The Migrant Mother- The life story of the lady in the Iconic Great Depresion Photo

Ian Smith
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Anyone who has seen anything regarding the Great Depression of the 1930s is familiar with the Dorthea Lange photo depicting a poor migrant woman surrounded by her children who are dressed in rags.

The subject was Florence Leona Christie Thompson who was born on 1 September 1903 in Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma.

Her parents, Jackson Christie and Mary Jane Cobb, separated before Florence was born and in 1905 Mary Jane married a Choctaw Indian, Charles Ackerman. The family lived on a small farm near Tahlequah.

Florence Owens Thompson

Florence Owens Thompson with her kids

When Florence was seventeen, she married twenty-three-year-old Cleo Owens, a Stone County Missouri farmer’s son on Valentine’s Day of 1921. They had three children together, two girls, Viola and Violet and a son, Leroy.

When Owen’s family decided to move to California Florence, Cleo and the children went as well.

Florence Owens Thompson montage by Dorothea Lange

Florence Owens Thompson montage by Dorothea Lange

They worked in the Sacramento Valley at the local sawmill and on various farms. In 1931, when Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Cleo died from tuberculosis. In order to support her children, Florence was forced to work in restaurants and in the fields.

By 1933, Florence had moved back to Oklahoma and another child fathered by a local businessman had come along.  Fearing that she would lose custody of the baby boy, she, her children and her parents migrated to Shafter, California where she met Jim Hill.

Florence and Jim had three children together and lived the life of migrant workers in California and Arizona.

Florence Owens Thompson with Children, Nipomo, California (1936)

Florence Owens Thompson with Children, Nipomo, California (1936)

In an interview given later in life, Florence remembered picking almost five hundred pounds of cotton from sunup until after dark.

In 2008, Florence’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, told CNN that her mother would put the baby in a sack and drag it along as she picked cotton.  “We would pick the cotton and pile it up in front of her, and she’d come along and pick it up and put it in her [empty] sack.”  The family lived in tents and in their car.

When they stayed somewhere long enough for the children to attend school, they were teased by the other children for not being clean and well dressed. “They’d tell you, ‘Go home and take a bath.’ You couldn’t very well take a bath when you’re out in a car [with] nowhere to go.  We’d go home and cry.”

When the family was traveling to a job picking lettuce in Pajaro Valley, their car broke down near a pea field in Nipomo Mesa that had been destroyed by freezing rain.

While Jim and two of the older boys walked into town to get the car radiator fixed, Florence and the children set up camp.

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