The History of US migrant farm workers in the 1930s

Written by brian gabriel
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The History of US migrant farm workers in the 1930s
Migrant farmers travelled west in the 1930s searching for work. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

America was a land of millions of small farmers working on their own land for much of its early history. But in the early 20th century, as new machinery was invented and new mass-production farming methods were introduced, many smaller farms were absorbed into large commercial enterprises. Many of these large farms were built in the West, especially California. Approximately 1.3 million Americans from the Midwest and Southwest migrated to California during the 1930s. Large commercial farms were built in California because of its pleasant climate, where they could grow a wide variety of crops, and migrants came to work on them because of their desperation brought on by the Dust Bowl.

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Dust Bowl

Farm labourers in the Midwest of America were reluctant to leave their small farms to work on commercial enterprises in the West, but they were left without a choice when devastating droughts occurred in the 1930s. The drought conditions were worsened by over-farming and poor soil management, which led to the devastating dust storms in what became known as the Dust Bowl.

Vagrancy laws

Some states, such as California, took measures to keep dependent migrants out of their states. They created so-called vagrancy laws that allowed them to arrest farmers who came into the state, and then they lent the farmers out to work off their fines. The vagrancy laws were repealed in 1941 when Edwards v. California deemed them unconstitutional.

Labour camps

The federal government set up migrant labour camps that provided food, housing and health services. These were built because farm workers did not stay in a single location for the entire year; labourers had to follow the harvest around the state to make an income throughout the year. They harvested a large variety of crops in California, including potatoes, cotton, lemons, oranges and peas, according to the Library of Congress.

Mexican labour

The Oakland Museum of California documents that many Mexicans left their country at the beginning of the 20th century after the Mexican Revolution and the civil wars that followed. By the 1920s, California had 200,000 Mexican or Mexican-American farm labourers. The Mexican government established a labour agreement with the United States that required U.S. farm owners to provide legal contracts that guaranteed work schedules and set wages for Mexican workers.

Mexicans from Mexico and Texas worked as farm labourers in areas outside of California as well. According to a pamphlet from the Wisconsin Historical Society, about 3,000 Spanish-speaking Texas Mexicans came to the state each year during the 1930s as migrant labourers. It was not until the late 1920s and 1930s that Mexican labour became prevalent in Wisconsin.

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