The Story Behind The Iconic “Migrant Mother” Photograph

By | April 28, 2017

In 1936, Florence Owens, a very tired 32-year-old mother of seven, sat down with some of her children in a temporary shelter near the migrants’ camp in Nipomo, California, next to her broken-down car. The woman’s boyfriend, Jim, was away for a few hours with the older two boys to get their car’s radiator fixed.

While she waited, she was approached by an apparently friendly photographer who snapped six photos of Owens and her children.  That photographer was Dorothea Lange who was commissioned by the federal government to document the plight of migrant laborers in the Central Valley.

These “Migrant Mother” photos Lange took became the definitive images of Depression-era poverty and despair. The photos quickly spread through multiple newspapers and magazines, but none of the readers at the time ever know the story of the iconic “Migrant Mother” photos.

Florence Christie was born in 1903, in what was then the Indian Territory (Oklahoma today). She never knew her father; he had abandoned Christie’s mother during her pregnancy.

Christie’s mother quickly married a Choctaw man named Charles Akman. They seem to have lived a happy life as a family until 1921, when then 17-year-old Christie left home to marry her first husband, Cleo Owens.

Ten years and six children later, after the family had moved to California to find work in the mills, Christie's husband died of tuberculosis. Florence Owens was now the widowed mother of six children in the Great Depression.

To feed her children, Owens worked at whatever jobs she could find, from waitress to field hand. During this time, she had another child by a male friend. According to one of her daughters, interviewed many years later...

"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."

After a while, Owens met Jim Hill who would father three more of her children. To support their growing family, Owens and Hill worked one agricultural job after the other, moving with the harvest to maintain steady work, sometimes in California, sometimes in Arizona.

They were on their way to southern California to pick peas when the car conked out, which was just as well, since an early frost had killed the crops and about 3,000 other workers who had come out now had nothing to do.

On the day of the photos, Dorothea Lange was visiting the Nipomo migrants’ camp to document the workers’ lives. She just happened to notice Owens setting up her shelter by the road.

Hill and the two older children weren’t expected back before dark, so Owens had started supper. Lange introduced herself, the two women chatted for a while, and Lange took the photos.

According to Owens, Lange promised not to distribute the photos and never asked about her past. Lange’s notes from the meeting 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 got several details wrong, and in later years Owens speculated that the she might have confused her with another woman.

For one, the family had not sold their tires; they would need them when Hill got back with the car radiator. The children may or may not have been hungry; Owens claimed that they had been boiling frozen peas and eating birds that the boys caught in the fields. They weren’t even properly in the pea pickers’ camp; their plan had been to swing past and keep moving toward Watsonville.

Despite Lange’s promise not to publish the photos, she filed them with the federal Resettlement Administration and mailed a copy to the San Francisco News almost as soon as she got the chance.

The News ran the now iconic photo (that last of the six that Lange took) with the inaccurate details Lange provided and reported that thousands of migrant farm laborers were starving in the San Joaquin Valley. Almost immediately, readers of the paper began sending in donations so that the poor could buy food. The government also shipped about 20,000 pounds of foodto Nipomo to relieve what looked in the papers like a developing famine.

Owens and her family weren’t there to eat it. By the time the first parcel arrived, they had moved on. Before long, the photo ran in national dailies and in magazines across the country. Anyone who was looking at Owens’ worried expression was looking at the whole economic mess of the decade summed up in the lines of her face.

Everybody except for Owens, that is. In fact, she later claimed never to have seen the photos, though Lange had promised to send her copies, and nobody had ever recognized her from what was arguably the decade’s signature photograph.

Owens’ life stabilized in middle age. After World War II, she married a hospital administrator in Modesto, California named George Thompson. He made enough money to support his wife, now known as Florence Owens Thompson, and in later years her now-grown children pooled their money and bought her a house in Modesto.

Oddly, Owens Thompson later sold the house, explaining that she preferred living in a trailer. It was in that trailer, in 1978, that a reporter for the Modesto Bee caught up with her and showed her the photo that had made her unwittingly famous.

The feature ran in the Bee and on the AP under the title: “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” She really wasn’t.

The “Migrant Mother” photo never made any money for Dorothea Lange. Per her contract with the government, the photos she took became the property of the government, and she wasn’t entitled to sell any of them. The photographs were good for her reputation, however, and she went on to a reasonably successful career later on.

The original negatives were nearly destroyed when somebody at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce threw them out. After being fished out of the dumpster behind the Chamber’s building, and sitting in an attic for 30 years, the negatives sold at auction for $296,000. In 1998, “Migrant Mother” was chosen for a stamp to commemorate the 1930s.

Florence Owens Thompson didn’t live to see any of this. In the early 1980s, her daughters announced that their mother was sick with cancer and a non-specific heart condition. She died in her trailer in 1983, age 79, and was quietly buried in Modesto. Her headstone reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.