Florence Owens Thompson

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Florence Owens Thompson
Migrant Mother, taken by
Dorothea Lange in 1936
Born Florence Leona Christie
(1903-09-01)September 1, 1903
Indian Territory, Oklahoma, U.S.
Died September 16, 1983(1983-09-16) (aged 80)
Scotts Valley, California, U.S.
Resting place Lakewood Memorial Park
Nationality American
Occupation Agricultural laborer
Known for Dorothea Lange's photograph
Spouse(s) Cleo Owens ? – c. 1931) m. 1921
George B. Thompson (1902–1974)

Florence Owens Thompson (September 1, 1903 – September 16, 1983), born Florence Leona Christie, was the subject of Dorothea Lange's famous photo Migrant Mother (1936), an iconic image of the Great Depression. The Library of Congress titled the image: "Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California."[1]


Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on September 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. Her father, Jackson Christie, had abandoned her mother, Mary Jane Cobb, before Florence was born, and her mother remarried Charles Akman (of Choctaw descent) in the spring of 1905. The family lived on a small farm in Indian Territory outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.[2]

Seventeen-year-old Florence married Cleo Owens, a 23-year-old farmer's son from Stone County, Missouri, on February 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy.[2] The family migrated west with other Owens' relatives to Oroville, California, where they worked in the saw mills and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley. By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when her husband Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence then worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children.[2] In 1933 Florence had another child, returned to Oklahoma for a time, and then was joined by her parents as they migrated to Shafter, California, north of Bakersfield. There Florence met Jim Hill, with whom she had three more children. During the 1930s the family worked as migrant farm workers following the crops in California and at times into Arizona. Florence later recalled periods when she picked 400–500 pounds of cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to work. She said: "I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids."[3]

The family settled in Modesto, California, in 1945. Well after World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson. This marriage brought her far greater financial security than she had ever enjoyed.[2]

Iconic photo[edit]

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Thompson and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville "where they had hoped to find work in the lettuce fields of the Pajaro Valley."[2] On the road, the car timing chain snapped and they coasted to a stop just inside a pea-pickers' camp on Nipomo Mesa. They were shocked to find so many people camping there – as many as 2,500 to 3,500.[2] A notice had been sent out for pickers, but the crops had been destroyed by freezing rain, leaving them without work or pay. Years later Florence told an interviewer that when she cooked food for her children that day little children appeared from the pea pickers' camp asking, "Can I have a bite?"[4]

While Jim Hill, her husband, and two of Thompson's sons went into town to get the car's damaged radiator repaired,[5] Thompson and some of the children set up a temporary camp. As Thompson waited, Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family. She took 6 images in the course of 10 minutes.

Lange's field notes of the images read:[2]

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 later wrote of the encounter with Thompson:[6]

I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.

Thompson claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. Troy Owens recounted:[2]

There's no way we sold our tires, because we didn't have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don't believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn't have.

According to Thompson, Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The News ran the pictures almost immediately and reported that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California.[7] Within days, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government.[7] Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived[7] and were working near Watsonville, California.[2]

While Thompson's identity was not known for over forty years after the photos were taken, the images became famous. The sixth image, especially, which later became known as Migrant Mother, "has achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in United States history." Roy Stryker called Migrant Mother the "ultimate" photo of the Depression Era: "[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture ... . The others were marvelous, but that was special ... . She is immortal." As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration "have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography." Edward Steichen described them as "the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures." Later, however, Lange was criticized for taking inaccurate notes.[2]

Thompson's identity was discovered in the late 1970s. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph.[8] A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press distributed a story headlined "Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo." Florence was quoted as saying "I wish she [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."[2]

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture did help make Lange a celebrity and earned her "respect from her colleagues".[9]

In an interview with CNN, Thompson's daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalled how her mother was a "very strong lady", and "the backbone of our family". She said: "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. That's one thing she did do."[10]

Rediscovering Migrant Mother[edit]

While the image was being prepared for exhibit in 1941,[11] the negative of the photo was retouched to remove Florence's thumb from the lower-right corner of the image.[12] In the late 1960s, Bill Hendrie found the original Migrant Mother photograph along with 31 other unretouched, vintage photos by Dorothea Lange in a dumpster at the San Jose Chamber of Commerce.[13] After the death of Hendrie and his wife, their daughter, Marian Tankersley, rediscovered the photos while emptying her parents' San Jose home.[13] In 1998, the retouched photo of Migrant Mother became a 32-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp in the 1930s portion of the Celebrate the Century series.[14] The stamp printing was unusual since daughters Katherine McIntosh (on the left in the stamp) and Norma Rydlewski (in Thompson's arms in the stamp) were alive at the time of the printing and "It is very uncommon for the Postal Service to print stamps of individuals who have not been dead for at least 10 years."[15]

In the same month the U.S. stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange's handwritten notes and signature sold in 1998 for $244,500 at Sotheby's New York.[16] In November 2002, Dorothea Lange's personal print of Migrant Mother sold at Christie's New York for $141,500.[7] In October 2005, an anonymous buyer paid $296,000 at Sotheby's for the 32 rediscovered Lange photos—nearly six times their pre-bid estimate.[13]

Death and aftermath[edit]

Thompson (seated) with three of her daughters, (from l. to r.) Katherine, Ruby and Norma, in 1979—43 years after Migrant Mother

Though Thompson’s 10 children bought her a house in Modesto, California, in the 1970s, Thompson found she preferred living in a mobile home and moved back into one.[6]

Thompson was hospitalized and her family appealed for financial help in late August 1983.[17] By September, the family had collected $35,000 in donations to pay for her medical care. Florence died of "cancer and heart problems" at Scotts Valley, California, on September 16, 1983.[18][19] She was buried next to her husband George, in Lakewood Memorial Park, in Hughson, California, and her gravestone reads: "FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON Migrant Mother – A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood."[20]

Daughter Katherine McIntosh told CNN that the photo's fame had made the family feel both ashamed and determined never to be as poor again.[10] Son Troy Owens said that more than 2,000 letters received along with donations for his mother's medical fund led to a re-appraisal of the photo: "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."[2]

The other five photographs[edit]

Lange took six photos that day, the last being the famous Migrant Mother. These are the other five photos:

The other 5 photos taken by Dorothea Lange
  1. 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.
  2. Ruby has moved inside the tent. Katherine stands next to her mother. Florence is talking to Ruby, who is behind her mother.
  3. Florence is nursing Norma. Katherine has moved back from her mother. Ruby is still behind her mother.
  4. Left to right are Florence, Ruby and baby Norma.
  5. Florence stopped nursing Norma and Ruby has come out from behind her. This photograph was the one used by the newspapers the following day to report the story of the starving migrants.


  1. ^ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. fsa1998021539/PP Accessed July 14, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Dunne, Geoffrey (2002). "Photographic license". New Times. Archived from the original on June 2, 2002. 
  3. ^ "Video featuring interview with Florence Thompson". 
  4. ^ "Florence Owen Thompson: audio from interview". 
  5. ^ The Tribune (San Luis Obispo) (June 17, 2007) Dorothea Lange captured suffering of itinerant workers near Nipomo.
  6. ^ a b Maksel, Rebecca. "Migrant Madonna". Smithsonian (Smithsonian Institution). 
  7. ^ a b c d Schoettler, Carl (November 12, 2002). "A true picture of hard times. Photo of poverty sells for a stack of riches". Daily Press (Virginia). 
  8. ^ King, Peter H. (October 18, 1998) The Fresno Bee One defiant family escapes poignant portrait of poverty. Section: Vision; Page F1.
  9. ^ Lucas, Dean. "Famous Pictures Magazine – Depression Mother". Retrieved July 12, 2012. 
  10. ^ a b "Girl from iconic Great Depression photo: 'We were ashamed'". CNN. December 3, 2008. Retrieved December 4, 2008. 
  11. ^ James C. Curtis. Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, and the Culture of the Great Depression. Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Spring, 1986), pp. 1–20. (JSTOR). Accessed May 26, 2007.
  12. ^ "Photo Gallery - Faces of Feminism". Dorothea-Lange.org. September 18, 2003. Archived from the original on February 8, 2007. Retrieved May 26, 2007. 
  13. ^ a b c Neff, Cynthia. (October 20, 2005) The Tribune (San Luis Obispo) Face of hard times has a big payday. Dorothea Lange's famous 'Migrant Mother' Depression photograph, taken in Nipomo, and others collect almost $300,000 at auction.
  14. ^ Bennett, Lennie. (May 11, 2008) St. Petersburg Times A mother's strength knows no bounds. Section: Latitudes; Page 2L.
  15. ^ Garchik, Leah. (October 6, 1998) San Francisco Chronicle Stamp honors ERA, not the people. Section: Daily datebook; Page B10. Ruby Sprague, who appears on the right in the stamp, had died of cancer before the stamp appeared.
  16. ^ Yi, Matthew. (November 22, 1998) Tulsa World Girl in famous Depression-era photo piqued. Section: News; page A11.
  17. ^ "An Appeal For A Face From The Depression.". Associated Press in New York Times. August 24, 1983. Retrieved July 14, 2008. Decades after her careworn, resolute face became a symbol of the grinding poverty of the Depression, Florence Thompson's children are asking for help to save their mother's ebbing life. If I needed something for myself, I wouldn't make a public appeal, but this is for my mother, said one ... 
  18. ^ "Florence Thompson, Symbol of Era". United Press International. September 17, 1983. Florence Thompson, whose face was made famous in a 1936 photograph that became a haunting symbol of the suffering of millions during the Great Depression, died Friday. She was 80. Mrs. Thompson suffered from cancer and heart problems and recently suffered a stroke, said a nurse who helped care for her. Her family last month appealed for financial help to care for their mother, and drew hundreds of donations totalling $35,000. 
  19. ^ "Florence Thompson, 'Migrant Mother,' Dies". Los Angeles Times. September 17, 1983. Florence Thompson, whose pensive, languid face became a symbol of the Great Depression, died Friday - only weeks after her family issued a national plea for money to help defray her mounting medical [costs]. 
  20. ^ "Florence Leona Christie Thompson". findagrave.com. Retrieved February 16, 2015. 

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