Saturday, November 26, 2011

ORNERY PEOPLE--"What is a Depression Okie?"

ORNERY PEOPLE is still in the planning stage but it is becoming clear that I can write it as a prequel to GRAPES OF WRATH.

We know what California thought of Okies in the 1930s, when the word was invented (wasn't it?) as a term of derogation. We know what prejudice Oklahomans suffered in later decades, up to the present. What we don't have, to my knowledge, is a book that answers the question "What is a Depression Okie?" in historical terms, what is the background in this continent of a representative Depression Okie?

Using Internet resources, primarily, I will tell stories about people I never knew about until I began looking for them online in 2002. Some of the stories start in the 1600s and all of them start Pre-Revolution, for a typical Okie is not a newcomer to this continent. I even have Dawes Commission testimony from part Indian cousins and a WPA interview with a part Indian cousin.

I am having trouble with a few families where I hit the genealogist's brick wall (for the Parkers, in 1818 Alabama) and having trouble with other families, like the SC and Mississippi Stewarts whose names I know but about whom I know almost nothing except a bit about some property they owned. No stories! Nothing like Aunt Kate Richardson's killing a Yankee who put his head in her apple barrel.

The broad historical themes of the book are emerging. One obvious one will be the dispersal of families after the Revolution and the strange gathering-in of families through the Internet.


  1. Do you know Oscar Ameringer, the German-born socialist editor? When he first came to Oklahoma in the year of statehood, 1907, he was shocked by the depth of poverty he encountered among farmers in the countryside and he asked himself who these people were. Not immigrants, he said:. “They were Scotch, Irish, Scotch-Irish and English with only a few exceptions. They were more American than any present-day New England town.They were Washington’s ragged, starving, shivering army at Valley Forge, pushed ever westward by beneficiaries of the Revolution.” Pushed out of Tidewater Virginia, out of the Piedmont and the valleys of the central Atlantic states, into the hills and mountains of the South Central states, “they had followed on the heels of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles, like the stragglers of routed armies. Always hoping that somewhere in their America there would be a piece of dirt for them.” The statement may be not be good history but perhaps it may stand as poetry. (If You Don’t Weaken: The Autobiography of Oscar Ameringer. New York: Henry Holt, 1940.)

    1. I did not know about this book, Wayne, but have ordered it, at once. Yes, I would argue with a couple of details, but Ameringer is absolutely right that the Okies (those who had come to Indian Territory before the land rushes) were more American than any New England town (of any size) in 1940. I have never seen a statement that so closely matches the thesis I have been developing this last decade. I will have to quote it prominently in ORNERY PEOPLE. Thank you!