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A dust storm bears down on Stratford, Texas, on April 18, 1935.

OAA George E. Marsh Album/AP Images

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.5, RI.6-8.7, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2, SL.6-8.5, W.6-8.3, WHST.6-8.7

C3 (D2/6-8): Civ.1, Civ.9, Eco.1, Geo.4, Geo.6, Geo.8, Geo.9, His.2, His.5, His.14, His.15

NCSS: People, places, and environments; Time, continuity, and change

FLASHBACK

The Day the Sky Turned Black

In 1935, people of the Southern Plains suffered through one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history: Black Sunday, the biggest dust storm the country has ever seen 

Catherine Hattrup believed she was going to die. It was Sunday, April 14, 1935, and Catherine, 9, was enjoying a quiet afternoon at her grandmother’s house in Hodgeman County, Kansas. 

The day started out beautiful, with a clear blue sky and a soft breeze blowing through the air. But suddenly, Catherine’s grandmother rushed inside the house. “There’s a terrible black cloud!” she cried. “And I have no idea what it is!” 

For hundreds of miles around, people stared up at the same horrifying sight: a mountain of churning blackness racing through the sky. Was a violent thunderstorm closing in? Was a massive tornado about to strike? 

No. It was a dust storm—the biggest in United States history.

Catherine Hattrup believed she was going to die. It was Sunday, April 14, 1935. Catherine, 9, was enjoying a quiet afternoon at her grandmother’s house in Hodgeman County, Kansas.

The day started out beautiful. The sky was a clear blue. A soft breeze was blowing through the air. Suddenly, Catherine’s grandmother rushed inside the house. “There’s a terrible black cloud!” she cried. “And I have no idea what it is!”

For hundreds of miles around, people stared up at the same horrifying sight. A mountain of churning blackness was racing through the sky. Was a violent thunderstorm closing in? Was a massive tornado about to strike?

No. It was a dust storm. It was the biggest in United States history.

The End of the World?

Earlier that morning, a cold front had swept south from Canada toward the Southern Plains, picking up loose soil. (The Southern Plains is a region of the country that includes the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and parts of Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.) 

The earth in that region had been dried out by years of drought. In total, about 300,000 tons of dirt was swept into the air, forming a cloud of dust wider than the state of Indiana. The swirling darkness sped over the land at 65 miles per hour, wreaking havoc wherever it went.  

That morning, a cold front had swept south from Canada toward the Southern Plains and picked up loose soil. (The Southern Plains is a region of the country. It includes the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and parts of Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico.)

The earth in that region had been dried out by years of drought. In total, about 300,000 tons of dirt was swept into the air. That formed a cloud of dust wider than the state of Indiana. The swirling darkness sped over the land at 65 miles per hour, wreaking havoc wherever it went.

Bert Garai/Getty Images

People wear masks to try to keep from breathing in the dust.

Farmers staggered blindly through their fields. Cars crashed. And hundreds of people were rushed to hospitals with a condition called “dust pneumonia,” caused by the dust they had inhaled.

In Kansas, meanwhile, Catherine and her grandmother huddled together indoors through the hours-long storm, praying that they would survive.

On that day, which would come to be known as Black Sunday, they voiced the same fear as people all over the region: “It’s the end of the world!”

Farmers staggered blindly through their fields. Cars crashed. Hundreds of people were rushed to hospitals with a condition called “dust pneumonia.” It was caused by the dust they had inhaled.

The storm went on for hours. In Kansas, Catherine and her grandmother huddled together indoors. They prayed that they would survive.

That day, Catherine and her grandmother voiced the same fear as people all over the region. “It’s the end of the world!” The day became known as Black Sunday.

The Dust Bowl

The world did not end, of course. But unfortunately, that wasn’t the last terrifying dust storm the area would see. Such environmental disasters had become a way of life in the Southern Plains before Black Sunday—and they would be for years after. 

In an article describing the 1935 storm, a reporter who witnessed it coined a name for the Southern Plains region where the storms repeatedly occurred: the Dust Bowl.

The storms had a number of causes. But today, many experts agree that it was the actions of humans that made them so bad.

The world did not end, of course. But that was not the last scary dust storm the area would see. Such environmental disasters had become a way of life in the Southern Plains before Black Sunday. They would continue to be for years after.

A reporter who witnessed that 1935 storm wrote an article about it. In that piece, he came up with a name for the Southern Plains region where the storms kept occurring. He called it the Dust Bowl.

The storms had a number of causes. But today, many experts agree that the actions of humans were what made them so bad.

Farming Mistakes

The Southern Plains, part of the larger Great Plains, is mostly flat and treeless. The region was once covered by millions of acres of sturdy prairie grass.

Those grasses seemed almost indestructible. Some types stretched 6 feet tall, with tightly woven roots that reached several feet down into the earth. The hardiest grasses could withstand the pounding hooves of buffalo that stampeded across the plains. Their roots could survive fires ignited by lightning strikes. Most important, those grasses could endure the area’s brutal weather: freezing winters, roasting summers, and long periods of drought that were common to the region.

The area’s first inhabitants—members of Native American nations such as the Comanche and Kiowa—left the prairie grasses mostly untouched. 

But the U.S. government wanted to fill up the American wilderness with towns, cities, and farms. It forced Native Americans from their lands and lured white settlers to the area with offers of free or very inexpensive land. By the early 20th century, settlers were arriving in droves.

“Thousands of people rushed to the Great Plains to take up a homestead,” says historian Paul Bonnifield. But “they really didn’t know what they were doing.”

One of the worst things that settlers did was to dig up the area’s prairie grass to plant wheat. Using axes, sharp-bladed plows, and their bare hands, farmers ripped up millions of acres of grass.

The grass, which had been there for centuries, “knitted the soil together,” Bonnifield says. Without it, trouble was bound to come.

The Southern Plains is mostly flat and treeless. It is part of the larger Great Plains. The Southern Plains region was once covered by millions of acres of strong prairie grass.

Those grasses seemed almost indestructible. Some types stretched 6 feet tall. They had tightly woven roots that reached several feet down into the earth. The strongest grasses could survive the heavy hooves of buffalo that stampeded across the plains. Their roots could live through fires ignited by lightning strikes. Most important, those grasses could endure the area’s brutal weather. That included freezing winters and hot summers. Long periods of drought also were common to the region.

The first people to live in the area were members of Native American nations such as the Comanche and Kiowa. They left the prairie grasses mostly untouched.

But the U.S. government wanted to fill up the American wilderness with towns, cities, and farms. It forced Native Americans from their lands. It lured white settlers to the area by offering them free or very cheap land. By the early 20th century, settlers were arriving in droves.

“Thousands of people rushed to the Great Plains to take up a homestead,” says historian Paul Bonnifield. But “they really didn’t know what they were doing.”

One of the worst things that settlers did was to dig up the area’s prairie grass. They did it so they could plant wheat. Farmers used axes, sharp-bladed plows, and their bare hands to rip up millions of acres of grass.

The grass had been there for centuries. It “knitted the soil together,” Bonnifield says. Without it, trouble was likely to come.

The Dust Bowl 1931-1940

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

The Crisis Begins  

At first, things went the settlers’ way. From 1910 to the late 1920s, life on the plains was unusually wet and, with plentiful rain, crops grew quickly. Towns sprouted up almost as swiftly as the wheat.

But problems began in 1929, with the onset of the Great Depression. That economic crisis hit the region—and much of the United States—hard. Banks around the country ran out of money, and millions of people lost their jobs. Farmers on the Southern Plains suffered because the price of wheat plummeted. This meant farmers earned far less for the crops they grew. Farms began to fail, and many people abandoned their land. 

However, the economic hardships were just the beginning of the region’s problems. The year 1932 brought a second crisis to the Southern Plains: severe drought. With day after day of cloudless skies, crops withered. And without the protective layer of prairie grass, the soil dried up and was carried away by the wind.

On especially windy days, the air turned gritty with dust. It permeated everything, even the insides of people’s homes. Women began rinsing dust-coated plates before serving meals to their families. They also covered food with a cloth, right up to the moment when everyone was ready to eat.

At first, things went the settlers’ way. From 1910 to the late 1920s, life on the plains was unusually wet. There was plenty of rain. Crops grew quickly. Towns sprouted up almost as swiftly as the wheat.

But problems began in 1929. That is when the Great Depression began. The economic crisis hit the region and much of the United States hard. Banks around the country ran out of money. Millions of people lost their jobs. Farmers on the Southern Plains suffered because the price of wheat plummeted. This meant farmers earned far less for the crops they grew. Farms began to fail. Many people abandoned their land.

However, the economic hardships were just the beginning of the region’s problems. The year 1932 brought a second crisis to the Southern Plains: a severe drought. With day after day of cloudless skies, crops dried up. And without the protective layer of prairie grass, so did the soil. It was swept away by the wind.

On very windy days, the air turned gritty with dust. It permeated everything, even the insides of people’s homes. Women began rinsing dust-coated plates before serving meals to their families. They also covered food with a cloth, right up to the moment when everyone was ready to eat.

“Black Blizzards”

Dusty winds soon gave way to dust storms, and “black blizzards” became a frequent part of life in the Southern Plains. Those storms snuffed out the sun and dumped piles of dirt big enough to bury animals and destroy crops. People caught in a dust storm would choke as dust rushed up their noses. 

“The middle of the day was just like midnight,” a resident of the region told filmmaker Ken Burns in his documentary The Dust Bowl.

Dusty winds soon gave way to dust storms. “Black blizzards” became a frequent part of life in the Southern Plains. Those storms blocked out the sun. They dumped piles of dirt big enough to bury animals and destroy crops. People caught in a dust storm would choke as dust rushed up their noses.

“The middle of the day was just like midnight.” That is what a resident of the region told filmmaker Ken Burns in his documentary The Dust Bowl.

The dust spread everywhere, even to the insides of people’s homes.

Life grew more desperate for people living on the plains. Many of them lost everything. By 1935, tens of thousands of people had abandoned their farms. Those who stayed hoped and prayed for better times.

Black Sunday was a turning point. When the massive dust storm tore its way across the Southern Plains, stretching 200 miles wide and 8,000 feet into the sky, people finally faced the fact that removing all that prairie grass had been a huge mistake. Humans had broken the land. Now it was up to them to fix it.

Life grew more desperate for people living on the plains. Many of them lost everything. By 1935, tens of thousands of people had left their farms. Those who stayed hoped and prayed for better times.

Black Sunday was a turning point. When the massive dust storm tore its way across the Southern Plains, it stretched 200 miles wide and 8,000 feet into the sky. It made people finally face the fact that removing all that prairie grass had been a huge mistake. Humans had broken the land. Now it was up to them to fix it.

Saving the Plains

Dust storms continued across the Southern Plains for the next several years, but during that time, many important changes were under way to stop them. 

The federal government restored millions of acres of prairie grass across the region, while farmers learned how to farm in a way that was better for the land. And New Deal programs, along with scientists and farmers, developed methods to fight soil erosion. What’s more, in 1939, rains finally returned to the plains. To this day, the region has never had another dust storm as massive as Black Sunday. 

Still, the storms remain an important reminder of why we have to take care of the land—so future generations can inhabit it.

Dust storms continued across the Southern Plains for the next several years. But during that time, many important changes were under way to stop them.

The federal government restored millions of acres of prairie grass across the region. Meanwhile, farmers learned how to farm in a way that was better for the land. New Deal programs developed methods to fight soil erosion. So did scientists and farmers. In 1939, rains finally returned to the plains. To this day, the region has never had another dust storm as large as Black Sunday.

But the storms remain an important reminder of why we have to take care of the land: so future generations can inhabit it.

YOU MIGHT NEED TO KNOW . . .

The Great Depression was a period of severe economic decline in the United States that began in 1929 and lasted more than a decade.

The New Deal was a series of programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to help the economy recover and put people back to work during the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was a period of severe economic decline in the United States that began in 1929 and lasted more than a decade.

The New Deal was a series of programs initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to help the economy recover and put people back to work during the Great Depression.

Write About It! What caused dust storms like Black Sunday? What effects did they have on people? Cite evidence from the text in your response.

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