated to California as a result of the Dust Bowl. These migrants were called Okies.
  • An estimated 3.5 million people moved out of the Midwest because of the Dust Bowl.
  • It's estimated that 1 in 8 Californians today are of Okie heritage.
  • The Dust Bowl coincided with the Great Depression in America, essentially hurting those affected by the Dust Bowl even more.
  • Author John Steinbeck used the Dust Bowl as the historical background in two of his novels, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.

Causes of the Dust Bowl

Prior to the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma panhandle resident Caroline Henderson described the Midwest this way, 'Little towns have sprung up with attractive homes, trees, flowers, schools, churches, and hospitals. Automobiles and trucks, tractors and combines have revolutionized methods of farm work and manner of living. . . It seemed as if our dreams were coming true.' This optimistic picture greatly changed when the Dust Bowl happened, which Caroline Henderson drearily described this way, 'We are in the worst of the dust storm area where 'dust to eat' is not merely a figure of speech, but the phrasing of a bitter reality.'

So, what caused this change? There are three main explanations that have been put forward by historians:

The first explanation is simply that the Dust Bowl was the result of a heavy drought that hit the Midwest really hard. According to this explanation, the Dust Bowl was simply an unfortunate natural disaster, just like an earthquake or a hurricane. There was nothing that could have prevented the event from occurring.

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