A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. Photo credit: George E. Marsh
The early European explorers thought the Great Plains was unsuitable for agriculture. The land is semi-arid and is prone to extended drought, alternating with periods of unusual wetness.
But the federal government was eager to see the land settled and cultivated. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, a series of federal land acts were passed granting settlers hundreds of acres of land. These acts led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.
A stretch of unusually wet weather in the beginning of the 20th century confirmed the belief that the Plains could be tamed after all, leading to increased settlement and cultivation.
Farmers ploughed through the land eliminating the native grasses that held the fine soil in place. When crops began to fail with the onset of drought in 1930, the bare soil became exposed to the wind, and it began to blow away in massive dust storms that blackened the sky.
These choking billows of dust, named “black blizzards”, travelled across the country, reaching as far as the East Coast and striking such cities as New York City and Washington, D.C.
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”
The term “dust bowl” was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press. Originally it referred to the geographical area affected by the dust, but today the entire event is referred to as the Dust Bowl.
After the winds passed and the dust settled, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated a huge project to plant hundreds of millions of trees across the Great Plains to create a giant windbreak. Known as a shelterbelt, it consisted of 220 million trees stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from wind erosion.