|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Great American Land Grab
by Peter Barnes
The concentration of land ownership in California, now the most productive agricultural region in the world, is perhaps most extraordinary of all. According to a 1970 study by the University of California Agricultural Extension Service, 3.7 million acr es of California farmland are owned by 45 corporate farms. Thus, nearly half of the agricultural land in the state, and probably three-quarters of the prime irrigated land, is owned by a tiny fraction of the population. This monopolization didn’t just hap pen; it was and still is abetted by federal and state policies.
Land in California originally acquired its monopoly character from the prodigious and vaguely defined grants issued by first the Spanish and then the Mexican governments. Upon California’s accession to the union, the United States government could have incorporated these latifundia still almost totally unpopulated – into the public domain, or ordered them divided into small farms for settlers. It chose, probably without much thought, to swallow them whole and to allow them to remain private. Almost im mediately they fell prey to wily speculators and defrauders, who either bought out the heirs of the grantees or forged phony title papers and bluffed their way through the courts. Several of the original Spanish grants are embodied in giant holdings today : the Irvine Ranch (88,ooo acres in Orange County), the Tejon Ranch (268,000 acres in the hills and valleys northeast of Los Angeles, 40 percent owned by the Chandler family (which publishes the Los Angeles Times), Rancho California (97,000 acres to the n ortheast of San Diego, jointly owned by Kaiser and Aetna Life), and the Newhall Ranch (43,000 acres north of Los Angeles).
The struggle for acquisition of the Mexican land grants was only the beginning of the empire-building period in California. For some reason American history books are filled with tales about the robber barons of finance and industry – the Rockefellers, Morgans, Carnegies and Harrimans – but almost always neglect to mention the great cattle barons of the West. At the top of any listing of the latter must certainly be the names of Henry Miller, James Ben Ah Haggin and Lloyd Tevis.
Miller was a German immigrant who arrived in San Francisco in 1850 with six dollars in his pocket, and amassed an empire of 14 million acres – about three times the size of Belgium – before he died. Starting out as a butcher, he soon realized that the big money lay in owning cattle, not chopping them into pieces for a handful of customers. He also recognized, in advance of other Californians, that water was far more valuable in the arid West than gold.
Miller’s strategy was to buy up land along the rivers of California’s central valleys, thereby acquiring riparian rights to the water. Then he would irrigate the river banks with ditches, providing his cattle with natural grasses on which to graze. Ho mesteaders further back from the river would lose their water and be forced to sell to Miller at dirt-cheap prices.
Miller had other tricks as well. According to Carey McWilliams’ Factories in tile Field, a large portion of Miller’s empire “was acquired through the purchase of land scrip which he bought from land speculators who, a few years previously, had obtained the scrip when they, while in the employ of the United States as government surveyors, had carved out vast estates for themselves.” At one point in his career Miller set out to acquire some dry grasslands in the San Joaquin valley under the terms, ironic ally, of the Swamp Lands Act of 1850. This was a law under which the government offered alleged swamp lands to individuals free of charge if they would agree to drain them. The law provided that the land had to be underwater and traversable only by boat. Miller loaded a rowboat onto the back end of a wagon and had a team of horses pull him and his dinghy across his desired grassland. Eventually the government received a map of the territory from Miller, together with a sworn statement that he had crossed in a boat. Thousands of acres thus became his.
End of Part Three.
Part Four will be published starting Thursday, September 18.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you’ll be pleased — and perhaps shocked — to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.