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Who Was Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother?

Posted by Laurie Frost on June 2, 2009

In an earlier post I noted that one of the most famous American photographs of the twentieth century is in the public domain in the United States since it was taken by Dorothea Lange when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. What came to be known as “Migrant Mother” was one of six images shot by Lange on March 9, 1936 near Nipomo, California, where migrant workers were in a dire situation since the crops they had come to harvest had been destroyed by freezing rains.

On the following day,  according to Geoffrey Dunn’s essay for New Times: San Luis Obispo, “Photographic License,” the San Francisco News published this picture:


 The next day it used the one that became known as “Migrant Mother.”3b41800r 

But who was this mother?

Lange didn’t ask her name when she took the pictures. In the 1970s she identified herself in a letter to a local newspaper editor signed Florence Thompson, and this is the name now associated with “Migrant Mother.”

In fact, in 1936 she was Florence Owens. It wasn’t until after WWII that she remarried and became Florence Thompson.

Florence Owens Thompson’s reason for writing her letter, which was picked up by the Associated Press, was distress at the picture’s fame:

In the AP story, Thompson declared that she felt “exploited” by Lange’s portrait. “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture,” she declared. “I can’t get a penny out of it. [Lange] didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”

Likely Lange couldn’t sell the pictures, but Thompson must have assumed she did when several appeared in the papers, and certainly after Lange’s assignment with the FSA ended, her career was enhanced by the fame she gained with “Migrant Mother.” Dunn reports that one of Florence’s children, Katherine McIntosh, says Lange

“also told mother the negatives would never be published–that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

Lange, indeed, sent the photos to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, where the photos had an immediate impact on federal bureaucrats, who quickly rushed 20,000 pounds of food supplies to pea-picker camp in Nipomo.

Florence and children, and her partner, Joe Hill, father of Norma Lee, infant in the pictures, were already out of the area.

Florence was from Oklahoma, but she first left the state in 1926. Florence Leona Christie [b. Sept. 1, 1903] was a full blooded Cherokee, which means that her ancestors were in Oklahoma not by choice but because of the forced migrations from their homelands along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears to the Oklahoma Territory.

She first arrived in California with husband Cleo Owens. When he died of TB in 1931, she had five children and was three months pregnant with her sixth (Katherine). Two years later when she was pregnant by a man whose family she feared would take their son’s child from her, she went home to Oklahoma. In 1937 she returned with members of her extended family to California, and became involved with Hill.

Lange’s pictures temporarily eased the sufferings of the stranded and starving migrants at the Nipomo camp. Many years later, finally, Florence saw some small profit from her portrait. In 1983,  sick with cancer, Florence had a stroke which left her in need of constant nursing attention. This $1400 a week care was more than her chidren could afford.

Her son Troy Owens asked Jack Foley at the San Jose Mercury News for help. Dunn reports,

The story Foley filed for the Mercury generated national attention. More than $35,000 poured into a special Migrant Mother Fund administered by Hospice Caring Project of Santa Cruz County, much of it coming in the form of rumpled dollar bills.

The contributions came in from all over the country. Nacaodoches, Texas. Russellville, Ark. New York City. Los Angeles. But a good many of them came from the farm towns of the San Joaquin Valley that Florence Thompson called home for most her life–Fresno, Wasco, Tulare, Selma, Visalia.

“The famous picture of your mother for years gave me great strength, pride and dignity–only because she exuded those qualities so,” wrote a woman from Santa Clara.

“Enclosed is a check for $10 to assist the woman whose face gave and still gives eloquent expression to the need our country still has not met,” expressed an anonymous note from New York. . . .

In all, nearly 2,000 letters arrived, and the overwhelming response forced the Owens-Hill children to reconsider Lange’s portrait of their mother in a new light.

“None of us ever really understood how deeply Mama’s photo affected people,” said Owens. “I guess we had only looked at it from our perspective. For Mama and us, the photo had always been a bit of curse. After all those letters came in, I think it gave us a sense of pride.”

 . . . On Sept. 16, 1983, a few weeks past her 80th birthday, Florence Thompson died at her son’s home.

Her gravestone reads: “Migrant Mother–A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.”

Another source of information about Florence is her grandson Roger Sprague’s website, Migrant Grandson, the Library of Congress’s overview, and the Art Department of the Oakland Museum of California, which has the largest collection of Dorothea Lange’s work (her work for the government represents only four years of a career in photography spanning from 1918 to 1965, most of which, of course, is not in the public domain).

In addition to the two photographs above, the American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress also includes these three:




This is Roger Sprague’s caption for the last of these photos:

Persons in picture (left to right) are: Viola (Pete) in rocker age 14, standing inside tent Ruby age 5, Katherine age 4, seated on box Florence age 32 and infant Norma age 1 year being held by Florence.

One more photo of Florence’s family didn’t make it to the Library of Congress. It’s on Roger Sprague’s site, however:


Second of six (6) photographs taken by Dorthea Lange on March 9, 1936 at Nipomo, California. Pete has moved inside the tent, and away from Lange, in hopes her photo can not be taken. Katherine stands next to her mother. Florence is talking to Ruby, who is hiding behind her mother, as Lange took the picture.



Credits for Library of Congress holdings :

Child holding post: LC-USF34- 009095-C

Florence & Ruby: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03054

Nursing: LC-USF34-T01-009097-C

Girl in rocker: LC-DIG-ppmsca-03054

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