Okie is a term, dating from as early as 1907, denoting a resident or native of Oklahoma. It is derived from the name of the state, similar to Texan or Tex for someone from Texas, or Arkie or Arkansawyer for a native of Arkansas.

In the 1930s on the West Coast, especially California, the term came to symbolize a migrant who left the South-central, Midwest and sometimes, Southeast United States to settle in masses to restart their lives in the region's agriculture and manufacturing industries. Most worked on farms, and in the shipyards and defense factories leading up to and following World War II. The Dust Bowl as well as a federal program which took farm land out of production caused many to lose or leave their homes.

Rural caucasian and American Indian farmers of Oklahoma, and from the Southern and Central states relocated to the Northeast and west coast since the 1850s, but the "Okie" migration of the 1930s brought in over a million new displaced residents to California's Central valley and major cities bucked the trend.

Great Depression usage

In the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl era, large numbers of farmers fleeing ecological disaster and the Great Depression migrated from the Great Plains and Southwest regions to California mostly along historic U.S. Route 66. More of the migrants were from Oklahoma than any other state, and a total of approximately 15% of the Oklahoma population left for California.

Ben Reddick, a free-lance journalist and later publisher of the Paso Robles Daily Press, is credited with first using the term Okie, in the mid-1930s, to identify migrant farm workers. He noticed the "OK" abbreviation (for Oklahoma) on many of the migrant’s license plates and referred to them in his article as "Okies." Californians began calling all migrants "Okies," regardless of whether they were actually from Oklahoma.

Many West Coast residents and some politically motivated writers used Reddick's term to disparage these poor, white (including those of mixed American Indian ancestry, the largest tribal group being Cherokees), migrant workers and their families. The term was made famous nationwide by John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.

Will Rogers, an Okie immigrant to California himself, once remarked jokingly that the Okies arriving in California increased the average intelligence of both states.

California's "Anti-Okie Law"

In 1937, California passed the so-called "Anti-Okie Law" (Section 2615 St. 1937, p. 1406) which stated, "Every person, firm or corporation, or officer or agent thereof that brings or assists in bringing into the State any indigent person who is not a resident of the State, knowing him to be an indigent person, is guilty of a misdemeanor," The statute was eventually overturned in 1941 by Edwards v. California (314 U.S. 160). Edwards had brought his brother-in-law from Texas to California and was convicted and sent to prison for six months.

Modern usage

It has been said that some Oklahomans who stayed and lived through the Dust Bowl see the Okie migrants as being quitters who fled Oklahoma; but there is hardly a native Oklahoman who does not have some family member who made the trip. Most Oklahoma natives are as proud of their Okies who made good in California as are the Okies themselves—and of the Arkies, West Texans, and others who were cast in with them.

In the later half of the twentieth century, there became increasing evidence that any pejorative meaning of the term "Okie" was changing; former and present "Okies" began to apply the label as a badge of honor and symbol of the Okie survivor attitude.

In one example, Republican Oklahoma Governor Dewey F. Bartlett launched a campaign in the 1960s to popularize Okie as a positive term for Oklahomans; however, the Democrats used the campaign, and the fact that Bartlett was born in Ohio, as a political tool against him, and further degraded the term for a time.

However, in 1968, Governor Bartlett made Reddick, the originator of the California usage, an honorary Okie. And in the early 1970s, Merle Haggard's country song Okie from Muskogee was a hit on national airwaves.

Also during the 1970s, the term Okie became familiar to most Californians as a prototype of a subcultural group, just like the resurgence of Southern American regionalism and renewal of ethnic American (Irish American, Italian American or Polish American ) identities in the Northeast and Midwest states at the time. However, in the early 1990's the California Department of Transportation refused to allow the name of the "Okie Girl" restaurant to appear on a roadside sign on Interstate 5, arguing that the restaurant's name insulted Oklahomans; only after protracted controversy (and a letter from the Governor of Oklahoma) did the agency relent.

Since the 1990s, the children and grandchildren of Okies in California changed the very meaning of Okie to a self-title of pride in obtaining success, as well to challenge what they felt was "snobbery" or "the last group to make fun of" in the state's urban area cultures.

Oklahomans usually use Okie without prejudice, but it is often used jocularly too; similar to the use of Hoosier by Indianans, Yankee by New Englanders, or Canuck by Canadians, none of whom consider their terms for themselves particularly denigrating.

Popular culture


Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath won the Pulitzer Prize for its controversial characterization of the Okie lifestyle and journey to California.

In the Cities in Flight series of science fiction novels (1956-1962) by James Blish, the term "Okie" was applied in a similar context to entire cities that, thanks to an anti-gravity device, took flight to the stars in order to escape the Earth's economic collapse. Working as a migrant labor force, these cities came to act as cultural pollinators, spreading technology and knowledge throughout the expanding human civilization. The later novels focus on the travels of New York City as one such Okie city, though there are hundreds more.

In On the Road, the road novel by Jack Kerouac - written between 1948 and 1949, although not published until 1957 - the term appears to refer to some of the people the main character, a worker on a cotton plantation in California, meets during his trips around the states.


  • California Okie - Buck Owens (1976).
  • Dear Okie - Doye O’Dell/Rudy Sooter (1948)—"Dear Okie, if you see Arkie, tell ’im Tex’s got a job for him out in Californy."
  • Lonesome Okie Goin’ Home - Merl Lindsay and the Oklahoma Night Riders (1947).
  • Oakie Boogie - Jack Guthrie and His Oklahomans (1947)—considered by many to be the first Rock & Roll song.
  • Okie - J. J. Cale (1974).
  • Okie From Muskogee - Merle Haggard (1969)—58th on the Top 500 Country Music Songs list.
  • Okie Skies - The Bays Brothers (2004).
  • Okies in California - Doye O'Odell (1949).
  • Ramblin' Okie - Terry Fell.
  • She's An Okie - Al Vaughn.
  • Okanagan Okie - Stompin' Tom Connors


  • Cahill, Charlie. Point Blank Poetry: Okie Country Cowboy Poems. Midwest City, OK: CF Cahill, 1991. LoC Control Number: 92179243
  • Harrison, Pamela. Okie Chronicles. Cincinnati: David Robert Books, 2005. ISBN 1-932339-87-6
  • McDaniel, Wilma Elizabeth. California Okie Poet Laureate. All works.
  • Rose, Dorothy. Dustbowl Okie Exodus. Seven Buffaloes Press, 1987. ISBN 9998546451

Other fiction

  • Charles, Henry P. That dumbest Okie, and other short stories: Oklahoma! "The land of honest men and slender women." Wetzel, c1952.
  • Cuelho, Artie, Jr. At the Rainbow's End: A Dustbowl Collection of Prose and Poetry of the Okie Migration to the San Joaquin Valley. Big Timber, Montana: Seven Buffaloes Press, 1982. ISBN 0-916380-25-4
  • Haslam, Gerald. Okies: Selected Stories. Santa Barbara, California: Peregrine Smith, Inc, 1975. ISBN 0-87905-042-X
  • Hudson, Lois Phillips. Reapers of the Dust. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984. ISBN 0873511778

Other uses

  • "Call OKIE" is a non-profit organization created to oversee underground utilities and excavations in the state of Oklahoma. It was created in response to the Oklahoma Underground Facilities Damage Prevention Act enacted in 1981.
  • "Okie" was the name of two P-47 fighter/bombers piloted by Maj. Quince L. Brown of the 84th Fighter Squadron, 78th Fighter Group, during World War II. Brown was one of the 8th Army Air Force's first aces and credited with 14.333 victories. His first P-47D was noted for its distinctive artwork. He was killed during his second combat tour. Brown's hometown was Bristow, Oklahoma, and he was inducted into the Oklahoma Aviation and Space Hall of Fame in 1994. ,
  • "OKIE (Oklahoma Israel Exchange)" is an independent non-profit organization established to coordinate economic and cultural activities between the state of Oklahoma and the state of Israel. It was created 1992 by Oklahoma Governor David Walters.
  • "Okie Derby" is the world's largest proficiency air rally. It is sponsored annually by the Oklahoma Chapter of the Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots).
  • An "OKIE pin", a promotional souvenir developed by Governor Dewey Bartlett, (and an Oklahoma flag) was placed in the Apollo 10 lunar module "Snoopy" by Commander Thomas P. Stafford before it was sent into orbit around the sun.
  • The USS Oklahoma, christened March 23, 1914, was affectionately called "Okie" (or "Okey") by its crew.

See also



  • Haslam, Gerald W. The Other California: The Great Central Valley in Life and Letters. University of Nevada Press, 1993. ISBN 087417225X
  • Igler, David; Clark Davis. The Human Tradition in California. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. ISBN 0842050272
  • Windschuttle, Keith. "Steinbeck's Myth of the Okies". The New Criterion, Vol. 20, No. 10, June 2002.

Further reading

  • Gregory, James N. American Exodus: The Dust Bowl Migration and Okie Culture in California. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-19-504423-1
  • La Chapelle, Peter. Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. ISBN 0-520-24889-2
  • Lange, Dorothea; Paul S. Taylor. An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. 1939.
  • Morgan, Dan. Rising in the West: The True Story of an "Okie" Family from the Great Depression through the Regan Years. New York: Knopf, 1992. ISBN 0-394-57453-2
  • Ortiz, Roxanne Dunbar. Red Dirt: Growing up Okie. New York: Verso, 1997. ISBN 1-85984-856-7
  • Shindo, Charles J. Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997. ISBN 978-0-7006-0810-2
  • Sonneman, Toby F. Fruit Fields in My Blood: Okie Migrants in the West. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 1992. ISBN 0-89301-152-5
  • Weisiger, Marsha L. Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933-1942. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. ISBN 0-8061-2696-5

External links

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