Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange Depression Era Photo Set
Florence Owens Thompson (September 1, 1903 – September 16, 1983) became immortalized in Dorothea Lange’s famous photo Migrant Mother during the American Great Depression in 1936.
Dorothea Lange snapped this famous photograph, and several others shown on this page, while working for the United States government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program. The program was designed in the midst of the Great Depression in attempts to raise awareness of and provide aid to poverty-stricken U.S. farmers. While in Nipomo, California, Lange encountered Florence Thompson and her children living in a makeshift camp. The camp was filled with other field workers whose lives had been devastated by failed pea crops in the region.
While the photos of Thompson (primarily the one at top dubbed “Migrant Mother“) became hugely popular and famous nearly overnight, Thompson’s actual identity was not known for over 40 years.
After picking beets in the Imperial Valley in March 1936, Florence Thompson was traveling with her family on U.S. Highway 101. They were headed towards Watsonville, trying to find work in the lettuce fields of Pajaro Valley. While traveling, their car’s timing chain broke and the family coasted to a stop near a pea-picking camp at Nipomo Mesa. Once at the camp, they were astounded to find 2,500 to 3,500 people camping there. The huge crowd was gathered at the location in response to a call for pickers, but the pea crops were destroyed by freezing rain and the crowd became stuck without work or a way to earn money.
Florence’s husband at the time, Jim Hill, walked with two of their sons to the closest town to find parts to repair the family car. Florence and her daughters stayed behind to set-up a temporary camp. As coincidence would have it, photographer Dorothea Lange came upon Florence’s camp at this time and started taking photos of the family. Lange took a total of six images over the span of ten minutes.
Dorothea’s field notes of the encounter read:
“Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp… because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”
Lange later added the following statement about the meeting:
“I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.”
Drained after a long trip, Lange did not talk much with Florence Thompson and didn’t record her name or get details of her heritage. As a result, Thompson became an infamous symbol for White motherhood during the depression, but her actual heritage was Native American. The immediate fame of the Migrant Mother photo and inaccuracies in her details caused emotional issues for Thompson and her family.
Florence later stated that Dorothea Lange promised her the iconic photos would not be published. Lange, however, sent the photos to the San Francisco News and to her employer at the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The San Francisco News ran the photos almost immediately and featured them prominently in their publication, along with the story that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were without food in Nipomo, California. As a result, the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the pea-picker camp. Thompson and her family, however, had already moved on to Watsonville, California looking for work by the time the food arrived.
Truth Comes To Light
As mention earlier, the Migrant Mother photo became extremely popular, while Thompson’s identity was unknown for more than 40 years. In fact, her identity was not discovered until 42 years later, in 1978, when Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan ran into Florence living in a mobile home park and recognized her from the 1936 photo. As a result of that meeting, Thompson wrote a letter to the Modesto Bee, which was then picked up and distributed by the Associated Press with a headline that read “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” In the article, Florence was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”
Lange was a government employee at the time she took the photo, which put the image in the public domain and Lange never directly profited from the photo or received royalties. However, the Migrant Mother photo did make Lange a celebrity and help propel her photography career.
In a 2008 CNN interview, Thompson’s daughter Katherine McIntosh talked about her mother being a strong woman and the backbone of their family. She stated “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”
Thinking their mother would be better off in a house than a mobile home, Thompson’s children pitched in and bought her a house in Modesto, California in the 1970s. But, Thompson decided she preferred mobile home life and eventually moved back. In August of 1983, Florence became ill and was hospitalized. The family appealed to the public for financial assistance and over $35,000 in donations came rolling in. Unfortunately, Florence’s health failed and she was pronounced dead on September 16, 1983 of stroke, cancer and heart problems. Florence Thompson was buried in Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson, California – her gravestone etched with “FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”