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Photographs: The Dust Bowl and Rural Poverty, 1936–1937

Use this primary source imagery to analyze major events in history.

Suggested Sequencing

  • Use this primary source with The Dust Bowl Narrative to have students analyze the impact of poverty during the Great Depression.


The 1930s was not only a time of economic downturns resulting from the Great Depression, it was also one of ecological disaster in the Great Plains. Over previous decades, farmers had tilled the prairie grass, which served as an anchor for the soil beneath it as well as a moisture trapper. Without grass providing water and protection, this soil turned to dust. The high-velocity winds in the area then blew the dust away in giant “storms” that devastated communities and made farming nearly impossible. These conditions affected residents in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico the worst, but its impact stretched all the way north to the Dakotas. The Dust Bowl, as this phenomenon came to be called, exacerbated the poverty conditions many already experienced as a result of the Great Depression and also sparked a mass migration out of the most severely affected regions. Many photographs were taken during this time to show the public the conditions in the Dust Bowl.

Sourcing Questions

  1. What caused the Dust Bowl?
  2. How might photographs have a different effect on the audience than textual descriptions?

A man and two boys run towards a house that is halfway submerged under dust. Dust is seen in the air.

Figure 1 A farmer and his two sons caught in a dust storm in Oklahoma, 1936.

An automobile and farm machines are buried under dust so that only their top parts are visible.

Figure 2 Buried farm machinery in South Dakota, 1936.

A woman crouches next to a baby who sits on the ground on the side of the road. Beside them is a truck pulling a trailer that is piled with belongings including a table, mattress, box springs, and chain link fencing.

Figure 3 A Missouri migrant family sits next to their broken car, 1937.

A woman sits and rests her hand on her face. Two children are beside her and turn their faces away from the camera.

Figure 4 A migrant fleeing the Dust Bowl with her children, 1936.

Comprehension Questions

  1. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) These images focus on machines and/or families. Which image do you find most memorable? Why?
  2. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) List at least three adjectives to describe these photographs.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. (Figure 1) (Figure 2) (Figure 3) (Figure 4) Compare the Dust Bowl photographs with a recent natural disaster that has occurred in the United States. What are some similarities and differences between the effects of the modern event and the 1930s event?
  2. President Roosevelt created several new government agencies to fight the Great Depression. What actions do you think he intended to assist those affected by the Dust Bowl, if any?

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Image 2:

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Image 4: