Oklahoma farmer, 1942.
Not published in LIFE. Oklahoma farmer, 1942.Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Oklahoma farmer, 1942.
Oklahoma farmer and his family, 1942.
Oklahoma farming family, 1942.
"Sagebush and sand surround [Oklahoma farmer John] Barnett's house and farm buildings. There is no topsoil left on the 160 acres. He grows rye and fodder in sandy loam."
Oklahoma, 1942. Agriculturists work on the region's catastrophic on erosion problem.
Abandoned farm, Oklahoma, 1942.
Harvesters hitchhike to a wheat harvesting, Oklahoma, 1942.
Oklahoma, 1942.
Farmer and sons, Oklahoma, 1942.
Oklahoma farm, 1942.
Farmer John Barnett and his sons work their farm, Oklahoma, 1942.
Oklahoma, 1942.
Farmer John Barnett's wife, Venus, works in her vegetable garden after a second planting, Oklahoma, 1942. A windstorm earlier in the year blew the first seedlings away.
John Barnett feeds livestock on his farm, Oklahoma, 1942.
"Oklahoma farmer John Barnett's daughter Delphaline, 17, wears bright-colored slacks around the farm. She and her two brothers go to a rural school where there are only four other pupils. Next fall Delphaline will enter high school." Oklahoma, 1942.
"Farmer John Barnett and his family are 'Okies' who stuck to their land near Woodward. They have 21 dairy cattle which yield a scant seven gallons per milking. Mrs. Barnett takes care of a vegetable garden that is always blowing away. The children, Delphaline, 17 (top), Lincoln, 11 (right), and Leonard, 9, do plenty of chores. On Sundays the Barnetts eat jack rabbit." Oklahoma, 1942.
Mrs. Venus Barnett and son Lincoln in room of their farmhouse, Oklahoma, 1942.
Oklahoma farming family at meal, 1942.
Abandoned house, Oklahoma, 1942.
Oklahoma, 1942.
Not published in LIFE. Oklahoma farmer, 1942.
Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Imag
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True Grit: Dust Bowl Survivors

Mar 22, 2014

For some, the phrase "Dust Bowl" conjures a place: the Great Plains, but a Great Plains of abandoned homes, ruined lives, dead and dying crops and sand, sand, sand.

For others, the phrase denotes not a region but an era: the mid- to late-1930s in America, when countless farms were lost; dust storms raced across thousands of miles of once-fertile land, so huge and unremitting that they often blotted out the sun; and millions of American men, women and children took to the road, leaving behind everything they knew and everything they'd built, heading west, seeking work, food, shelter, new lives, new hope.

These families, immortalized in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and in the unflinching photographs of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and others, were almost universally known as "Okies," whether or not they actually hailed from the devastated state of Oklahoma. The great, ragged migration away from half-buried farms and toward California and other vague "promised lands" is one of the defining catastrophes of the Great Depression. To this day, the very term Okie conjures images of gaunt men, grim women and doomed children dressed in tattered clothes, traveling by foot or jalopy across a landscape that seems perpetually dry, flat and ruined.

But just as entire families in Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska and other states abandoned their homes in search of a new start, countless other farmers held their own, suffering through the very worst of the Dust Bowl years, battling for every ear of corn, every grain of wheat, every leaf of lettuce on farms they had worked, in some cases, for generations.

Here, as massive, frightening droughts in California, Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad continue unabated, LIFE.com offers a series of revealing photos — most of which never ran in LIFE magazine — by the great Alfred Eisenstaedt. These pictures don't follow "Okies" as they leave their world behind. Instead, Eisenstaedt's photos chronicle the hardscrabble existence of Oklahoma farmers who stayed: families who fought to keep their livelihoods and their homesteads during those lean, unforgiving years after the Dust Bowl — according to the history books, at least — came to an end.

-- Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.

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