Search
The threatening storm rises above a farm near Hartman, Colo. Once range land, it lies almost ruined by wheat. Dust-choked corral and pump are land's tombstones.
VIEW GALLERY | 21 PHOTOS
Caption from LIFE. "The threatening storm rises above a farm near Hartman, Colo. Once range land, it lies almost ruined by wheat. Dust-choked corral and pump are land's tombstones."Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The threatening storm rises above a farm near Hartman, Colo. Once range land, it lies almost ruined by wheat. Dust-choked corral and pump are land's tombstones.
Protective pattern is spread across a farm near Walsh, Colo. by farmer using two tractors (upper right).
Colorado farming family during 1954 Dust Bowl.
Antidust measure of furrowing land, taken by a conservation-minded farmer in Baca County, goes to naught when neighbor's unfurrowed land blows across his farm, killing crop of winter wheat.
Irrigation ditch near Amity is cleared of dust which filled it for 20 miles to depth of six feet.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Coloradans Art Blooding and his family inspect their newly bought farm in 50-mph wind.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Wild ducks choked to death on the dust make a graveyard of what was at one time a watering stop on their spring migrations.
Felled broomcorn, dust and wind victim, lies near Walsh, once 'Broomcorn Capital of U.S.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Farm house damaged by dust storm, Colorado, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado Dust Bowl, 1954.
Colorado farming family during 1954 Dust Bowl.
Caption from LIFE. "The threatening storm rises above a farm near Hartman, Colo. Once range land, it lies almost ruined
... VIEW MORE

Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1 of 21

'Plague Upon the Land': Scenes From an American Dust Bowl, 1954

Jan 13, 2014

When we look at the ways that weather has affected and shaped both the physical and psychological landscape of the United States, two words often come to mind, summoning an entire era in the middle part of the last century: Dust Bowl. There's no guarantee, of course, that we won't return to those vividly desolate conditions across vast tracts of land sometime in the near future. After all, the only thing we know with any certainty at all is that history repeats itself, and to assume that mammoth and long-lasting drought is a thing of the past is a surefire way to remain unprepared in the future.

Here, LIFE.com looks back, through the lens of the great Margaret Bourke-White, at a period when—as LIFE phrased it in a May 1954 issue—there was a "Dusty Plague Upon the Land."

The delicate, lethal powder spread in a brown mist across the prairie horizon. Across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, the darkening swirls of loosened topsoil chewed their way across the plains, destroying or damaging 16 million acres of land. Man fought back with such techniques as chiseling. . . . driving a plow six inches into the soil to turn up clots of dirt which might help hold the precious land from the vicious winds. Against the dusty tide these feeble efforts came too little and too late. Two decades after the nation's worst drought year in history, 1934, the southern plains were again officially labeled by the U.S. government with two familiar words—"Dust Bowl."

Margaret Bourke-White on assignment, shooting the LIFE magazine "Dusty Plague" essay, 1954.Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures 
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.