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Tracing the Grapes of Wrath Refugees

If you have a family that headed west toward California during the early 1930's and left such states as Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma or Texas, then chances are your family was one of 300,000 to 400,000 which fled the dust bowl.


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My mother was born in January 1920 in Beaver County, Oklahoma. Her birth place was not only in the middle of the panhandle of Oklahoma, it was smack dab in the middle of the drought stricken area known as the dust bowl. She would be 9 years old when the stock market crashed and the start of the depression. She witnessed the fierce winds which yanked crops, roots and all, from the ground. Her family would hunker down inside, while black clouds of dense dust swept by, choking anything in it's path.

Add to this ecological disaster the economic depression of the thirties and it is not a surprise why hoards of people abandoned their homesteads and traveled west.

For a genealogist this suggests that if you have a family that headed west toward California during the early 1930's and left such states as Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma or Texas, then chances are your family was one of 300,000 to 400,000 that fled the dust bowl.

Despite this large migration, genealogical research is at best spotty. On the positive side, many of the survivors of this era are still alive or have written down their own accounts. It is also an era which has been capitalized under the rather new field of ethnography. An ethnographic field is a collection of material in different formats concerning a general topic or a period of time. An assorted collection of notes, recordings, photographs etc. about the migrant experiences is available at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Outside of this large collection, I did not find any sources on the Internet concerning the migration during the 1930s. Some genealogical county web sites do have a section which invites notation concerning where and when people migrated to the area. But these sections do not pander to any particular time period, and include both early settlers to an area as well as later migrations. A great share of the migration ended up south of the central valley in California. Some of these counties may have additional information.

These bits and pieces of history have popped up in some of the most unlikely places. My aunt Ada opened her local paper one day in September of 2002 to see herself in a photo taken some 65 years earlier, trying to pump water from a well in Colorado. The photo was from the Library of Congress collection and was used as a promotion of John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath". Apparently there were several photographers and historians moving around the area during the 1930's. They visited refugee camps of Colorado, New Mexico, and California, recording stories and songs of the migrants whom moved west to escape the dust and poverty.

Such a collection of materials do not generally lend themselves to the individual researcher looking for a scrap of data of their family history. It does, however, offer a general flavor of what it was like for your family that moved west during this period of time.

My mother's personal history concerned her parents leaving her older brothers in Oklahoma in the fall of 1929 and striking out with a 1929 Chevy and trailer. They did not take the usual route, heading north to Yellowstone before heading west on highway thirty to Seaside, Oregon. They picked apples in Selah, Washington and stayed the winter in Cathkart of Snohomish County, Washington. In January of 1930 they got measles in Toppenish, Washington before heading back to Oklahoma in the fall of 1930. By 1932 my grandfather, Ewell Owen, could no longer make a living in Oklahoma and sold the family farm and moved the family to Colorado.

Many family treks had a lot to do with who they knew and what stories they had heard about opportunities in other areas of the country. Such rumors were chiefly the attraction to heading west.

For such a short period in American history, it is a time filled with colorful stories and a true desire to improve one's lot in life. The times continued to improved and many later generations can thank their hardworking ancestors for the improved lives of today.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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