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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

The Modern Era, 1920-Present

The Post-World War I Era

The post-World War I era saw a nation adjusting. A truly wild frontier existed now only in remote Alaska. This period saw a migration into urbanized localities which had begun following the Civil War and continued into the 20th century. Immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was heavy in the period 1880-1924, followed from about 1924-1950 by heavy immigration from Mexico and also Europe by way of Canada. During the same period, westward migration continued, but not to open unpopulated areas as in the frontier period, but instead to a complex of established growing settlements.

American society of the 1920s was characterized by both technological and social innovations. This "Jazz Age" period between the Great War and the Great Depression was an era of political conservatism and relative prosperity. But this prosperity was not distributed evenly across the population. It wasn't shared by blacks, farmers, or recent immigrants.

There have been significant cities in America since colonial days, but the migrations early on were nearly always fueled by a desire for land that was great enough to move people into all parts of this blossoming country. There came a time, however, when agriculture was of lesser importance. The demands of the growing population required industrial growth. Consequently people moved in search of jobs in industries. And this meant moves to booming cities. When an industry died out, they moved on to the next booming area.

Another major influence, beginning in about 1920, was a wave of migration of blacks from the South to the North. Again, the attraction was jobs in industry. Northern factories had depended upon immigrant labor, but after the passage of the National Origins Acts, fewer immigrants were allowed into the country, and industry was short of labor. The gap was filled enthusiastically by Southern blacks, willing to work hard to make a living.

In the last third of the 20th century, the most significant migrations have been in the direction of the West and the South.

From the outset, people have continued moving West for economic gain; the attractions of the Pacific Coast West in more recent years has been a combination of quality of life, a continuing spirit of adventure, and appealing climate. The attracting force for movement to the South in the last decades of the 20th century has been a combination of temperate climates and a lower cost of living, both appealing to retirees, but also to corporations seeking new locations.

A demographic transition from Snowbelt to Sunbelt was in evidence as early as 1920, and the decades from 1930 to the present have marked a high point in the migration of thousands of Americans. This has been the most dramatic shift in population from East to West since the great Oregon migrations and California gold rush.

The Depression Years

The appearance of economic prosperity in the 1920s was deceiving. It didn't extend to the farmer. Between 1920 and 1932, one of every four farms was sold for debt or taxes. During World War I, farmers had prospered because of high demand and government supports. The end of the war brought an end to federal aid and a sharp drop also in the demand for exports due especially to the unsettled European economy. Farm income was cut in half between 1929 and 1933. Farm prices dropped 60 percent, but production decreased by only about 6 percent because individual farmers struggling to make up for lower prices created excess, which further depressed agricultural prices.

A terrible drought scorched the Mississippi Valley in 1930. This lack of rain caused large areas of the Great Plains to dry up and turn into what came to be called "the Dust Bowl." Dust storms on the plains in the mid-1930s proved the final blow for many farmers. In 1934, relentless winds swept over drought-ridden land in western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the Oklahoma Panhandle, northeastern New Mexico, and the semi-arid plains of Texas. Thousands of tons of drifting dust buried fields, fences, and houses. Cattle and poultry died. Farmers driven to despair abandoned millions of acres, piled their possessions in trucks and moved to the cities or to California to look for jobs as migrant workers. These desperately poor Americans were the models for the characters in John Steinbeck's famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath. And Woody Guthrie, a song writer, also told of the lives of these people in some of his folk songs.

Industrial workers fared only a little better than farmers. Wages raised at a slower rate than the cost of goods. The amount of goods produced ran ahead of people's purchasing power. American investors speculated on stocks, but the stock market wasn't an accurate indicator of the nation's economic health.

The stock market crisis on "Black Tuesday" (October 29, 1929), marked the day in most people's minds as the beginning of the Great Depression. In the days and weeks and months to come, a stunned America saw banks shut down; wages drop; and crops selling at rock-bottom prices.

As factories closed or sharply reduced their labor forces, many people returned to their rural communities only to find conditions of poverty there also. During the Depression Years, many Americans became transients in search of jobs or food. Southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers had little choice but to walk the roads, often heading to California. Northerners who found themselves homeless jumped aboard freight trains or hitchhiked, heading to the warmer climates of California or the South.

In a book about his boyhood, An Hour Before Daylight, Jimmy Carter comments about the depression years in the South. From the time of the Civil War, rural Southerners struggled to make a living on small farms. Then during the depression years, the available cropland was divided up still more when urban jobs failed, sending people into rural communities which were already overloaded with farmers. Between 1930 and 1935, Southern farm population increased by 1.3 million. According to the 1932 Yearbook of Agriculture, total farm earnings in the South between 1929 and 1932 decreased by more than 60 percent.

Farm families in Jimmy Carter's Southwest Georgia had an average of only about 35 acres, compared to farms in Kansas four times that size. And in the South by 1935, more than half of the farms were worked by sharecroppers who owned none of the land. Both black and white tenant farmers lived in abject poverty. Carter's family owned 350 acres of good land and had enough means to diversify and make small profits, but among his neighbors were many sharecroppers, competing day laborers, small and middle-income landowners, and struggling merchants. Federal relief programs designed to assist the poorest families were of only marginal help to the blacks and to the poorest whites. And under Roosevelt's New Deal came acreage controls which embittered Southern farmers.

During the 1920s large numbers of Mexicans had entered the country. They were to be found in large numbers in Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. And for a time, they were accepted as migrant workers in the Midwest, in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But as jobs grew scarce, Mexicans and Mexican Americans crossed to south of the border, deported or at least encouraged to leave the United States.

By the time of the inauguration of new president Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, 15 million Americans were unemployed. Roosevelt's New Deal, launched in 1933, included massive relief measures, including jobs in public works projects (WPA). Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) initially placed 300,000 young men; eventually more than 2.5 million men lived and worked in these camps. This military-style workforce was designed to improve the nation's economy by providing on-the-job training and employment for unmarried men, ages 18-25. During its nine years of existence, the CCC planted billions of trees and built parks, bridges, dams, and fire trails all over the United States.

As late as 1938, almost a fourth of American workers were unemployed, many put out of their jobs by newly mechanized assembly lines in factories. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, almost four million Americans were still unemployed. Moreover, millions of others were laboring at jobs sponsored by government agencies such as the WPA. Even when employed, many families still lived at devastating poverty level. A tenth of the country's population were earning good wages working on defense contracts. The U.S. army numbered 1,600,000, a figure which would exceed 15 million by the end of World War II.

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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 18 September 2014, at 23:52.
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