|January 9, 2007||Posted by Peter Barnes under Progress Report, The Progress Report|
The Great American Land Grab
by Peter Barnes
On a par with Miller in deviousness and ambition was the team of Haggin and Tevis, a pair of San Francisco tycoons who, among other things, had interests in the Southern Pacific Railroad and Senator George Hearst’s far-flung mining ventures. By the 187 0s, Haggin and Tevis had accumulated several hundred thousand acres in the San Joaquin Valley from former Mexican grantees, homesteaders, the Southern Pacific Railroad and assorted “swamps.” They fought bitterly for water rights to the valley’s rivers, an d, as Margaret Cooper has recounted in an unpublished University of California master’s thesis, they were no strangers to fraud. Their empire-building was capped in 1877 by a masterfully engineered land-grab that must rank among the classics of the genre. Under the impetus of California’s Senator Sargent, who was acting on behalf of Haggin and Tevis, Congress hurriedly approved the Desert Land Act, and the bill was signed by President Grant in the last days of his administr ation. The law had the effect of removing several hundred thousand acres from settlement under the Homestead Act. These lands, which were said to be worthless desert, were to be sold in 640 acre sections to any individual – whether or not he resided on th e land – who would promise to provide irrigation. The price was to be 25 cents per acre down, with an additional $1 per acre to be paid after reclamation.
Needless to say, much of the land in question was far from worthless The chunk of it eyed by Haggin and Tevis was located close to the Kern River, and was partially settled. A San Francisco Chronicle story of 1877 describes what happened next:
The President’s signature was not dry on the cunningly devised enactment before Boss Carr [Haggin and Tevis' agent in the valley] and his confederates were advised from Washington that the breach was open. It was Saturday, the 31st of March. The applic ations were in readiness, sworn and subscribed by proxies. . . . All that Saturday night and the following Sunday, the clerks in the Land Office were busy recording and filing the bundles of applications dumped upon them by Boss Carr, although it was not until several days after that the office was formally notified of the approval of the Desert Land Act.
Thus, by hiring scores of vagabonds to enter phony claims for 640 acres, and then by transferring those claims to themselves, Haggin and Tevis were able to acquire title to approximately 150 square miles of valley land before anybody else in California had even heard of the Desert Land Act. In the process, they dislodged settlers who had not yet perfected their titles under old laws and who were caught unawares by the new one. The Chronicle called the whole maneuver an “atrocious villainy” and demanded return of the stolen lands. A federal investigation followed, but Haggin and Tevis, as usual, emerged triumphant.
All this skullduggery would be of little contemporary interest were it not for the fact that the empires accumulated by the likes of Miller, Haggin and Tevis are still with us in only slightly different form; they have become the vast, highly mechanize d corporate farms that monopolize California’s best farmland and produce most of the fruit and vegetables and much of the sugar and cotton that America consumes. The fate of Haggin and Tevis’ holdings is particularly in teresting. In 1890, in order to per petuate their empire beyond their deaths, the two entrepreneurs incorporated under the name of Kern County Land Company. Until the 1930s most of the company’s vast acreage was still used for cattle grazing. In 1936 a copious deposit of oil was discovered beneath the company’s lands, producing a colossal windfall for the heirs of Haggin and Tevis. Rather than pay taxes on the full amount of its oil earnings, the company began sinking them into irrigation pipes and sprinklers, thereby upgrading rangeland wo rth $25 an acre into prime cropland worth $1000 an acre, and later into orchards worth up to $4000 an acre. By 1965 a share of Kern County Land Company stock that sold for $33 in 1933 was worth (after splits totaling 40 for 1) $2680 – and had paid $1883 i n dividends. Finally, in 1967, Kern County Land Company was bought by Tenneco (of whom more in my next article).
End of Part Four.
Part Five will be published starting Thursday, September 25.
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.