It was inevitable really…the migration of the people of the United States to the west coast, in search of gold, adventure, and more land. The east was filling up, and there was no place else to go, but west. Of course, many people would either not make it all the way to the West; choosing rather to homestead along the way, die, or actually make it to the West, and then return to the East. Nevertheless, before anyone could find out is life on the west coast suited them or not, they had to get to the west coast, and on May 16, 1842, the first major wagon train to the northwest departed from Elm Grove. Missouri, on the Oregon Trail. This was a little bit of a risky move, because US sovereignty over the Oregon Territory was not clearly established until 1846.
Nevertheless, American fur trappers and missionary groups had been living in the region for decades, along with Indians who had settled the land centuries earlier. Of course, everyone out there had a story to tell, and there were dozens of books and lectures that proclaimed Oregon’s agricultural potential. You can’t tell a story without creating interest somewhere. Even a boring story is of interest to someone, and this was no boring story. With the books and lectures coming out of the West, the white American farmers were very interested. They saw a chance to make their fortune, or at least to become independent. The actual first overland immigrants to Oregon, intended to farm primarily. A small band of 70 pioneers left Independence, Missouri in 1841. The stories they had heard from the fur traders brought them along the same route the traders had blazed, taking them west along the Platte River through the Rocky Mountains via the easy South Pass in Wyoming and then northwest to the Columbia River…basically through some on my own stomping grounds. Eventually, the trail they took was renamed by the pioneers, who called it the Oregon Trail.
The migration, once started, had little chance of being stopped, and in 1842, a slightly larger group of 100 pioneers made the 2,000-mile journey to Oregon. With the success of these two groups, the inevitable happened, accelerated in a major way by the severe depression in the Midwest, combined with a flood of propaganda from fur traders, missionaries, and government officials extolling the virtues of the land. They may have had good intentions, but it is never a good idea to lie to the public. With the disinformation on their minds, farmers dissatisfied with their prospects in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, hoped to find better lives in the supposed paradise of Oregon. With that another type of “rush” began. Much like the “gold rush” years, the farmers saw the land as their “gold” and headed west.
So, on this day in 1843, approximately 1,000 men, women, and children climbed aboard their wagons and steered their horses west out of the small town of Elm Grove, Missouri. It was the first real wagon train, comprised of more than 100 wagons with a herd of 5,000 oxen and cattle trailing behind. The train was led by Dr Elijah White, a Presbyterian missionary who had made the trip the year before. At first the trail was fairly easy, traveling over the flat lands of the Great Plains. There weren’t many obstacles in that area, and few river crossings, some of which could be dangerous for wagons. The bigger risk in the early days was the danger of Indian attacks, but they were still few and far between…at first anyway. The wagons were drawn into a circle at night to give the pioneers better protection from any attack that might come. They were very afraid of the Indians, who were enough different that they seemed deadly…to the pioneers anyway, and the Indians fear the White Man because of their weapons, and they were angry because the White Man wanted the land. In reality, the pioneers were far more in danger from seemingly mundane causes, like the accidental discharge of firearms, falling off mules or horses, drowning in river crossings, and disease. The trail became much more difficult, with steep ascents and descents over rocky terrain, after the train entered the mountains. The pioneers risked injury from overturned and runaway wagons.
Nevertheless, the wagon trains persevered, and the migrant movement continued until the West was populated. As for the 1,000-person party that made that original journey way back in 1843…the vast majority survived to reach their destination in the fertile, well-watered land of western Oregon. The next migration, in 1844 was smaller than that of the previous season, but in 1845 it jumped to nearly 3,000. Migration to the West was here to stay and the trains became an annual event, although the practice of traveling in giant convoys of wagons soon changed to many smaller bands of one or two-dozen wagons. The wagon trains really became a thing of the past in 1884, when the Union Pacific constructed a railway along the route.
The “Dust Bowl” was an environmental disaster that hit the Midwest in the 1930s. A combination of a severe water shortage and harsh farming techniques caused the disaster. Some scientists believe it was the worst drought in North America in 300 years. The lack of rain killed the crops that kept the soil in place. When winds blew, they raised enormous clouds of dust. It deposited mounds of dirt on everything, even covering houses. With the Dust Bow came the failure of many farms in the Midwest, and the people had no choice but to move, in order to find a way to make a living.
I suppose that the invasion that followed might have been similar to the current refugees. It wasn’t just one family that moved, but hundreds of families. Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis, seeking to halt the “invasion” of dust-bowl Depression refugees in February, 1936, declared a “Bum Blockade” to stop the mass emigration of poverty stricken families fleeing from the dust-torn states of the Midwest. These days, he would have met with severe criticism, not so much for the blockade, as for the name of the blockade.
By 1934, 75% of the United States was severely affected by this terrible drought. The region most affected was the Great Plains, and included more than 100 million acres, centered in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Kansas, and parts of Colorado and New Mexico. These millions of acres of farmland became useless and soon, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Many of these destitute families packed up their belongings and migrated west, hoping to find work and a better life, about 200,000 of which were California bound. Instead of finding the promised land of their dreams, however, they found that the available labor pool was vastly disproportionate to the number of job openings that could be filled. Migrants who found employment soon learned that this surplus of workers caused a significant reduction in the going wage rate, and even when the entire family worked, they were unable to support themselves.
Many set up “ditchbank” camps along irrigation canals in the farmers’ fields, which brought with them poor sanitary conditions and created a public health problem. And, of those who could find work in agriculture, it did not put an end to their travels. Instead, their lives were characterized by transience, if they wanted to maintain a steady income, which required them to follow the various harvests around the state. In the meantime, California was overwhelmed, trying to figure out how to absorb as many as 6,000 migrants crossing its borders daily. Also feeling the effects of the Depression, California infrastructures were already overburdened, and the steady stream of newly arriving migrants was more than the system could bear. Though these refugees came from a number of states, Californians often lumped them together as “Okies” or “Arkies,” who became the butt of derogatory jokes and the focus of political campaigns in which candidates made them the scapegoat for a shattered economy. They were accused of many crimes, as well as shiftlessness, lack of ambition, school overcrowding and stealing jobs from native Californians.
California’s Indigent Act was passed in 1933, which made it a crime to bring indigent persons into the state, Davis contended that his men needed no special approval because “any officer has the authority to enforce the state law.” Asking border-county sheriffs to deputize his officers, most complied. However, some refused, including Modoc County, who forced 14 LAPD officers to leave after they turned away local residents trying to return home. On August 24, 1935, the Los Angeles Herald-Express ran an article warning emigrants to stay away from California. It read: Stay Away From California: Warning To Transient Hordes. Those days were very different from the California of today, and not in a good way. I don’t agree with derogatory name calling, but common sense tells us that sometimes you have to try to stop a flood, even if it’s a flood of people.
In the late 19th century, America was growing. The pioneers headed west, because many couldn’t resist the lure of the tall grassy land in the midwestern and southern plains of the United States. They planned to settled there to farm. The next few decades were prosperous, but when the 1930s rolled in, so did strong winds, drought, and clouds of dust that plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States between 1931 and 1939. The Dust Bowl, as it was known, had arrived. The problem likely began in the early 1920s, when a post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits. Many bought plows and other farming equipment, and between 1925 and 1930 more than 5 million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed. With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops during the 1931 season. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers were unable to earn back their production costs and expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit. The prairie was covered with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses, and to add to the problem, they left any unused fields bare. With the drought leaving much of the country severely dry, no natural grasses to hold the dirt in place, the higher than normal temperatures, and increasingly strong winds, the country was hit with what many called Black Blizzards, which were rolling dust storms driven by high winds.
Now, if you have ever been in a Haboob (Arabic meaning, blasting), which is a type of intense dust storm carried on a weather front, you have a pretty good idea of what the Dust Bowl was like, except that instead of lasting a few hours, the Dust Bowl storms continued to occur from 1931 to 1939. Now imagine 8 plus years of dust blowing everywhere!! It was in their hair, in their eyes, in their houses, and in the food. They couldn’t get away from it, and since 75 percent of the United States was in the grip of the Dust Bowl, moving didn’t help either…not to mention the fact that no one could afford to anyway. It was a disgusting situation, and it was about to get much worse. By 1932, 14 Black Blizzards were reported, and in just one year, the number increased to nearly 40. It seemed that no end was in sight, but still, the worst was yet to come.
On the afternoon of April 14, 1935, the residents of the Plains States were forced to take cover as a Black Blizzard, blew through the region. The storm hit the Oklahoma Panhandle and Northwestern Oklahoma first, moving south for the remainder of the day. It hit Beaver around 4:00 pm, Boise City around 5:15 pm, and Amarillo, Texas, at 7:20 pm. The conditions were the most severe in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, but the storm’s effects were felt in other surrounding areas. The day would forever be labeled Black Sunday. It was one of the worst dust storms in American history and it caused immense economic and agricultural damage. It is estimated to have displaced 300 million tons of topsoil from the prairie area of the United States. The storm was so harsh because of the high winds that hit the area that day. The combination of drought, erosion, bare soil, and winds caused the dust to fly freely and at high speeds. The loose dust flying around was enough to inhale, and many people suffocated with the dust filling their lungs. The day was a black day for more reasons than one. It is hard to contemplate a dust storm that was so severe that people couldn’t breathe…to the point of death! Nevertheless, that was exactly what Black Sunday was like.
Following the horrible Black Blizzards of 1935, and the massive amount of damage caused by these storms, Congress passed the Soil Conservation Act, which established the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the USDA. The SCS was created in an attempt to provide guidance for land owners and land users to reduce soil erosion, improve forest and field land, and conserve and develop natural resources. It was the hope that the United States could prevent another Dust Bowl, and while small areas have a tendency to have dust storms, there has never been another era like the Dust Bowl era that the United States citizens suffered in the 1930s.
A few days ago, my father-in-law received a phone message from an old family friend. She was calling to wish my mother-in-law a belated happy birthday, and to ask my father-in-law what he remembered about the 1949 blizzard in reference to Colstrip, Montana. Since my father-in-law was in the hospital at the time, I called her back and told her that I would have him call her. Meanwhile, my own interest was peaked about this blizzard, of which I had been totally unaware prior to this call. I got on the Internet and did some searching of my own, and I was quite surprised at what I found.
The 1949 blizzard began on January 2, 1949, and it was soon to be called the “worst winter ever” by anyone who had the misfortune to go through it. The storm roared across several states, and was actually a series of storms that raged on until February 22, and dumped between 50 and 60 inches of snow, depending on where you were. It put a whole lot of people, especially farmers and ranchers in dire straits. Before long everyone knew that something was going to have to be done. Emergency flights of supplies began bringing everything from food to hay to the desperate people in the area. Snow plows pushed through in an effort to get truckloads of hay into the ranchers. Still, it would not be enough to stop the massive loss of livestock that the coming spring would reveal, not to mention the 235 people across several states who lost their lives. My father-in-law told me that the cows tried to stay above the snow by walking on it as it fell. When the snow got very deep, the cows ended up walking above the trees. Then the weight of their bodies caused them to fall through the snow and into the tree tops, where the were trapped and died of starvation. Some ranchers lost entire herds of cattle, either to falling through the tree tops, or being buried alive. My father-in-law told me that the spring brought a horrible sight. Dead cattle hanging in the trees…everywhere.
Transportation came to a standstill too. Before long trains were unable to move forward, and became buried in the snow, right where they stood. When the tracks were finally cleared, the snow would stand as much as 18 feet high beside them. I’m quite sure it was an eerie sight when the trains finally began to move again, because the piled snow was much higher than the trains, and so prevented any view from the train. Not that it mattered much, because there was nothing but snow to see anyway. I can imagine that if a person was at all claustrophobic, however, the feeling that they would encounter going down that track would be almost more than they could bear.
The spring of 1949, would bring to an end, “worst winter ever” and the beginning of healing for many people. Ranchers would have to begin again. Their herds would have to be rebuilt, and it would take much time and a lot of work. I can imagine that the flooding from all that snow was devastating too. Still, healing would take place too. That spring was also one of beginnings, such as the beginning that is so special to my father-in-law, because on June 6, 1949 he would marry the love of his life, my mother-in-law, and so began their years of marriage…63 years and counting.