Over this bridge drought refugees are crossing the Colorado River into California. U.S. 80 / Dorothea Lange, 1935.
Photograph shows cars crossing a bridge with a sign with the word "Yuma" on the top.
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The Dust Bowl exodus was the largest migration in American history that happened during the Great Depression. Although overall three out of four farmers stayed on their land, the mass exodus depleted the population drastically in certain areas. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California. Arriving in California, the migrants were faced with a life almost as difficult as the one they had left. Like the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”, some 40 percent of migrant farmers wound up in the San Joaquin Valley, picking grapes and cotton. They took up the work of Mexican migrant workers, 120,000 of whom were repatriated during the 1930s.
Born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1895, Dorothea Lange contracted polio as a young girl. She learned professional photography skills while working in New York in her early 20s, and then landed in San Francisco where she ran a portrait business catering to the city's wealthy elite. Her second husband, Paul Taylor, helped her to get out into the fields with the destitute pickers, who she'd treat like portrait subjects with empathy and identification with her subjects. When the Depression hit, she captured crowded breadlines. In the late 1930s Dorothea Lange had been hired by the photographic unit of the Farm Security Administration - to photograph Dust Bowl refugees escaped into California from the Midwest and her images went far beyond bureaucratic reportage. A skilled portraitist, Lange might not have been able to change government policies, but her images for the FSA were picked up by newspapers across the country. John Steinbeck used them for inspiration in his 1939 Dust Bowl tale "The Grapes of Wrath."