In a report of his expedition up the Platte River in 1820, Major Stephen H. Long of the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote that the Plains region from Nebraska to Oklahoma were “unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture.” He created a map and labeled the region a “Great Desert”.
According to Long, the region would be better used as a buffer zone against rival nations who shared the North American continent, such as the Spanish, British, and Russians. Long felt that settlement in the “Great Desert” was out of the question. If the technology of the 1820’s is taken into consideration, Long was correct. How could westward moving pioneers settle on land with no timber for building houses or to burn as fuel? How could they survive without adequate surface water? The summers were arid, and the winters winds and snow were brutal. The land was inhabited with vast herds of buffalo and Native Americans who were often hostile. The region was too remote. Settlers would have had no way to communicate. Long’s report seemed to ignore the fact that Native Americans had been surviving on the land for centuries.
Despite his report, the ever driving desire for land, pushed settlers deeper into the West. The discovery of mineral deposits caused many to rush into the region. Boom towns sprang up overnight. Further settlement was spurred by railroad construction as they opened eastern markets to farmers and ranchers. Steel plows cut open the prairie sod mile after mile as the farmers planted thousands of acres of turkey red wheat. With the outbreak of World War I, the demand for wheat increased and prices were good. Still more progress was ahead. In the 1920’s, John Deere and International tractors began to replace horses. With the use of horses, a farmer could plow three acres a day. With a tractor, he could plow 50! More came west to farm. Many of the farmers started investing in “modern” equipment with borrowed funds. The nation’s southern plains were enjoying showers of blessings…and then, in 1931, the rain stopped.
Fields of wheat withered and died, leaving the land barren at the mercy of the wind. 100 million acres quickly turned to wasteland as the winds swept across the southern plains carrying off the top soil which piled up in mounds against fence rows, barns, and covering tractors. In 1932, there were 14 dust storms. They were nothing compared to the 38 storms that covered the region the next year.
There was no escape. So much dust would pile up against the houses that people crawled out of their windows to shovel dust away from their doors. With the force of the prairie winds, the dust penetrated clothing, stinging the skin. Dust would get into their mouths. It was in their food. It made its way into the drinking water from deep wells. Women swept the dust out of the houses, but took it out in bucketfuls instead of in dustpans. The dust storms shut off all light. Eye witnesses said the houses vibrated from the force of the dust and wind combination. The residents of the region hung wet sheets over doors and windows trying to keep out the dust. But still, it got in. Amid the dust storms and the depression that impacted the whole nation, many gave up, and one quarter of the southern plains settlers moved. Most ventured west to the California region, which had not been hit by the drought.
In 1934, the southern plains were hit with even more frequent storms. A journalist traveling through called the region a “Dust Bowl”. Others referred to the storms as “Black Blizzards.” The dust was not like sand. It was heavy. Depending upon where it originated, the dust could be seen in a variety of colors. The winds brought black dust from Kansas, red dust from Oklahoma, and gray dust from Colorado and New Mexico. People were suffering lung disorders from breathing in the dust. An epidemic of dust pneumonia threatened all who breathed. In, 1935, one third of all the deaths in Ford County, Kansas were from pneumonia, with the children being most at risk. The Red Cross issued a call for dust masks. Children in school covered their faces with cloth. Their stomachs didn’t fare much better as they often spat up clots of dirt.
As fathers hung their heads in despair, and mothers paced the floors, Jack Rabbits came down from the hills seeking food and water. So many came that an extermination campaign was put into action. Sunday rabbit drives rounded up the critters who were then shot or clubbed to death.
The full force of the failing farms caused businesses and banks to fail. As dust moved in and people moved out, schools closed. Churches were boarded up. The tenacity of the farmers caused three fourths of the farmers to stay. One man, John McCarty, the editor of a paper, formed the “Last Man” club. Members who joined took a pledge, “In the absence of an act of God…I pledge to stay here as the last man.” They all agreed to help others.
But not everyone came to help others. Some came to help themselves. Many claimed they could induce rain. Most only induced the already poverty-striken farmers to fork over what money they had left in hopes of a miracle worker.
Outside the plains, few understood the plight of the region. Roosevelt’s New Deal offered some relief. Even though food was meager-a diet of cornbread and beans for lunch and cornbread and milk for dinner, many of the farmers were too proud to take part in the government programs which offered relief checks and food handouts. The government began a program of buying and destroying cattle.
Suddenly, just when many had begun to believe that the southern plains were truly going to be The Great American Sahara, in 1939, the rain began to fall.