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The King Of Ranchers
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.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
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.