The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1974, Volume 20, Number 1

California and the Dust Bowl Migration. By Walter J. Stein. Contributions in American History, No. 21. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1973. Annotated Bibliography. Index. Notes. 302 pages. $12.00.

Reviewed by Harry C. McDean, Assistant Professor of History at San Diego State University, author of articles and a pamphlet in American rural economic history.

In 1938 Americans were frustrated by their past and anxious about their future. A decade of constant depression had ravaged their economy, their lives, and their style of politics. What the future held if the Depression did not abate, even the Nation’s President was loath to predict. Yet for some Americans, a continuing depression meant more than further frustration and anxiety. Huddled in the Appalachian Mountains were 287,000 destitute, chronically unemployed miners; in the South’s “Black Belt” were congested more than one million Black tenant farmers whose estimated annual per capita income averaged fewer than thirtyeight dollars; while in the Pacific West the United States Department of Agriculture counted 58,400 migrant families from the Great Plains whose destitution took the noted novelist John Steinbeck 619 pages to describe.

It is the last group of these Americans that especially fascinates Californians. Walter J. Stein, a professor in the History Department in the University of Winnepeg who earned a Ph.D. at Berkeley, is the first North American scholar to write a book-length study of the arrival of some of these migrants, the so-called “Okies.” California and the Dust Bowl Migration, Stein writes, “seeks to explain the brief period when California rejected migrant admirers such as those she welcomed in the past.” Unfortunately, Stein allots more space to events in “the brief period” than he does to the description of the “migrant admirers” and their rejection.

To begin with, much of the book is comprised of details in California history that often do not relate to the Okie migration. One-fifth of the book explains the rise of the first union that appealed to California farm workers, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America. While the reader is interested to learn why the union failed in California, he questions its significance to California Okies. Finally he is answered by Stein, who explains tersely that the union held no appeal because in Okie culture collective organizations were anathema. Other sections of the book bog down because they skirt the issue Stein says he intended to resolve: what the Okies were like and why they were rejected by Californians. For example, so much space is devoted to a description of California politics that the reader must labor to justify Stein’s brief argument that prejudice against the Okies developed principally because they became pawns in the game of California New Deal political chess. And though one is amused to discover why Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and why he had publication problems with it, one does not learn anything about the Okies from such information.

In his coverage of the period Stein hurt his book in another way that is important in writing good history. In casting his broad net, Stein neither catches events crucial to the Okie migration nor develops those which he does. As to the first, the problem ranges from minor errors (Stein counts five Great Plains states; the last time anyone else counted, there were nine) to major ones. Roosevelt’s agricultural advisors and administrators are described as hard-headed economists who in a drive for efficiency thrust into destitution poor Americans like the Okies. Because conclusions like this often are based primarily on either secondary materials (William Leuchtenburg provides his favorite description of Rexford Tugwell) or on Stein’s own brand of logical deduction, important sources of information in the National Archives and in libraries and archives in the United States Department of Agriculture were not consulted. Recent researchers explain that these sources reveal most of Roosevelt’s important agricultural advisors were humane men whose vision of reform included plans beneficial to indigents like the Okies. Rexford Tugwell, for example, is described by Stein as a typical New Dealer who opposed Farm Security Administration camps for Okies because he thought “they led nowhere.” Stein does not explain that Tugwell believed groups like the Okies always would be exploited, irrespective of where they lived, so long as they worked in agriculture. Tugwell thought the federal government not only should get them out of agriculture, but should provide them with comfortable homes and with decent industrial jobs.

Just “as important, Stein suggests conclusions the reader wishes he either would prove or explain. One that would interest any Okie is the characterization of him drawn by Stein. Scattered through the book are samplings from newspapers and other public papers that describe Okies as “shiftless” individuals who “lacked ambition.” Then from F.S.A. officials we learn that Okies were “rugged individualists” with a “Hell-fire” type of religion that countered official efforts to deal with them rationally. Moreover, Okies were themselves prejudiced-their racism caused F.S.A. officials to segregate the camps-and they had no respect for the law. Unfortunately, this description is founded on the observations of a handful of New Deal officials. Neglected by Stein was considerable research done on the Okies in Oklahoma and in the other southwestern states that provided Okie migrants, and studies on the Okies completed by trained researchers during the Thirties that now are in the National Archives.

Still, if one’s interest is in what was happening in California when the Okies arrived, Stein’s book is worth reading.