American Exodus
The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California

by James N. Gregory

[photo essay]   [links and sources]

This is a companion website for James N. Gregory's American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California (Oxford University Press, 1989). It includes information about the prize-winning book and photographs and links to further information about the Dust Bowl Migration and its legacies.

From the dust jacket:
Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck's now classic novel The Grapes of Wrath captured the epic story of an Oklahoma farm family driven west to California by dust storms, drought, and economic hardship. It was a story that generations of Americans have also come to know through Dorothea Lange's unforgettable photos of migrant families struggling to make a living in Depression-torn California. Now in James N. Gregory's path-breaking American Exodus, there is at least an historical study that moves beyond the fiction of the 1930s to uncover the full meaning of these events.
        American Exodus
takes us back to the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and the war boom influx of the 1940s to explore the experiences of the more than one million Oklahomans, Arkansans, Texans, and Missourians who sought opportunities in California. Gregory reaches into the migrant's lives to reveal not only their economic trials but also their impact on California's culture and society. He traces the development of an "Okie subculture" that over the years has grown into an essential element in California's cultural landscape.
         Gregory vividly depicts how Southwesterners brought with them on their journey west an allegiance to evangelical Protestantism, "plain-folk American" values, and a love of country music. These values gave Okies an expanding cultural presence in their new home. In their neighborhoods, often called "Little Oklahomas," they created a community of churches and saloons, of church-goers and good-old-boys, mixing ster-minded religious thinking with hard-drinking irreverence. Today, Baptist and Pentecostal churches abound in this region; and from Gene Autry--"Oklahoma's Singing Cowboy"--to Woody Guthrie, Bob Wills, and Merle Haggard, the special concerns of Southwesterners have long dominated the country music industry in California. The legacy of the Dust Bowl migration can also be measured in political terms. throughout California and especially in the San Joaquin Valley, Okies have implanted their own brand of populist conservatism.
          The consequences reach far beyond California. The Dust Bowl migration was part of a larger heartland diaspora that has sent millions of Southerners and rural Midwesterners to the nation's northern and western industrial perimeter. American Exodus is the first book to examine the cultural implications of that massive 20th century population shift. In this rich account of the experiences and impact of these migrant heartlanders, Gregory fills an important gap in recent American social history.

Learn more about the Dust Bowl migration

View the photo essay that accompanies American Exodus

Read James Gregory's "Dust Bowl Legacies: The Okie Impact on California 1939-1989" (pdf) published in California History (Fall 1989)

Read James Gregory's "Dust Bowl Migration" published in Poverty in the United States: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, and Policy, eds. Gwendolyn Mink and Alice O'Connor (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2004)

Listen to the "Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection 1940-41" Here you will find songs and interviews recorded in the San Joaquin Valley migrant labor camps.

Read the oral history interviews in the Dust Bowl Migration Digital Archives. This is a collection of 53 interviews conducted in 1980 and 1981 in Kern County, California.

Visit the Weedpatch Camp website and learn about the restoration project at the camp that John Steinbeck made famous.

James Gregory has a newer book that puts the Dust Bowl Migration in a broader context:

The Southern Diaspora: How The Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005)

James N. Gregory
Department of History
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195