Migration is part of American history. The United States has always been a country of dynamic movements, physical, social and political. It’s possible to track the greatest cultural and economic shifts in America by looking at the major population shifts and the storied migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries.
No less than five significant migrations of peoples across the American landscape register as “great American migrations” because they each represent an equally significant shift in American culture.
As American culture has changed, so has the geography of its population.
Here we will provide a brief overview of the American migration that took place as the country began to come to grips with the Industrial Revolution, a period of hysteria, upheaval and technical progress that changed a great many things about how life was lived in the United States.
The Dust Bowl Migration
At the turn of the century, the United States and Europe transitioned from agricultural to industrial economies. On the heels of this sea change in manufacturing practices and tariff relations in the 1930s, many American farmers lost their farms and their livelihoods.
Competition with European farmers and new methods of mechanized farming were rendering sharecroppers obsolete and effectively industrializing an occupation that had been accomplished for centuries by human hands and horse-driven plows. One of the results: American farmers again faced their constant nemesis: production so high that prices were pushed downward. Farmers grew more cotton, wheat and corn than the market could consume, and prices fell, fell more and then hit rock bottom by the early 1930s. 3
On top of these changes, a massive drought kept the farmers in the American plains states – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas – from being able to make enough money to keep their farms and their fields alive. The drought led to storms of dust in some areas.
“Wind driven dust storms had arisen in a broad swath of counties in western Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles on several occasions between 1933 and 1935, each time filling the air with millions of tons of finely plowed top soil and blackening skies for a thousand miles as the clouds moved east.” 1
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath explores the human cost of these combined forces as families had no choice but to move away from their homes in hopes of finding a way to make a living.
In addition to the farmer and farm families that moved west, many young people decided to leave blue-collar jobs for the hopes that California offered during the dark days of the Depression Era.
The Dust Bowl Migration was largely a westward movement. Cities like Bakersfield, Calif., were essentially born as a result of the influx of Americans moving west from the middle of the country. “Numbers are elusive but it is safe to say that 300-400,000 Oklahomans, Texans, Arkansans, and Missourians moved to California and settled there during the 1930s.” 1
Changes in farming technology and international competition, coupled with a massive drought, led to this human movement, this great American migration, making physical the cultural shifts that predicated it.
Interesting and insightful essays and documentaries are available on the Dust Bowl Migration, with far more detail than we have room for here. The interest of this article was to begin to draw a connection between the cultural shifts resulting from the Industrial Revolution and the human movements that resulted from them.
Great American Migrations not discussed in this article: After Slavery, Black Americans Migrate Northward; The Trail of Tears; The California Gold Rush; The Suburban Boom.
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