Monday 29 May 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 3: Drought

Many people researching their families’ history in North America will have ancestors that survived the Dustbowl of the 1930s. Nature’s attack of drought was most concentrated in the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas but it effects were felt in many other regions. One result of the drying up of the farmlands of the plains region was a forced migration of hundreds of thousands of people, most going west to California.
Left – Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas – 18 April 1935 (credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, George E. Marsh); Right – Map of states and counties affected by the Dust Bowl between 1935 and 1938 originally prepared by the Soil Conservation Service. The most severely affected counties are coloured darker red. (Source: Soil Science and Resource Assessment, Resource Assessment Division, United States Department of Agriculture; retrieved 23 May 2017) 

Drought is basically a condition where there is a lack of water resources. According to researchers Gwyneth Cole and Terry Marsh (2006), of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Oxfordshire, droughts may be caused be due to a deficiency of rainfall (meteorological drought), accumulated deficiencies in runoff or aquifer charge (hydrological drought) or limited water presentg in the soil during the growing season (agricultural drought). The primary parameters of a drought, though, are a lack of precipitation over an extended period of time and affecting a large area.

The drought that affected parts of the Midwest United States in the 1930s is one example that is engraved on recent human memory. Another is the recent arid years in California. This particular drought was predicted by many august individuals and organizations to last a millenium. It was ended, though, as many are, by record rainfall earlier this year. Not to say it cannot or will not happen again. Of course it will. That is the prime characteristic of the natural world – change!

Droughts have been part of natural events for millions of years in all parts of the world. With regard to human history, both recorded and ancient, droughts have played a significant role in the destruction of communities – even whole societies when they played out over long time periods. Many periods of severe drought have been documented in Europe over the last 500 years (Garnier et al, 2015) which resulted in thousands of people leaving their homes to find more hospitable areas.

North America has many examples:
  • ·         The Terminal Classic Drought coincided with the demise of the Mayan civilization between AD 750 and 1050 (Gill, 2000).
  • ·         Between AD 990 and 1300 there were three intense and persistent droughts in the central and southwest part of the US, each lasting decades. They all had severe impacts on natives that resulted in migration of the people and even collapse of their cultures (Jones et al, 1999).
  • ·         Droughts affected early colonists on Roanoke Island (Virginia) between 1587 and 1589 and again between 1606 and 1612 at Jamestown (I wrote about this event in a blog post in September 2016 titled What if…?) The conditions were the driest in the region in 800 years and resulted in high death rates and the abandonment of both habitations.
  • ·         The Civil War Drought (1856-1865) is considered to be the most severe in more modern times, possibly rivalling that of the Medieval period (AD 750-1300).

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorade (photo by Lorax

Family historians may come across evidence that such natural phenomena have affected their own families, at different times and in different regions. Sometimes short-lived and sometimes over extended time periods, drought can, and did have devastating impacts on living conditions.


Cole, G. A. & Marsh, T. J. (2006). An historical analysis of drought in England and Wales. In Climate Variability and Change – Hydrological Impacts (Demuth, S., Gustard, A., Planos, E., Scatena, F. & Servat, E., Eds.). International Association of Hydrological Sciences, publication number 308, pp. 483-489.

Garnier, E., Assimacopoulos, D. & van Lanen, H. W. J. (2015). Historic droughts beyond the modern instrumental records: an analysis of cases in United Kingdom, France, Rhine and Syros. DROUGHT R SPI Technical Report No 35.

Gill, R. B. (2000). The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death. University of New Mexico.

Jones, T. L., Brown, G. M., Raab, L. M., McVickar, J. L., Spaulding, W. G., Kennett, D. J., York, A. & Walker, P. L. (1999). Environmental Imperatives Reconsidered: Demographic Crises in Western North America during the Medieval Climatic Anomaly. Current Anthropology, (40/3), pp. 137-170.