For the Educator

Buried in dust, distraught and displaced, thousands from the prairies of the American Great Plains, especially from the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas and Colorado headed west to California. John Steinbeck, before writing The Grapes of Wrath, had written a compelling account of that exodus and what the migrants encountered in California in a series of articles for the San Francisco News. The following is an excerpt from that series, later collected in book form titled The Harvest Gypsies:

At this season of the year, when California's great crops are coming into
harvest, the heavy grapes, the prunes, the apples and lettuce and the rapidly
maturing cotton, our highways swarm with the migrant workers, that shifting
group of nomadic, poverty-stricken harvesters driven by hunger and the threat
of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest, up and down the state
and into Oregon to some extent, and into Washington a little. But it is
California which has and needs the majority of these new gypsies…. There
are at least 150,000 homeless migrants wandering up and down the state...

To help students grasp the magnitude of this 1930s migration West, mainly into California, and other factors related to displacement of Americans during the 1930s, consider introducing the following points of study.

For the Student

  • Large groups of migrants following the crops on the West coast was not a new phenomenon in the 1930s; migrant workers had been part of the harvest scene for decades. However, the 1930s wave of migrants entering the West Coast fit a different pattern. In a few paragraphs, explain how the 1930s migrants were from a different background and why they often encountered hostility from the established California populace.

    Give particular attention to the ethnic roots of this new wave of migrants and to the kind of life they led before the hard times of dust, the Depression and foreclosure forced them to abandon their homesteads. John Steinbeck’s articles written for the San Francisco News and later collected in a book titled The Harvest Gypsies is an excellent source for this study.

  • Working with a collaborative partner, collect some detailed information on California’s Salinas Valley. Give attention to such aspects as geography, nature of crops, farming practices, seasonal implications. Include references to the impact of the introduction of canneries into the Salinas Valley area.

    John Steinbeck was born and raised in the Salinas Valley. The Valley is the backdrop for many of his literary works, for instance, his collection of short stories, The Long Valley. The exposition of these stories, as well as that of some of Steinbeck’s journalism articles and novels (an example, the novel Cannery Row) is rich in detail of that area of California.

    Consider reading one or two of Steinbeck’s short stories to gain better understanding of migrant life in the Valley in the 1930s and how “place”, and close detail of “place” can contribute greatly in shaping characterization and themes as well as narrative in fiction writing.

  • The Salinas Valley was a prime part of the 1930s migrants’ vision of a “promised land”. What other areas along the California coast and on north seemed to offer the migrants “promise” and why? Were all of the migrants farmers? Did any employment opportunities exist in California for non-farmers? Explain.

  • How did the “message” of the flood of “handbills” distributed in the hard-hit areas of the Plains states contribute to the vision of a “promised land”? What benefit did the growers who distributed them gain by luring large numbers of migrants to the West Coast?

  • What were the primary modes of travel for the migrants going from east to west? What main route did migrants take who left from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas? Trace the route on a map and document the main challenges, from the point of view of terrain, they had to deal with on that route.

    Write a detailed account of taking a “virtual” trip on the route you have identified.(Note that in Chapter 12 of The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck describes the route, referring to it as “the mother road, the road of flight”.)

  • An undercurrent of anger within the residents of the state of California and among the migrants began to grow as the number of migrants to California increased in large numbers (one estimate puts the number at 300,000 to 400,000 within the decade). That anger began to crystallize on both sides in a variety of ways. Construct a few statements that define some of the overt symptoms of that anger:

    • Vagrancy Laws
    • Strikes
    • Indigent Act of 1933
    • Scabs
    • The Burn Brigade
    • Pickets
    • Other?
  • “Hoovervilles” contributed strongly to the climate of growing discouragement and anger within the West Coast migrant population. Sketch out a brief written description of “Hoovervilles”. Include the source and implication of the “Hoover” part of the name. What short-lived program did the Farm Administration create to try to give migrants an alternative to the “Hoovervilles’? Consider, for instance, “Weedsville”.

  • Social unrest and anger, generated by displacement, poverty and “promises” unfulfilled, created a climate of vulnerability within the migrant community, providing opportunities for dissidents to infiltrate and promote their causes against the existing political fabric and the growers in numerous ways, and to encourage dissension among the migrant workers.

    Working with a collaborative partner, collect some information in your notes about the migrant workers attempt to unionize and about the role of “Red” recruiters in the migrant community.

  • Develop a three to four page essay in which you explain the implication of the following observation made by John Steinbeck:

    The new wave of “harvest gypsies” following the crops up and down the
    California coast in the 1930s were not “gypsies” by choice but “gypsies
    by force of circumstance”.

    Next: The New Deal



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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