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The King Of Ranchers

July 2024
17min read

He never packed a gun or led a posse or burned down a homesteader's hut, but in his time Henry Miller owned more land than anyone else in the West.

One of the great collectors in this nation’s history was a cattleman named Henry Miller. What he collected was land. During his long, intense lifetime, he did not succeed in acquiring all the land in the Far West, but he came as close as anybody is likely to come. It is estimated that at the peak of his career, near the end of the last century, he owned outright some 1,400,000 acres and had under his control through lease and grazing arrangements ten times that much. This adds up to a domain of about 22,000 square miles in all, spread over California, Oregon, and Nevada. A number of eastern states and European countries could have been tucked away comfortably inside this empire. He had a million head of cattle, as well as over a hundred thousand sheep; and during Miller’s heyday it was commonly said (though surely with some western hyperbole) that he could drive his cattle from Oregon to Mexico, pasturing them on his own land all the way.

Land was his passion as well as his business. “Wise men buy land, fools sell,” he used to say. No matter how much he acquired, he never felt he had enough. It always made him feel hemmed in whenever he thought of all the land he did not own. Carey McWilliams, in his book Factories in the Field, said of Miller, “His career is almost without parallel in the history of land monopolization in America. He must be considered as a member of the great brotherhood of buccaneers: the Goulds, the Harrimans, the Astors, the Vanderbilts.”

The man who rose so high in the hierarchy of American tycoons was born in 1827 in the little town of Brackenheim in Württemberg, Germany. He was the son of a butcher, and, apprenticed in that trade at the age of eight, he learned every aspect of it down to fashioning violin strings from sheep guts. When he was fourteen he ran away in search of broader prospects, making his way to Holland, England, and finally to New York. He later recalled that he was “sixty days on the way—sick about fifty of them. …I was entirely alone. … I cut loose from everything.’ ”

In 1850, at the age of twenty-two, he set out from New York for the city whose golden name was then on everybody’s lips—San Francisco. When, after a perilous journey across the Isthmus of Panama, he landed in the city by the Golden Gate, he had only six dollars to his name. Actually, not even the name was his own. He had been born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser, and that was what he had been called until he went on board his ship at New York. He had bought his ticket at the bargain rate of $350 from a shoe salesman who at the last minute had decided not to make the trip. As the young man was boarding the ship, he looked at the pasteboard in his hand and to his dismay saw on it the words “NOT TRANSFERABLE.” At the head of the gangplank stood the purser, checking the passenger list. “Name, please?” the purser asked.

The young man gulped, then looked down at his ticket and read off the words there—”Henry Miller.” Unwilling to admit the small fraud, he continued to use the salesman’s name. Eight years after his arrival in San Francisco, the state legislature passed a special bill legalizing the change.

From the beginning, the gold mines had no lure for Miller. He was as fully certain as the miners that the West was the land of opportunity, but he expected to have to work hard for his reward, not to have it handed to him as a pile of nuggets. He became a butcher’s assistant, laboring early and late seven days a week and indulging in none of the pleasures of what was then the most riotous, fun-loving city in the country. A contemporary gives us a telling glimpse of young Miller at the start of his career in 1850. The writer was wending his way home at dawn after a night of carousing and passed Miller on the street. Miller was on his way to open the butcher shop. He was bent over, carrying on his shoulders a calf he had slaughtered an hour earlier in the stockade at the other end of town. From the time that he was just a boy, Miller later told a biographer, his pervading ambition had been “to have something to do that I could spend all my time on my business.”

In 1851, after San Francisco had burned down in one of the several holocausts it was to experience, Miller opened his own butcher shop. People were pouring into the region from all over the world; between 1848 and 1860 the population of California increased by more than 300,000. They had to eat, and meat—great helpings of it—was what they wanted. By 1853 Miller had saved enough money to buy the first herd of American cattle ever driven into San Francisco. They were much juicier specimens than the local Spanish animals, which were small, longhorned creatures of little value except for their hides. Henceforth Miller was in the cattle business as well as the meat business.

Cattle needed land to graze on, and fortunately there was still open range. Cattle could roam the grassy valleys without constraint, along with antelope, deer, and wild horses. Miller shrewdly foresaw that this situation would not last forever, and he began buying land. Many big cattlemen without his foresight were forced out of business when the state legislature ended the open-range policies in the late 1860s.

Originally Miller had a partner, Charles Lux, also a South German by birth, who handled the marketing and the genteel city aspects of the business. Hence the properties were always known as the Miller and Lux holdings, although after Lux’s death in 1887, Miller bought his partner’s share from his heirs in Germany.

Miller’s first land purchase, made in 1863, was 8,830 acres of the Santa Rita ranch in the San Joaquin Valley at a cost of $10,400. Within five years he had bought 70,000 acres adjacent to this, and thereafter his domain spread inexorably and the herds bearing his Double H brand steadily increased in size. By the time the first fences went up to enclose what had formerly been open range, the public was startled to discover that a cattleman named Henry Miller owned or controlled over half a million acres. His first fence—a board fence it was, for barbed wire had not been invented yet—was sixty-eight miles long.

In those days the U.S. government issued land script as a way of paying some of its obligations to veterans, Indian fighters, and others. The script passed as currency in California, and Miller bought up as much as he could, generally at a big discount. In this way he acquired over 180,000 acres of what had been federal lands at a cost of about fifty-five cents an acre.

Like many of his contemporary titans of private enterprise. Miller had few scruples to deter him in his quest for gain. One of his methods of acquiring land was to buy out one or more of the heirs to a Spanish land grant. This would give him grazing rights over the whole- ranch and before long he would so dominate the land that the other heirs would sell out to him at a nominal price. He also engaged in the practice of making extensive loans on farm properties and then foreclosing on the mortgages. In addition. Miller showed himself ingenious at cheating the government by participating in dummy homesteading setups.

In the 1860s one of these exploits took him on what must certainly rank as the oddest voyage of exploration in California history. Under the U.S. Reclamation Act of 1850, individuals could obtain swamp land free if they would reclaim it. The law said the land had to be under water and traversable only by boat. The section Miller had his eye on was a large area to the south of his holdings. It was summer, and except for a few small patches the land was high, dry, and dusty. Undaunted, Miller loaded a rowboat onto the back of a buckboard, made himself comfortable by putting an easy chair in his boat, and then had a man hitch a span of horses to the buckboard and drive around the region while he mapped it. Eventually the government received from Miller a map of the area along with his sworn statement that he had covered this territory in a rowboat. He got his title.

There was an ironic sequel to this history, making more conventional transaction out of it than Miller had envisaged at the time. The territory actually was swamp land, though Miller did not know it. It had been a particularly dry year. When the rains came the following winter, the new acquisition resumed its normal watery state and was. indeed, traversable only by boat. Eventually Miller had to perform the reclamation job he never dreamed he would have to undertake.

In his physical appearance Miller was not prepossessing. He was heavyset, with piercing blue eyes and a jutting chin on which bristled a close-cropped beard. He always dressed in a somber black suit, like a clergyman, and all his life he spoke with a marked accent, a relic of his native Germany. But his personality made him a legend. He was a curious figure—a grasping, dominating, humorless man with a fabulous memory, brilliant organizing power, and a fanatic devotion to work. He was so thrifty that he could not bear to see even a piece of string wasted. Even after he had become a multimillionaire, he always insisted on having his potatoes boiled in the jackets because the skins could be peeled thinner that way; and he would go into a rage if he were given a full cup of coffee after he had asked for only a half cup, because this meant he was going to have to drink more than he thought was good for him in order to avoid the wastefulness of throwing any coffee out.

Yet he was apt to leave a twenty-dollar gold piece in one of his boots as a tip for the maid who shined them. And one day during the depression of the nineties he called into his office in Merced County. California, everybody in the region who owed him money and gave back all their IOUs. “It’s time for a clean start.” he said gruffly, wiping $350,000 off his books.

Constantly riding in his buggy from one of his many ranches to another in an attempt to supervise personally everything that was going on in his vast territory. Miller reminded some people of the mythical Flying Dutchman who was doomed to sail the seas for eternity. Once, according to legend, Nevada rivals hired a man to kill Miller in the course of one of his inspection trips man followed him for four days but could not catch him and finally gave up, saddle-sore and exhausted. Miller was not trying to escape. He did not even know he was being followed. He was just going about his business at his usual gruelling pace.

As Miller travelled, there used to emanate from him a steady stream of letters to the various supervisors, agents, foremen, and other satraps of his bovine empire. Written on cheap ruled paper at any opportune moment of the day—before sunup, late at night, during pauses on the dusty roads and trails—Miller’s letters contained advice and instructions on the most minute details of his far-flung operations: how to use willow limbs for fences to save the freight on fence posts, how to make use of cow chips as fuel to run the farm machinery, what to do about anthrax and blackleg, the advantages of opening haystacks at the south side, Miller’s displeasure at finding canned milk served in his hotel in the heart of the dairy country, the importance of rubbing salt over a hide to keep it from shrivelling, etc.

Miller hated untidiness almost as much as he did waste, and he abhorred idleness. To a ranch superintendent he wrote. “The men watching the ewes in all the fields where the ewes are lambing have time to pull up the cockleburs and put them in piles so that they can be burned up some evening. In that way they can clean up the field instead of standing around idle.” One sometimes gets the impression that during much of his life Miller was engaged in a superhuman effort to tidy up the entire Wild West and make it as neat as one of the pretty little farms back in Württemberg.

A good many of the thousands of letters of instructions he wrote have been preserved, and they are quite remarkable documents, constituting something of a comprehensive manual of cattle raising. Edward K. Treadwell. who was Miller’s lawyer for many years and who wrote a romanticized biography of him called The Cattle King, has left an amusing account illustrating the pace and content of Miller’s letter writing:

One day he |Miller| would write a foreman. “You should have some cats to destroy the mice in the granary.” The following day he would write, “Have the cats arrived for the granary?” The next day he would write. “Do not let the cats get food around the kitchen or they will catch no mice.” The next day he would follow these letters by one asking. “Are the cats catching the mice in the granary?” By this time the foreman would think that the mice in that particular granary were the most important things on the mind of Henry Miller and he would soon report the mice were all destroyed. Immediately would come back the order. “You don’t need more than one cat now, so send the other to the Midway Ranch.”

In being able to keep all these tiny but pertinent details of his complex business empire in mind, Miller showed a virtuosity like that of the chess master who, while blindfolded, could play fifty opponents simultaneously and beat all of them. “Fortunes are made by taking care of the small things,” Miller often used to assert. Few men have taken care of so many small things on quite so grand a scale as he.

His extraordinary concern about details and his phenomenal memory were revealed in hundreds of tales told by his employees. Riding about his Mason Valley ranch in Oregon one day, Miller discerned a steer with a swollen jaw. To his cattle superintendent, Ace Mitchell, Miller said, “Kill that lump-jawed steer, Mr. Mitchell. Feed the head to the hogs. The men can eat the carcass.”

The swelling had probably resulted from a burr lodged in the animal’s cheek. The reason for Miller’s command was that if the steer were allowed to live, an infection might develop and spread to other animals. For one reason or another, under the pressure of work, Mitchell failed to carry out the order, though he was generally known as the best cattleman Miller had.

Nothing more was said about this small matter on Miller’s subsequent trips. Two years later Miller was riding about the ranch with Mitchell in the buggy beside him when Miller suddenly remarked, “Mr. Mitchell, look over there—another lump-jawed steer.”

“Yes, Mr. Miller, I see it,” Mitchell said.

Miller leaned forward in his seat, turned half-sideways as the buggy proceeded down the dirt path, and eyed the steer closely. Then he exclaimed, “Mr. Mitchell, that’s the same steer I told you to kill two years ago. You’re fired.”

Ace Mitchell accepted his dismissal without argument. He knew Miller’s code: never to blame an employee in the slightest if a Miller order produced unsatisfactory results, but to fire him summarily if he neglected to carry it out. All Ace Mitchell said later about this was, “Thirty thousand cattle on this ranch, and that damn lump-jawed steer has to be standing by the road when Mr. Miller comes through!”

In almost every way Miller was unlike the image of the western cattleman—the free and easy, quick-on-the-draw character—that the movies and television have made familiar. He never went galloping off at the head of a posse to track down varmints who had been rustling his stock. He never shot it out with a desperado. He had no reputation for being greased lightning on the draw, nor had he any notches on his gun. In fact he never even carried a gun. He thought of himself as a hard-headed businessman, not as a romantic range-riding hero. Naturally, he tried to prevent raids on his herds. But he discounted thefts he could not prevent as part of the expenses of his business, just as a modern businessman writes off unavoidable losses. And when on one occasion he was held up by a masked bandit who stepped out of the brush with a cocked revolver, Miller’s response was as sensible and unheroic as that of any corporation executive threatened with a pistol on a Manhattan street today: peaceably he handed over his wallet and went his way, satisfied to have retained his life.

Miller’s attitude toward those who attempted to rob him was realistic. He knew that he was a natural target and that it was a rare jury that would bring in a conviction against a person accused of stealing from the man who owned more livestock and land than any person in America. In one case a defendant was acquitted after being caught red-handed. After the trial, he said reproachfully to one of Miller’s superintendents, “I’m surprised at Mr. Miller. He ought to be a better businessman than to prosecute me. It cost me a thousand dollars to bribe that jury. Look at all the cattle I’m going to have to steal now to get that back.”

All this Miller took calmly. He continued to prosecute—for whatever deterrent value the action might have—the thieves who rustled his cattle. On the other hand, he never prosecuted anyone—settlers or bandits —who killed his cattle for food. Miller asked only that whoever killed any of his steers should hang the hides on a tree where Miller’s cowboys could find them. Hides, after all, were worth four dollars apiece. It was surprising how often even bandits took the trouble to comply with this request.

This is just one example of Miller’s shrewd knowledge of human nature. He knew he could not afford to have the small settlers around his ranches actively hostile to him, and he worked out an elaborate code for winning their friendship. “Never charge anyone for a meal at our ranches,” he wrote his superintendents, “but whenever any of our employees eat outside, they should insist on paying for the meal.”

He let it be widely known that any settler should feel free to pick up a Miller cow on the range and take her home as a milk cow for the family, provided the settler saw to it that the unweaned calves did not suffer. Miller effected a sort of lend-lease arrangement on these cows. When the settler found that the cow he had picked up had run dry, he could bring her into any Miller ranch and trade her in for one that was flowing with milk.

Miller had a long list of people to whom he regularly sent gifts, and he knew better than to try to stint or economize here. “There’s no use giving a person a turkey and expecting him to appreciate it unless it is in fine condition,” Miller once said to a penny-pinching foreman. “It’s better not to send a gift at all.”

Miller’s prudently calculated generosity extended to tramps and other vagrants, to whom he gave several thousand free meals a year. This proved to be very good insurance. Other cattlemen had their barns or haystacks burned and their gates left open by tramps and malcontents, but this happened less often to Miller. With characteristic punctiliousness he drew up a detailed set of instructions for the care of hobos:

  1. Never refuse a tramp a meal, but never give him more than one meal. A tramp should be a tramp and keep on tramping.
  2. Never refuse a tramp a night’s lodging. Warn him not to use any matches and let him sleep in the barn, but never let him stay more than one night.
  3. Never make a tramp work for his meal. He won’t thank you if you do. Anyhow he is too weak to work before a meal and too lazy to work after a meal.
  4. Never let the tramps eat with the men. Make them wait until the men are through, and then make them eat off the same plates. The cook should not be made to do extra work for tramps.

Because of rule Number 4 the route up the long San Joaquin Valley from one Miller ranch to another was known far and wide among the brothers of the road as “the Dirty Plate Route.”

Though the standard western histories—their pages teeming with adventure, violence, and such romantic episodes as the gold rush—have tended to overlook Miller, he was far more than a mere curiosity. He affected the development of the Far West, particularly of California, in a number of unique and significant ways. He put the business of raising livestock onto a systematic basis for the first time. He developed a breed of cattle particularly suited to the West—a mixture of Hereford, Devon, and Durham—and improved the breeds of sheep. He has been credited with being one of the first agriculturalists in California to experiment with the strange new crop called alfalfa, and he was among the first to plant cotton and rice, both now staples of the state’s agriculture.

Of even more far-reaching consequence were his reclamation and irrigation projects. He was one of the first to perceive that water was more precious to California’s future than gold; he sought out naturally irrigated land for pasture, taking up his positions along the state’s waterways like a general deploying his forces on a battlefield. Miller was also the first to do something practical on a large scale to assure a constant water supply—he built thousands of miles of levees and irrigation ditches, three major canals with a total length of 190 miles, and a 350-foot dam across the San Joaquin River. It is estimated that he thereby made fertile over 150,000 acres of near-desert land.

And by his constant court battles he decisively shaped the nature of the law pertaining to water rights in the Far West. The fundamental issue revolved around the question of which of two theories should prevail—that of riparian rights, derived from English common law, which asserts that the owner of the land along the banks of a stream has the right to the full, undiverted flow of the stream in front of his property; or the “appropriationist” doctrine, which holds that water may be siphoned off as it is legitimately needed. In California Miller fought for the riparian theory and managed after two hearings to convince the state supreme court (though its four-to-three decision was tainted with a suspicion of bribery) that the law was on his side. So crucial was the issue at the time that a political party of irrigationists was formed, which was concerned solely with fighting the great cattleman’s position and obtaining the right to divert water from the streams for use by the settlers. Miller’s victory in the courts made him for a time possibly the most unpopular man in California, for while riparian rights had made sense in England, where rain falls the year round and irrigation is unnecessary, it certainly did not make sense, as far as the mass of the population was concerned, in the semi-arid western regions of the United States. For the next fifty years this riparian theory remained the law of the state, though fortunately for California’s development it was largely ignored in practice and the settlers tended generally to appropriate water as needed.

Having won his victory, Miller subsequently showed a talent for compromise. He worked out a mutually beneficial agreement with rival land tycoons and with the settlers in the Kern County region, and they constructed what was then the largest reservoir in the United States, to provide water both for the backcountry farmers and for Miller’s cattle raising.

The long-term effects of Miller’s land collecting are even more controversial than those of his water hoarding. It is possible to maintain, as have such authorities on the subject as Dr. Paul S. Taylor, that the size of his holdings permanently unbalanced the nature of California’s agricultural economy. Such great accumulations of arable land in the hands of one man, these authorities declare, fostered the development of the kind of factory-farm agricultural pattern that later emerged in California and thwarted the development of small, independent farms. The pattern existed before Miller’s day, of course; the original Spanish land grants were also of great size. But the fact remains that from the Spanish era to the present, California has never had the opportunity to develop its agriculture in the American tradition of the sturdy, small farmer.

Though land and livestock were always his primary interests, Miller inevitably accumulated numerous subsidiary enterprises as the years passed—lumber yards, slaughter houses, public utility systems, banks, hotels, stores, and just about all the property and businesses in the three San Joaquin Valley towns of Los Banos, Firebaugh, and Dos Palos. And just as inevitably, Miller’s acquisition of these businesses meant that he personally directed them, down to the most minute detail.

Miller lived to be eighty-nine. Up until a short time before his death in 1916, he continued his remarkable pace of activities. A secretary who worked for him near the end of his career recalled later, “When Mr. Miller was in town, I was expected to be at work at 6:15 A.M. By that time he always had a stack of letters waiting for me, that he had written in longhand before breakfast.” Miller himself used to say, “I consider twenty-four hours a working day for me. If I get my work done before the twenty-four hours is over, I sleep. But the work must be done, whether I get my rest or not.” He drank no alcoholic beverages, stopped smoking once he had decided the habit was harmful, and ate only from necessity. “I have wished many times I could do without eating altogether,” he commented.

He had no time or inclination for elegant parties or entertainments, and he seldom consorted with the other nabobs of the Far West—the Fairs, Huntingtons, Hopkinses, Stanfords, and so forth—scorning them because he believed they had made their fortunes by sudden strokes of luck rather than by hard work. Such pleasures as he took were feudal in nature. He loved to spend his Sundays presiding over a great barbecue at his summer home on Mount Madonna near Gilroy, surrounded by his family, his children and grandchildren, his ranch superintendents, and his workmen.

When automobiles came on the market, Miller was urged to buy one but resisted, saying that that would be a silly thing for a man who owned ten thousand horses. Finally, in 1909, he got a big Pierce-Arrow along with a chauffeur—or a “chiffonier,” as he always pronounced the word. And in that he continued the rounds of his empire, the uniformed chauffeur imperturbably driving the Pierce-Arrow along river beds, across sage brush fields, and up rocky hills.

Miller’s estate at his death was appraised at forty million dollars, a sizable increase over the six dollars he had started with, though somewhat diminished from its peak at the turn of the century. After his death an attempt was made to continue the enterprise as before, but it did not prove feasible, and within a few years all but a few acres of the land had to be sold off. Times had changed since Miller began, and California, with land urgently needed for industry, subdivisions, oil wells, and more intensive agriculture, could not afford the luxury of so much territory devoted to pasture. An epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease took a heavy toll of Miller’s herds. And cash was needed to meet the inheritance taxes.

These were some of the reasons the holdings dwindled. But there was certainly also a personal reason. Miller’s had been a one-man empire, built and maintained by an individual of peculiar drive and talents. When that man died, it was simply not possible to find another who could hold such an empire together.

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