Okies is a term applied generally to people from the American Southwest who migrated to the Pacific Coast, particularly to California, during the Great Depression. This pattern became associated with Oklahoma because that state provided a plurality of migrants from 1935 to 1940, the peak of the phenomenon. Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and the Dakotas all contributed heavily to the numbers trekking west, not only to California, but also to Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Though this migration was commonly associated with the Dust Bowl (vividly portrayed in Pare Lorentz's 1936 documentary The Plow that Broke the Plains), the impelling forces were complex. Drought conditions on the Plains, starting in the early 1930s and intensifying in mid-decade, were surely a cause for leaving. But a larger number of Oklahoma migrants, for example, came from the more humid, though drought-stricken, southeastern part of the state than from the Dust Bowl region of the northwest and panhandle. Many of the migrants from the Plains and Southwest farmed marginal land. In drought conditions the topsoil blew away and the land became even less likely to support crops. A large number of these farmers were tenants—60 percent of Oklahoma farmers rented their farms—and consequently were less rooted. Mechanization of farming, especially the introduction of tractors, pushed people off the land. Moreover, when the Agricultural Adjustment Administration paid farmers not to grow crops, it was often the tenants who would be left landless. Finally, at least in southeastern Oklahoma, farmers possessed a migratory habit of mind and simply continued their pattern of moving west.
The Okies were drawn to California by a vision of the West as a land of greater opportunity, especially the chance to own a small plot of fertile soil. But there were more substantive draws. Both jobs and relief seemed to be paying more in California, and the migrants' friends and relatives who had moved to the Golden State in large numbers in the 1920s invited them to enjoy a better life.
The migration started in earnest in 1935, peaking in 1937 and 1938. The essential optimism of the people, always hoping for better weather and a better crop next year, probably kept them from moving earlier. But as the weather got worse and their personal economic situations became desperate, the Okies took action. They packed up what belongings they could get into the family truck or car and began the three-day (or more) trip to California along Route 66.
Not all of the migrants were farmers (a Farm Security Administration [FSA] survey indicated that unemployment more than drought caused the migrants to relocate), and a substantial number of the Okies made their way to the cities. Almost 100,000 of the 252,000 migrants to California followed Highway 66 to its western terminus in Los Angeles where they largely blended in and quickly lost any identity as Okies. Angelinos noticed their arrival. In 1936 the Los Angeles Police established a Bum Blockade at all the major entrances to the state. Short-lived and embarrassing to Los Angeles, it nonetheless hinted at the harsher reception for those better-remembered migrants who settled in the San Joaquin Valley.
Though some ended up in oil and others in construction, most of the migrants to this fertile central California valley became farm laborers, replacing Mexican and Filipino workers in the orchards and cotton fields. The Okies were welcomed as cheap labor, but despised as residents. The worst off lived along the banks of irrigation ditches in abject squalor. A few found lodging in the sixteen permanent and nine mobile FSA government camps. As time went on the migrants themselves were able to construct modest homes for themselves in Okievilles.
The Okies were segregated by class and stereotyped as rigidly as any disdained racial or ethnic group. The California Citizens Association, organized to stem the influx of migrants, succeeded in upping the relief requirement from one year's residence to three. The Associated Farmers battled against the possibility that the migrants might be organized into a meaningful force by the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America, a Congress of Industrial Organizations union. They criticized (accurately) FSA camps as organizing grounds and fought the several strikes that broke out in the late 1930s. Okies, however, were not much interested in unionization. Though often demoralized, they were still independent enough to reject the blandishments of organizers.
The Okies probably fared best in the area of culture. Novelist John Steinbeck brought the plight of the migrants with full force to the American public in 1939 with the novel The Grapes of Wrath, which described the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to California, where they were met with disdain and hostility, except in a government camp. Dramatic photographs of Okies by the FSA's Dorothea Lange and the widely heard folk songs of Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie reinforced Steinbeck's pleas on behalf of the migrants. Director John Ford reworked The Grapes of Wrath into a more optimistic and populist presentation in his 1940 film.
As World War II loomed, the Okies began substantially to assimilate. Many entered defense industries in the larger metropolitan areas, but many remained in the San Joaquin Valley scoring some cultural victories. A streak of common-man political conservatism, the emergence and popularization of country music, and the burgeoning of conservative Protestant religious groups mark the impact of the migrants on the society that had despised them.
Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. 1989.
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Manes, Sheila G. "Pioneers and Survivors: Oklahoma's Landless Farmers." In Oklahoma: New Views of the Forty-sixth State, eds. Anne Hodges Morgan and H. Wayne Morgan. 1982.
Shindo, Charles J. Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination. 1997.
Stein, Walter J. California and the Dust Bowl Migration. 1973.
Weisiger, Marsha L. Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933–1942. 1995.
Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s. 1979.
William H. Mullins