• Weird History

The Story Behind This World-Famous Photo Is Even Sadder Than You Can Imagine

The famous Dorothea Lange depression-era photograph of a woman and her children portrays a seldom visible side of the Great Depression. Entitled Migrant Mother, the picture was taken in 1936, a time when most depictions of the depression were of the urban poor. Little attention was paid to those who were forced to take on low paying farm work in order to feed their children. 

Not until the '70s was the Great Depression-era woman in the picture identified as Florence Owens Thompson. Thompson was born in what was then known as Indian Territory, now part of Oklahoma, in 1903. By the time Dorothea Lange took her picture, Thompson had seven children. Six of them were with her first husband, Cleo Owens, who died of tuberculosis before their last child was born. 

Thompson's expression of worried uncertainty as her children cling to her for comfort came to exemplify this difficult time period in American history. Here's what we know about the woman behind this distinctive picture. 

  • A Reporter Tracked Down The Migrant Mother In The '70s

    Photo: Dorothea Lange/Farm Security Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Despite all of the publicity surrounding the Migrant Mother photograph, her identity remained a secret until 1978, when a reporter from the Modesto Bee tracked her down.

    Thompson was open to sharing her story. She was born in present-day Oklahoma and married at the age of 17. By the time she was 28 years old, she had six children and her husband had died of tuberculosis. At the time of the picture, she had another child with Jim Hill, and the two were making their way north through California looking for field labor jobs. Their car broke down near pea fields, but the crops were ruined by frost – the workers had nothing to do and no food.

    When the picture was taken, Thompson and her children were waiting for her Hill to return with the car parts they needed so they could look for another place to work. She told the reporter, "We just existed. We survived. Let's put it that way."

  • When Lange Took The Photo, She Didn't Even Ask Thompson For Her Name

    Photo: Rondale Partridge / United States Library of Congress

    Lange said that while she was taking pictures, she approached a makeshift tent and found a woman sitting there with a few of her children. Thompson was with her daughters, waiting for her partner to return with car parts.

    Lange wrote down in her notes: "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that [she and her children] had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed."

  • Lange Was Demonstrating The State Of America's Poor To The Government

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lange was working on behalf of the Resettlement Administration (now called the Farm Security Administration) when she took the now-famous photographs. The administration's mission was to showcase the plight of migrant workers to officials in Washington. While the Great Depression was difficult for almost everyone in America, those on the East coast could hardly conceptualize the state of life in the Dust Bowl. 

    Lange was attempting to capture a snapshot of the unavoidably vagrant lifestyle of those who had lost everything.

  • Thompson's Life During The Depression Was Worse Than Lange Knew

    Photo: Dorothea Lange / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lange never even asked for Thompson's name when she took the famous photograph. Thompson would later tell the reporter who found her that she had learned to pick any kind of crop necessary. At one time she was picking cotton and making 50 cents for each 100 pounds of cotton she picked. She said she could pick 450-500 pounds each day – she didn't even weigh 100 pounds herself.

    She would put her young children in burlap sacks so that they couldn't get away while she worked, dragging them alongside her as she worked from row to row. The children who were old enough to walk would work alongside their parents.