California’s Migrant Mother: An Unwilling Icon

"She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want in her. She is immortal.” - Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Resettlement Administration during the Great Depression. Made available by the Library of Congress and Wikipedia  Wikipedia.
“She has all the suffering of mankind in her but all of the perseverance too. A restraint and a strange courage. You can see anything you want in her. She is immortal.” – Roy Stryker. Photo by Dorothea Lange, Nipomo, California, 1936. Photo courtesy the US Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

It was March of 1936, in the farms of southwest California. The woman pictured above had just sold her tires as a last, desperate effort to barter another day’s worth of food for her large and hungry family. She represented the impoverished migrant workers trapped in Nipomo Mesa, California. This is what you would gather if you were to read Dorothea Lange’s field notes for this image. In fact, the woman’s name is Florence Owens Thompson, and she was to became the face of the Great Depression, and poverty in America.

The Making of The Migrant Mother

Lange, a Resettlement Administration (RA) photographer, was returning from a month shooting images of poverty in the West Coast. As she drove through the valleys of California, she passed signs calling for pea-pickers, directing passersby to the migrant workers camp not far down the road. Twenty minutes had passed since the signs, and Lange’s growing intuition of a good photo opportunity waiting for her at the camps caused her to turn around. When she arrived, she found thousands of workers with no work, and hundreds of families with no food. Out of the entire camp, she choose one family to introduce to the world.

A photo of Dorothea Lange by Robert Partridge. Made available by Library of Congress and Wikipedia  Wikipedia.
A photo of Dorothea Lange by Robert Partridge. Photo courtesy the US Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

Florence and her family were on their way from their home in Modesto, California, to find work picking crops in the farms of Pajaro Valley. As they were driving past Nipomo Mesa, the t-chain in the car snapped. Her husband, Jim, took the older children to town to get the parts needed to repair the car. In the meantime, Florence took her youngsters to a massive camp full of stranded migrant workers stuck in poverty after the promised, harvestable crop was devastated due to freezing rain.

According to Florence, Lange quietly wandered to their make-shift site with a camera in her hand, took some photos and jotted down a few notes along the way. Responding to Florence’s concern, Lange said that the photos would never be published. Lange did not keep her word.

Mama’s Been Shot

A day after her photo shoot in Nipomo, Lange took the freshly developed images straight to the San Francisco News. A day later, a story titled “What Does the New Deal Mean to this Mother and Her Child?” ran in the paper with the now iconic “Migrant Mother” photo as the lead. That photo helped solidify Lange as an established American photographer. It also prompted the shipment of 20,000 pounds of food to the 2,500 to 3,500 starving workers in the camps of Nipomo Mesa. The picture however, did nothing positive for Florence and her family. They quickly repaired their car and continued on their way to find work elsewhere. While selling newspapers outside of Watsonville, California, one of the Thompson sons saw the photo and brought it back to his family screaming “Mama’s been shot, Mama’s been shot!” Florence looked at the picture in silence.

The other five photos of the Thompson family taken by Lange. Photo courtesy the Library of Congress and Wikipedia .
The other five photos of the Thompson family taken by Lange in Nipomo, California, 1936. Photo courtesy of the US Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

Consequences of the Betrayal

Florence’s identity wasn’t discovered until the late 1970s and it was only then she began to tell her story to the media. She did not shy away from mentioning that she never received even a penny for the photo that sold for $244,500 in 1998 to the Getty Museum of Los Angeles. When speaking of life after the photo, Florence mentioned the work it required to sustain a family of ten children: “I worked in hospitals, I tended bars, I cooked, and I worked in the fields.” Unfortunately, the Thompson’s lives were not improved after Lange. “Our life was hard long after that photograph was taken,” said one of Thompson’s daughter’s. For the next four decades after the publication of the image, Florence worked her family out of poverty and up to the middle class without any help from Lange’s valuable photo.

Thompson’s character and perseverance were tested until the very end of her life when she battled with recovery after a stroke, heart complications, and cancer. Her children, unfamiliar with asking for and receiving charity, created the Migrant Mother Fund in order to uphold their vow of keeping their mother out of a nursing home. The family received an amazing $35,000 from the effort to pay for the weekly care costs of $1,400. Just a few weeks after the funds were raised, at the age of 80, Florence died in her home in Scotts Valley, California. She is buried at Lakewood Memorial Park in Hughson California. The inscription on her gravestone reads “Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

About The Author

Alex Pirela is story teller fascinated with the exploration of the human condition through various forms of writing.

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  1. Christa Shanaman

    For a local twist….she is the grandmother of the late Don Higgins that worked at San Lorenzo Lumber in Felton for years! His mother is one of the kids in the picture.

    1. Mobile Ranger

      Wow Christa Shanaman thanks for posting that. It makes sense given that she lived in Scotts Valley for awhile that some of her family would be in the area.

  2. Nancy Arellano

    As a teen I was moved by this photo. It resonated with how I viewed my own mother. I am glad her children honored her request (the only thing my mother ever asked of her own children). It was wrong that she never received even a dollar for the use of her image.

  3. Miriam Olmedo

    I had never seen this photo and, though it is moving and inspiring, the story behind, not keeping the word given, makes me angry because it is a way to take advantage of people’s situation. The photographer lives on her work but it shouldn’t be over others will

  4. Robin Cunningham

    The book of fiction, “Mary Coin” imagines the lives of both women, subject and photographer in an interesting way, fleshing out the stories surrounding the taking of this historic image.

  5. Rubens

    Me too. I have several books of dseipesron era photos and there are a certain few in there that always set me musing as to who these people were, what became of them and their families. For me, this unnamed and unforgettable woman became an icon of that time and its trials. It is good to know that the strength she shows in this portrait brought her to comfort at last… I’ve just added another link, to the only photo I can find of her in her later years, with the two girls, now grown…


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