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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Southwesterners had been moving west in significant numbers since 1910. However, not until the 1930s did this migration, particularly to California, become widely noticed and associated with Oklahomans. During the Great Depression decade Oklahoma suffered a net loss through migration (outflow minus inflow) of 440,000. Although Oklahomans left for other states, they made the greatest impact on California and Arizona, where the term "Okie" denoted any poverty-stricken migrant from the Southwest (Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas). From 1935 to 1940 California received more than 250,000 migrants from the Southwest. A plurality of the impoverished ones came from Oklahoma.

Supposedly, the Dust Bowl forced "Okies" off their land, but far more migrants left southeastern Oklahoma than the Dust Bowl region of northwestern Oklahoma and the Panhandle. Although the drought had its effect as it intensified in the mid-1930s, coping with marginal land and a long-standing agricultural depression presented even greater challenges. Between 1931 and 1933, 10 percent of Oklahoma farmers lost their land to foreclosure, and tenant farmers (who comprised more than 60 percent of Oklahoma farmers in the 1930s) had little incentive to endure poor crops and low prices year after year. Mechanization of farming began to consolidate small farms into larger ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration's policy of paying farmers to not raise crops often resulted in landowners taking tenants' land out of production. Moreover, many tenants and small land-holding farmers, especially in southeastern Oklahoma, simply had a migratory habit. They had come to Oklahoma for opportunity and continued their pattern of seeking greater opportunities farther west. Finally, many left when relatives and friends, already in California, beckoned them to a land of better prospects.

The families packed their belongings and set out on a journey of three days or more down Route 66 to a supposedly better life in the Far West. This migration began in earnest in 1935 and peaked between 1937 and 1938. When the migrants got to Barstow, California, they had to decide whether to follow Highway 66 into Los Angeles or turn north toward California's central agricultural valleys. Some 38 percent of the southwestern migrants chose Los Angeles. They did not find a warm reception. Briefly in 1936 the Los Angeles police established a "'bum blockade'" at the California border to keep out undesirables. The new residents who had skills might find a job with reasonable pay. Others lived with friends or after a year's waiting period went on relief. "Okies" quickly blended in and became part of the city's largely Anglo population in the 1930s.

The classic story of "Okie" migration involves those who settled in the San Joaquin Valley. From 1935 to 1940 more than seventy thousand southwesterners migrated to this fertile inland region, hoping for a small plot of their own. It would not happen. Instead, they began harvesting cotton and fruit, pushing out Hispanic and Filipino laborers. The influx of migrants depressed wages, satisfying farm owners, but the "Okies," unlike the Hispanics, tended to stick around after the harvests. Because they arrived impoverished and because wages were low, many lived in filth and squalor in tents and shantytowns along the irrigation ditches. Consequently, they were despised as "Okies," a term of disdain, even hate, pinned on economically degraded farm laborers no matter their state of origin. The California Citizens Association formed to find a solution to the "Okie" influx and succeeded in extending the waiting period for California relief to three years. The federal Farm Security Administration (FSA) provided several clean camps designed to be governed by the residents and to foster a sense of self-respect. But these were only models for state and private organizations, which were not prone to build any kind of residences.

The powerful Associated Farmers (the growers) feared the "Okies" might unionize and demand better wages. Although the Committee for Industrial Organization (known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations after 1938) created the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), which led a number of strikes in the fields, the migrants did not have a very strong class consciousness. Many were demoralized, and most identified more with farm owners than laborers.

Southwestern migrants in Arizona also found life difficult. As many as thirty-seven thousand migrants, lured by the growers' intense recruitment effort, entered the state from 1937 to 1938 to harvest a bumper cotton crop. The number of workers may have been twice as many as needed. Some suspected an effort to depress wages and hinder unionization. As the harvest came to an end, and floods in the San Joaquin Valley forestalled the migrants' movement to California, tensions mounted. Arizona's three-year residency requirement ruled out public assistance. In March 1938 pickers allied with UCAPAWA and marched for food. When the FSA provided relief, the tension dissipated and many migrants moved on. Generally, although Arizonans did not welcome "Okies," their antipathy was not as strong as that of Californians.

"Okie" migrants can probably claim their greatest accomplishments in the area of culture. Sympathetic artists gained fame as they raised the national consciousness about their distressed subjects. John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) depicted a downtrodden Joad family trekking from Oklahoma to California, suffering scorn and economic oppression as they sought honest employment. This gritty portrayal offended some Oklahomans, but many others avidly read the book. Dorothea Lange's photographs, produced for the Farm Security Administration, stirred concern for the displaced, as did the folk songs of Woody Guthrie. Editor of The Nation and historian Carey McWilliams focused his wrath on the growers in Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (1939).

The supposedly helpless "Okies" of these works might have been more symbols of the artists' ideologies than the real migrants, who actually left a noticeable imprint on the central valleys of California. Politically, the "Okies" imparted "plain-folk Americanism," which combines concern for the little man with a spirit of individualism and a sense of patriotism. Culturally, they contributed an evangelical and emotional version of Protestantism, especially captured in Southern Baptist or Pentecostal strains of religion. In addition, they infused the region with country music. Even as the migrants dispersed to defense industry jobs during World War II, or climbed up the economic ladder to own a plot of land in the valley, or went back home to Oklahoma, they had made their mark on the society that had treated them with contempt.

William H. Mullins


James N. Gregory, American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (1989; reprint, New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Gerald Haslam, Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

House Select Committee, Interstate Migration: Hearings on H.R. 63 and 491, 76th Cong., 3d sess., 1940 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1941).

Carey McWilliams, Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California (1939; reprint, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Sheila Manes, "Pioneers and Survivors: Oklahoma's Landless Farmers," in Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-Sixth State, ed. Anne Hodges Morgan and H. Wayne Morgan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982).

Charles J. Shindo, Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

Walter J. Stein, California and the Dust Bowl Migration (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973).

Marsha L. Weisiger, Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933–1942 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995).

Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
William H. Mullins, “Okie Migrations,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=OK008.

Published January 15, 2010

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