Black Sunday and the winds that destroyed the west

Chapter eight of the book of Hosea sets out the following stark warning:

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind: it hath no stalk: the bud shall yield no meal: if so be it yield, the strangers shall swallow it up.”

This biblical admonishment is usually interpreted in a metaphorical sense as a warning for those who do evil. In its simplest sense, what goes around, comes around – although, in line with the Old Testament’s characteristically hard edged morality, with devastatingly disproportionate consequences.

In America’s mid-west of the 1930s, the verse had a terrible and terrifying literal significance. The whirlwinds that came to destroy American farms and farmers would also have a wide-ranging and devastating impact far beyond the borders of both the mid-western states and the USA.

From the end of the Civil War to the 1930s, the Great Plains of the USA’s Midwest was the great agricultural promise for millions of Americans. It was a vast, seemingly unlimited, bread basket where millions of acres of corn would produce cheap, reliable food for the nation and the rest of a hungry world.

The transcontinental railways pierced the plains, and brought their produce closer to markets. As the corn went from west to east, people moved from east to west to take up homesteads and make their living from the land. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged this internal migration, and a long period of successful harvests accompanied by high precipitation suggested the bounty would continue.

A belief developed that man had tamed the ‘Great American desert’, rendering fertile what was once barren. The ‘rain followed the plough’, in the language of a discredited theory originally set out by Charles Wilber. By the end of the 1880s, nearly two million people had followed this dream and sunk their claims and roots into the prairie soil.

But the bounty was not unlimited and, rather than transforming the region, the pioneers were unwittingly creating one of the world’s greatest man made environmental disasters. Over grazing, intensive farming, removal of the long-rooted natural grasses and a severe drought would all combine to produce the conditions for catastrophic dust storms and the creation of the dust bowl.

Now, all that was needed for an ecological disaster was strong winds and the Great Plains happened to be one of the windiest places in America, with gusts channelled between the Rockies and the Mississippi River. The winds whipped at the bare earth, with few natural or manmade barriers to prevent it scooping away tonnes of soil.

This was the start of the ‘dirty thirties’, a decade in which one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas was systematically destroyed by the combination of an adverse climate and over cultivation. The states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, North and South Dakota were the most affected, but soil was also stripped from farms in Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska.

The top soil became dry and friable and was now free of the binding roots of prairie grasses that had long since been grazed, ploughed or burnt away. Tonnes of loose earth now sat loosely on the plains, waiting to be whipped away in the high winds. The result was the dust storms – known locally as ‘black blizzards’ or ‘black rollers’, vicious winds that stripped agricultural areas of soil and left destruction and ruin in their path.

The storms of the early 1930s were a mere foretaste of what would come in the middle of the decade. What was to follow would unleash a disaster of biblical proportions wrought on a god-fearing and devout population.

Black Sunday

Dawn broke over a cloudless sky on the morning of Sunday 14 April 1935. It was a sunny and warm morning across America’s Midwest; a particularly welcome change in the weather after weeks of dust storms had blanketed the sky in thick clouds of soil and obliterated any sight of the sun. People took the chance to wash and dry clothes, clean houses or just walk in the sunshine – snatching a moment 0f pleasure and peace from what had been a tough year.

By the afternoon, however, the weather had changed – temperatures plummeted and the horizon blackened, menaced by a dark and bulging cloud. This monstrous wall engulfed whole communities, counties and states – a vast heap of dirt whipped into the sky by ferocious winds. Anyone caught outside had to fight their way indoors.

Those who saw the storm never forgot its impact. Arthur Leonard of Kansas City remembered that the cloud “rolled, it didn’t just dust. It was coal black and it was terrible.”

Black Sunday was the worst of this dirty decade’s many dust storms. It was later calculated that 300,000 tonnes of topsoil was removed from the area that would later be labelled the dust bowl. The migration of people was either reversed, with people returning east, or pushed further west in to California. Around 2.5 million people had abandoned the area by 1940, resulting in the largest migration of people in America in such a short period of time.

A documentary series on the American west on PBS featured Stewart Udall’s comments:

“The West has always been and always will be a place where there’s a struggle to survive, and where nature strikes heavy blows at you. . . That’s geography. And I think part of that conquering of the West seeped into the American character. In many ways, the West has been a geography of hope for the country as a whole.”

The agricultural crisis fed the economic slump that had become the Great Depression. The Great Depression, in turn, made the agricultural crisis all the more painful because the economic ruin it brought was more difficult to tackle. Around the world, as economies contracted and societies stumbled, the impact of the roaring winds in America’s Midwest would be felt.


2 thoughts on “Black Sunday and the winds that destroyed the west

  • Anne Jacobsen

    Hello and thank you for this article. So-called environmentally induced migration is multi-level problem. According to Essam El-Hinnawi definition form 1985 environmental refugees as those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption (natural or triggered by people) that jeopardised their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life. The fundamental distinction between `environmental migrants` and `environmental refugees` is a standpoint of contemporsry studies in EDPs. According to Bogumil Terminski it seems reasonable to distinguish the general category of environmental migrants from the more specific (subordinate to it) category of environmentally displaced people. According to Norman Myers environmental refugees are “people who can no longer gain a secure livelihood in their homelands because of drought, soil erosion, desertification, deforestation and other environmental problems, together with associated problems of population pressures and profound poverty”.

  • Tmesis

    Good article on a fateful period of US and human history.

    A story movingly told by Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath which highlights the human tale of what happened to the economic and environmental migrants who fled to California.

    Often cited as a parable for recent, and indeed current, treatment for societies’ forgotten; not least in Springsteen’s acclaimed Ghost of Tom Joad album, it’s a period of western history which in the light of a riotous period of our own history, makes one wonder if the lessons were ever truly learnt.

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