Published as a series of essays for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72.
The Great American Land Grab
by Peter Barnes
With three out of four Americans now jammed into cities, no one pays much attention to landholding patterns in the countryside. How things have changed. A hundred years ago, land for the landless was a battle-cry. People sailed the oceans, traversed the continent and fought the Indians, all for a piece of territory they might call their own. America envisioned itself-not entirely accurately -- as a nation of independent farmers, hardy, self-reliant, democratic. Others saw us this way too. Tocqueville noted the "great equality" that existed among the immigrants who settled New England, the absence of rich landed proprietors except in the South, and the emergence in the western settlements of "democracy arrived at its utmost limits."
Along with industrialization, however, came urbanization and the decline of the Arcadian dream. Immigrants forgot about land and thought about jobs instead; the sons and grandsons of the original pioneers began to leave the farms and join the immigrants in the cities. Radical agitation shifted from farm to factory. Frontiersmen's demands for free land and easy credit were supplanted by workers' demands for a fair wage, decent conditions and union recognition. In due course a kind of permanent prosperity was achieved, and America directed its energies outwards, not inwards. Consumers bought their food in neatly wrapped packages, at prices most of them could afford, and forgot about the land.
Why, then, in the present day, should we turn back to look at our landholding patterns? One reason is that the land is still the cradle of great poverty and injustice. Another is that the beauty of the land is fast disappearing. Canyons are being dammed, redwoods felled, hills strip-mined and plateaus smogged. Wilderness and croplands are giving way to suburban sprawl and second-home developments. And the balance of nature itself is threatened by excessive use of pesticides.
The deterioration of our cities should also cause us to look back at the land. There is a growing recognition that nagging social problems -- burgeoning welfare rolls, racial tensions, the alienation of workers from their work -- have not responded to treatment. Many of these problems have their roots in the land, or more precisely, in the lack of access to productive land ownership by groups who today make up much of the urban poor. Mexican-Americans, Indians and some blacks are beginning to raise the point that more of America's land ought to belong to them. Given the dead-end nature of most antipoverty programs today, it is an argument worth listening to.
The schizoid character of American landholding patterns was first implanted during colonial days. In New England the land was divided fairly evenly among the many; in the South, mostly because of large royal grants, it was concentrated in the hands of the few. As a consequence, New England politics revolved around such institutions as the town meeting and the popular militia, while Southern society and politics were dominated in all aspects by the landed gentry. Jefferson warned that perpetuation of the large plantations would lead to the ensconcement of an "aristocracy of wealth" instead of an "aristocracy of virtue and talent," and even talked of freeing the slaves; but the plantation owners were hardly inclined to abdicate their privileged positions voluntarily.
With the winning of independence and the establishment of a national government, America had an opportunity to create a nation unfettered by the proclivities of European nobility. Men like Jefferson looked forward to a vigorous agrarian democracy, fostered by public education and a judicious distribution of the government's western domains. Then as now, however, politicians were less interested in promoting agrarian democracy than in making a quick buck. The history of the giveaway of America's public lands -- hundreds of millions of acres over a century and a half -- constitutes one of the longest ongoing scandals in the annals of modern man. Fraud, chicanery, corruption and theft there were aplenty, but more scandalous was the lack of concern for the social consequences of uneven land distribution. Congress at times did enact such farsighted measures as the Homestead Act of 1862, but far more often it authorized the wholesale disposal of public lands to speculators rather than to settlers. And what Congress didn't surrender to the land hoarders, the state legislatures, the Land Office and the Interior Department usually did.
In the early nineteenth century, the typical speculator's gambit was to form a "company" which would bid for massive grants from Congress or the state legislatures, generally on the pretext of promoting colonization. Once a grant was obtained -- and it never hurt to be generous with bribes -- the land would be divided and resold to settlers, or, more likely, to other speculators. The enormous Yazoo land frauds -- in which 30 million acres, consisting of nearly the entirety of the present states of Alabama and Mississippi, were sold by the Georgia legislature for less than two cents an acre, and then resold in the form of scrip to thousands of gullible investors -- was perhaps the most famous of these profit-making schemes. Huge fortunes were made in such swindles, often by some of the most respected names in government. The social consequences were not limited to the quick enrichment of a fortunate few. The issuance of vast tracts of land to speculators also had the effect of driving up land prices, thereby impeding settlement by poor Americans. And, since grants were not always completely broken up, they had the additional effect of implanting in the new territories of the South and West the pattern of large landholdings that persists to this day.
Texas landholding patterns, for example, date from this early period, though grants to the original American empresarios were made by Mexico rather than Washington. At first there was a rush to purchase and occupy Texas lands granted to Stephen F. Austin and others. After the initial "Texas fever" subsided, many immense and valuable estates remained intact, and could be acquired for a relative pittance. Today many of these enormous tracts are cotton plantations, cattle ranges or oil fields owned by wealthy individuals and corporations.
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 acres 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 happen; 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 immediately 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 (88,000 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 northeast 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. Homesteaders 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 the 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, ironically, 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.
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 1870s, 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, and, 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 administration. 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 the 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 applications 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 mechanized 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 interesting. In 1890, in order to perpetuate 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 worth $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 in dividends. Finally, in 1967, Kern County Land Company was bought by Tenneco (of whom more in my next article).
Meanwhile, the Civil War had led to the abolition of slavery, but not to the end of the plantation system. Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans, proposed dividing the large Southern estates and giving to freed Negroes and landless whites forty acres and some cash. "Homesteads to them [Negroes]," he argued, "are far more valuable than the immediate rights of suffrage, though both are their due." This was too venturesome a proposal, however, even for the Radicals, and it did not get far in Congress. As a result, Negroes and poor whites in the South remained landless, and a century later a large Southern grower would tell a CBS newsman making a documentary on farm workers, "We no longer own our slaves, we rent them."
In other parts of the country Congress continued to squander the national patrimony with abandon. The railroads were granted 134 million acres, plus another 49 million by the states. Often the railroads would allow settlers to stay and improve the land, then evict them later and sell the upgraded property at a considerable profit. Congress did nothing to remedy such abuses. It was busy enacting -- in addition to the Swamp Lands Act and Desert Land Act -- such giveaways as the General Mining Law of 1872 and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. Under the latter, lumbermen and quarry operators acquired millions of acres at $2.50 an acre, largely by using the same "dummy entryman" technique that Haggin and Tevis had so advantageously employed. Under the former, landgrabbers were able to acquire large tracts of public land for purposes that had nothing to do with mining or even settlement.
Congress was not entirely blind to what was happening, and it did strike some blows for agrarian democracy, but these were to a considerable extent diluted or subverted by subsequent legislation and administrative betrayals. Under pressure from landless frontiersmen, Congress passed the Preemption Act of 1841, allowing families to settle on 160 acres of unsurveyed public land, with first right to purchase when the land was ultimately placed on sale. This was as far as Congress was willing to go at the time, since the South feared homesteading would undermine slavery.
In 1862, however, with no Southerners sitting, Congress adopted the Homestead Act, partially as a reward for Union soldiers. The law stands as a milestone in the history of American land policy. For the first time, full title to public land was to be granted free of charge to actual settlers. A family could acquire up to 160 acres -- one quarter of a square mile -- if it occupied and improved the land for five years. It was a fine law in theory, but by the time it was enacted a substantial portion of the best land in America was already accounted for.
Congress made things worse as historian Paul Wallace Gates has noted, by removing additional valuable acreage from homestead settlement usually by giving it to the railroads, or, as under the Morrill Land Grant Act, to the states, who in turn sold it to speculators. Shoddy administration by the Land Office did not help matters either. Cattlemen and speculators, both large and small, made widespread use of the "dummy entryman" trick and other ruses to acquire holdings far in excess of 160 acres, and the Land Office lacked either the will or the ability to stop them.
By the turn of the century almost all the available land in America had been staked out by one interest or another, and many Populists and reformers were displeased with the result. The Great Plains states were, by and large, democratically settled, but the same could not be said for the South and West. Henry George described California as "a country not of farms but . . . of plantations and estates," and thought a single tax on land was the remedy. The social effects of maldistributed land were most readily seen in the impoverishment of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South, and the exploitation of Chinese and Japanese laborers in the West.
Almost providentially, however, an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and to open up new lands for homesteading presented itself. Thanks to modern civil engineering, the arid expanses of the West, once useful only for grazing, could be irrigated and turned into cropland. Much of the land beyond the Rockies could thereby be transformed into a kind of New Midwest, characterized by family owned and operated farms. The instrument of this transformation would be a massive federal reclamation program; the Reclamation Act of 1902 was its charter.
F. Ii. Hewell, first director of the federal Reclamation Service, explained the purpose of the Reclamation Act as "not so much to irrigate the land, as it is to make homes. . . It is not to irrigate the land which now belongs to large corporations, or even to small ones; it is not to make these men wealthy, but it is to bring about a condition whereby that land shall be put into the hands of the small owner, whereby the man with a family can get enough good land to support that family, to become a good citizen, and to have all the comforts and necessities which rightfully belong to an American citizen." Theodore Roosevelt was more succinct: "Every [reclamation] dollar is spent to build up the small man of the West and prevent the big man, East or West, coming in and monopolizing the water and land."
Federal reclamation would bring about this democratic renaissance by using both a carrot and a stick. The carrot would be subsidized water; the stick was lodged in two crucial provisions of the 1902 Act -- the 160-acre limitation, and the so-called residency requirement. The first provided that no person could receive federal water for use on more than a homestead farm of 160 acres; the second provided that water would be delivered only to "an actual bona fide resident on such land, or occupant thereof residing in the neighborhood." By attaching these twin limitations to its delivery of subsidized water, federal reclamation would, in the words of one of its sponsors, "not only prevent the monopoly of public land, but . . . break up existing monopolies throughout the arid region."
It sounded confiscatory indeed, almost revolutionary -- but the large Western landowners could hardly complain. They had, in the first place, acquired their empires at prices that were scandalously low and through stratagems that were at best unethical and at worst illegal. Moreover, it was not as if Congress was about to drive them into unwilling bankruptcy. The law did not require them to accept federal water; it merely provided that, if they chose to sip at the public trough, they would, in due course, have to sell their lands in excess of 160 acres. Subsequent regulations established that they could receive subsidized water for ten years before parting with their excess holdings -- a time span which allowed for enough farming profit to satisfy all but the greediest.
Nevertheless, the intended transformation of the West did not occur. Great dams were built, rivaling the pyramids of Egypt in their wondrousness; reservoirs were formed, and aqueducts constructed. By 1970 the Bureau of Reclamation spent almost $10 billion and irrigated nearly seven million acres. Yet land monopoly is more firmly entrenched in the West than ever; federal water has flowed and continues to flow in great quantity to the huge, absentee-owned corporate estates that should, under the law, have been broken up and sold to small resident farmers. In the words of former Senator Wayne Morse, the wholesale, continuing violations of the 1902 Act constitute "a water steal reminiscent of the scandals" of Teapot Dome and the "great land frauds."
Nearly a century ago the San Francisco Chronicle warned: "The land . . . taken by two or three men is sufficient to afford homes and independence to hundreds of intelligent, industrious and honest settlers. It is this class that makes, as it is the other [land monopolists] that ruins a country. The confirmation of title to the monopolists means the transfer of ownership of the soil to a nonresident aristocracy, and its continued cultivation by a race of aliens and coolies. Let it be awarded to the settlers, and schools, roads, churches and general prosperity will ensue.
This and similar warnings went unheeded; the South and West developed as the Chronicle feared. Ownership of particular estates shifted hands over the course of several depressions, panics and booms, and in recent years the trend has been toward ownership by large corporations -- often oil companies or conglomerates. But though the names have changed, the pattern of large landholdings has held steady throughout. A nonresident landed aristocracy -- today composed of such diverse persons as Sen. Eastland and the directors of Tenneco -- enjoys vast power.
Along with absentee ownership, racial exploitation became a way of life in the West, as it previously had in the South but as it never did in the Midwest. Chinese and Japanese field hands were succeeded by Hindus, Filipinos and Mexicans. The treatment of Japanese farmworkers is particularly instructive. For many years they were enthusiastically praised by California growers; they performed the most menial tasks with great skill and without asking favors (such as transportation and boarding) of their employers. Soon, however, the Japanese began leasing land for themselves -- usually "useless" marsh or desert which they would reclaim and plant with rice or other crops. Through thrift and hard work, they even began achieving their ambition to own land. This was too much for the land monopolists, who succeeded in passing the Alien Land Act of 1913, designed to force the Japanese to sell their improved lands to them.
Other effects of concentrated land ownership were as the Chronicle foresaw. Schools, shops and civic institutions never blossomed in those parts of the South and West dominated by giant landholdings. Enormous disparity of wealth and power is rarely conducive to widespread involvement in public affairs, and is even less so when large portions of the population are migrants, or are barred by one means or another from voting. Why, after all, should an absentee landlord spend his taxes on good public schools, when his own children go to private school and an educated work force is the last thing he wants?
What was not foreseen was the impact that land monopoly would eventually have on American cities. If the Southern plantations and Mexican land grants had been broken up, if Western land had been distributed in limited-size parcels to actual settlers as generously as it was handed out in prodigious chunks to speculators if the reclamation law had been vigorously enforced, it is doubtful that the cities would be as overcrowded and as beset as they are today. Blacks and landless whites would, in smaller numbers, have migrated to the cities, but they would not have been so ill-prepared had they descended from landowning farmers. They would have had dignity, schooling, some experience in public affairs, and perhaps savings enough to establish a foothold.
The question now is whether we are going to compound the errors and injustices of the past, or remedy them.