Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Advertisement - Guide continues below
In 1849, German immigrant Henry Miller set sail from New York for California. While crossing the isthmus, he contracted Panama fever, delaying his arrival in San Francisco until 1850.
It's possible that, while lying sick in Panama, he met James Ben Ali Haggin. Haggin, a Kentucky lawyer, was also on his way to California through Panama when he caught yellow fever. Bedridden for weeks, he didn't reach San Francisco until 1850.
Miller and Haggin had more in common than being near death in Panama, though. Both realized that California offered more than gold. In fact, both set out intending to mine the greater profits lying on the periphery of the gold fields by selling supplies and services to the miners in the hills. Nor would this be the last time their paths crossed. In 1877, Miller and Haggin began a ten-year legal battle over California's most valuable resource that ended with a critical innovation in western resource law.
Henry Miller was born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser in 1827 on a small farm in Germany. At 14, he left home, lived briefly in England and Holland, and then sailed for America in 1844. In New York, he apprenticed himself to a butcher, and within two years, he owned his own shop.
Yet, like thousands of other fortune seekers, he decided to sail for California in 1949. He bought a "non-transferable" ticket from a young shoe salesman named Henry Miller, and with this new name, set off for gold country. In San Francisco, Miller found work as a butcher. Within a year, he had his own shop. Within three years, he had the second largest meat business in the city.
Miller's rival, Charles Lux, had an eerily similar story. Born in Alsace in 1823, he left home at age ten and immigrated to America at age 16. In New York, he worked as a butcher's helper until the promise of a more prosperous life led him to California. Like Miller, he built a thriving meat business in San Francisco.
In 1858, however, the two immigrant butchers decided that together, they could build an empire, so they formed a partnership and began buying cattle and grazing land. Over the next three decades, they accumulated more than a million acres throughout California, Nevada, and Oregon. Central to their success were 160,000 acres in the heart of California's San Joaquin Valley. Miller and Lux begin buying up the swampy Buena Vista Slough, stretching between Tulare Lake and Buena Vista Lake, during the 1870s.
This flood plain for the Kern River was something of a no-man's land, but Miller and Lux realized that the land could be reclaimed by constructing canals and levees. If the water was channeled into a series of holding reservoirs, the 50-mile swamp could be turned into a rich cattle pasture with ready access to water.
By 1877, Miller and Lux had purchased close to 80,000 acres in the slough and they began their reclamation project. Employing up to 300 recently laid-off workers from the Southern Pacific Railroad, they built a massive system of canals and levees. The centerpiece was a 250-foot wide canal stretching 21 miles down the heart of the Buena Vista Slough, 12 feet deep and buttressed by 12-foot levee walls.
It was a masterful piece of engineering, but their timing couldn't have been worse.
A terrible drought plagued California from 1877 to 1879, reducing the run-off from the Sierra Nevada mountain range and turning the mighty Kern River into a creek. Miller and Lux lost more than 10,000 head of cattle to starvation and dehydration during the first year of drought. They realized, however, that the drought wasn't entirely to blame for their problems. They also had a competitor upstream for the water of the Kern River.
James Ben Ali Haggin left an affluent family and legal practice in Kentucky to come to California in 1850. Unlike Miller and Lux, he didn't rise from rags to riches in the Golden State, but like them, he did come for the opportunities lying away from the gold fields.
He opened a legal practice upon arrival, but soon invested in a wide range of enterprises, including banking, transportation, and manufacturing. Anaconda Copper, Homestake Mining, and Wells Fargo were among his major holdings. In addition, he took advantage of federal land policies to accumulate an enormous amount of real estate.
From the railroads, Haggin purchased 60,000 acres. Still, he realized an even bigger bonanza with the passage of the Desert Lands Act in 1877. In an effort to lure settlers to arid regions of the West, the federal government offered 640 acres for only $1.25 per acre if the buyer agreed to place the land under irrigation. Haggin bought his 640 acres, then he used dummy filers to accumulate several hundred thousand more – 100,000 of them in the immediate watershed of the Kern River. Then, to complete his stranglehold on the water flowing from the Sierras down the Kern River, he purchased the water rights and private canals from the landowners adjacent to his own vast holdings.
Despite all their business and engineering acumen, Miller and Lux largely ignored Haggin's real estate grab, until they realized that he was diverting a large part of the Kern River's upstream run-off for irrigation. So, in 1879, they took Haggin to court arguing that by diverting water upstream, Haggin was infringing upon their "riparian rights."
American water law originated in the English common law. One of the fundamental principles within this ancient code was that land owners adjacent to a watercourse possessed a right to make use of the water from that stream. But these riparian rights weren't unqualified; the land owner couldn't excessively impede the flow of the stream or interfere with the water rights possessed by land owners downstream.
During the first half of the 19th century, American courts amended water law in order to accommodate the needs of new industries. Mills and manufacturers using water to power their machinery needed to dam streams and divert rivers from their natural beds. If traditional riparian rights were enforced, these industries couldn't operate. Therefore, the courts introduced rights of "appropriation." A river could be dammed if doing so served some larger beneficial purpose; the riparian rights of landowners downstream could be circumscribed in order to advance "the natural rights of all."
Miller and Lux had lost, but they were wealthy men, and a critical piece of their cattle empire hinged on securing the water rights to their Buena Vista holdings. So, they appealed the decision of the state district court, and in 1884, the California State Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.
This time, the Court was swayed by the ranchers' demand that the Court employ a more flexible definition of a watercourse. Moreover, the Court suggested that California's water law must reflect the diverse needs of the state. Riparian rights must be respected; this fundamental common law protection for the reasonable use of the water flowing through an individual's land must be preserved. But the state's economic development also demanded that major concessions to this principle be made.
Therefore, the Court established something of a dual water law. Eventually known as the California Doctrine, the Court held that landowners possessed riparian rights but farmers and factory owners could claim rights of appropriation if their use served a beneficial purpose and if their use pre-dated the use of riparian claimants downstream.
Miller and Lux, as the users "first in time," prevailed in this instance. But the Court's flexible delineation of water law enabled future "appropriators" legal protection if they built their canals, dams, or irrigation ditches prior to the initiation of riparian use downstream.
Even Haggin, although the loser on appeal, didn't suffer for long. Miller and Lux now held the right to the uninterrupted flow of the Kern River to their Buena Vista lands, but this brought them more water than they really wanted. Built during the dry years of 1877 to 1879, their system of reservoirs and canals simply couldn't handle the run-off during wet years. So, they struck a deal with Haggin: the ranchers would retain exclusive riparian rights to the waters of the Kern River from September through February, but from March through August, Haggin and the farmers upstream could draw off up to two-thirds of the river's water.
The emergence of the California Doctrine provided state courts with a flexible tool in arbitrating water disputes. The deal worked out by Miller and Haggin following the trial provided an example of the sort of collaborative solutions that might be reached through the political process. In 1887, the state legislature passed the Wright Act authorizing communities to form irrigation districts to manage local water needs. These districts were empowered to impose taxes, sell bonds, acquire land through eminent domain, and develop irrigation projects.
It would be another 20 years before these irrigation districts would embark on a state-changing program of irrigation development. But with the Wright Act and Lux v. Haggin on the books, California was politically and legally prepared to deal with the water challenges of the 20th century.
In 1869, Wyoming became the first federal territory to grant women the right to vote. In 1890, when Wyoming entered the Union as the 44th state, it wrote this provision into its state constitution, becoming the first state extending the franchise to women.
In both 1869 and 1890, Wyoming's actions were quickly echoed by others. The Utah Territory followed Wyoming's example the following year, and the Washington Territory enfranchised women in 1883. In the decade following Wyoming's admission to the Union as the "equality state," three other western states—Colorado, Idaho, and Utah—extended the vote to women. By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, 13 states and territories had followed the lead set by Wyoming and granted full voting rights to women.
In 1960, the Wyoming State Historical Society honored Esther Morris for her prominent role in securing the state's historic legislation by placing a statue of the suffragist in front of the capitol. According to Grace Hebard, the historian most responsible for bringing attention to Morris, in the weeks preceding the territory's first legislative election in 1869, Morris galvanized the suffragist community and confronted the leading candidates with a demonstration of their determination at a tea party in her South Pass City home.
Moved by Morris' arguments, and the size of her support, the candidates promised to introduce a measure extending the franchise to women. After Democratic candidate William Bright won the legislative seat, he prudently bent to the will of Morris and her allies by proposing the bill that became law on December 10th, 1869.
The statue honoring Morris reveals a powerful figure. Born in 1814, the eighth of 11 children, and orphaned at age 11, Morris grew into a gritty and determined woman. Six feet tall and 180 pounds, her physical presence matched her spirit. County officials acknowledged this when they named her Justice of the Peace for South Pass City shortly after the passage of the 1869 act making women eligible for public office. Her term was only ten months, but as the first woman to fill a judicial role in the nation, Morris broke through a huge barrier. Her effective service answered critics and opened the door for other women.
But most historians now agree that Morris played little if any role in proposing or securing passage of the Wyoming act extending the vote to women. In fact, the famous tea party had been called into serious question even before the state historical society resolved to commemorate Morris' part in advancing women's rights.
But despite this fact, the society memorialized her somewhat dubious contributions in bronze. In deciding to do so, the historical society raised some interesting questions about our understanding of history and our need for heroes.
Historians now agree that William Bright, a South Pass miner and saloon keeper, was far more instrumental in securing territorial approval for women's suffrage.
Elected to the first territorial legislature in 1869, he proposed the historic measure, granting women 21 and over the right to vote and hold office, just one month after the session convened. What exactly motivated Bright is hard to say. His wife, Julia, was a suffragist; no doubt she exerted some influence over his views. But, apparently, his receptivity to her ideas was shaped by factors less philosophically progressive.
As a Democrat, he vehemently opposed the 15th Amendment recently approved by the Republican Congress and by the fall of 1869, ratified by 19 states. Bright believed that African Americans were intellectually inferior and women, like his wife, should be allowed to vote before the freedmen.
Bright also may have been politically ambitious. One historian suggested that he entered the crowded saloon business just to build connections in preparation for his first political campaign. At the first legislative session, he was elected its president. But he temporarily relinquished this position in order to propose the vote-extending legislation himself. Perhaps Bright had one eye on the next election and the other on his wife when he introduced the landmark legislation in November 1869.
Unraveling the reasons other legislators supported the bill is equally complex. Some were no doubt philosophically committed to expanding women's rights. During the same legislative session, laws were passed increasing women's property rights and guaranteeing equal pay for women and men teachers.
But others were probably moved by more practical, and philosophically neutral, considerations. There were just over 1,000 women in Wyoming in 1869; they represented only 1/6 of the state. How great a threat to male political power could such a tiny minority pose? As Harpers Weekly observed, enfranchising women in Wyoming was about as significant as granting "angels or Martians" the right to vote in eastern states.
In other words, it's hard to escape the fact that Wyoming's trend-setting and historic extension of the vote to women was rooted in a murky combination of philosophical, practical, personal, and even disreputable factors. Perhaps this is why Esther Morris became so important. Perhaps the philosophically cloudy, unheroic version of events simply doesn't square with our sense of how history should be made.
But that is the way history is made. Progress doesn't always unfold in logical ways. Our highest ideals aren't always advanced by the noble and pure of heart. History doesn't always follow a straight path, nor is it only made by heroes and heroines.
In the final scene of Far and Away, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman plant a flag on a piece of Oklahoma land just moments ahead of a batch of rival homesteaders. With this simple act, they guarantee their futures. Just by planting a flag, they secure 160 acres of prime land and their piece of the American agrarian dream.
We don't expect Hollywood to always get things right. And if filmmaker Ron Howard erred in this case, he can't really be faulted.
The Oklahoma Land Run and the Homestead Act are part of American folklore. Prime western land, free for the taking. Just claim it and it's yours. It plays to our sense of America's democratic western movement—self-driven pioneers racing to rich, uninhabited lands, and America's vast interior simply given away by a federal government anxious to fill the West with small farms.
But in reality, it wasn't quite that simple. In fact, if Howard wanted to get things right, he might have ended the film differently. Cruise and Kidman would've discovered, in reaching their western destination, that all the best lands weren't available—at least not for free.
The railroads owned a large portion of the lands and the state government also owned thousands of acres. These could be purchased, but a small farmer would have to compete with the large land speculators buying up everything they could.
Free land was available, as the federal government had promised. But it lay miles from the railroads and just as far from water. For a poor immigrant, like the Irish character played by Tom Cruise, these distant, arid lands may have provided his only option. But once established there, he'd have quickly learned that only cattle ranching made sense on such dry lands—and 160 acres was simply not enough to feed a herd.
The persistent Cruise might have explored other government programs. He could acquire another 160 acres if he planted a quarter of the land in trees, or he could get 640 acres of "prime" desert land if he agreed to bring it under irrigation within three years. But these sorts of projects were costly and may have only delayed the inevitable. Within a few years, Cruise probably would have failed in his western adventure. Like almost two-thirds of all homesteaders, he would've called it quits and left his land before receiving the title granted after five years of residence.blank">railroads stretched from coast to coast, and a series of colleges had been established to provide agricultural and technical training to America's Western populace.
But the hearty homesteader played only a supporting role in this victory. The federal government and its nation-building programs were the real stars of this epic. Far from a story about individual pluck and resourcefulness, the winning of the West was a collective enterprise managed by the federal government that culminated with the elaboration of a more rational and professional federal bureaucracy.
Perhaps, therefore, our homesteader wouldn't have failed in the West. Statistically, Tom Cruise had only a one in three chance of making it on his own land. But there were plenty of jobs available in the expanding federal government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Land Office, the United States Geological Survey, and the United States Forest Service were all blazing a new "frontier" in this part of the country.
Of course, Cruise would have had to pass the civil service exam—not beat a crowd of settlers to a claim. But if he outscored his competitors in this contest, he might have been able to carve out a successful career as a federal bureaucrat.
On October 29th, 1877, more than a thousand San Franciscans gathered in front of the home of millionaire Charles Crocker. Crocker, Leland Stanford, and Mark Hopkins, three of the "Big Four," had all built mansions on Nob Hill. From there, these railroad tycoons could look out over the city—and the state—that they dominated.
But this crowd of laborers and craftsmen hadn't come to celebrate these wealthy industrialists. They were there to demand that Crocker tear down the "spite fence" he'd built around the home of one of his neighbors.
Crocker had planned on owning the entire block, but Nicholas Yung (Jung) refused to sell Crocker his home. Therefore, Crocker built a 40-foot wall along three sides of Yung's lot, forcing the local undertaker to live literally in the shadow of his powerful neighbor. Denis Kearney, the leader of the angry workers, pointed to the fence as a symbol of the malignant power exercised by a handful of men in the state. Railroad owners, land speculators, and corrupt politicians were principally to blame, but Kearney typically closed his speeches by denouncing the Chinese immigrants that filled the payrolls of these capitalist giants, drove down wages and took jobs from native workers.
The fence must come down, Kearney declared, and "the Chinese must go."
City officials acted quickly to control this crowd and silence Kearney. They passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from using such provocative language in front of crowds of more than 25 people. These officials remembered that just two months earlier, a similar gathering had turned into a riot during which Chinese homes and laundries had been destroyed, and they realized that attacks on the Chinese could quickly turn into attacks on their own homes and businesses.
But Kearney and his followers fooled these local leaders. They didn't riot on October 29th, nor did they in the weeks that followed. Instead, they built a political party that challenged the political establishment and forced changes to the state constitution.
To a certain extent, when California's small farmers and common laborers lashed out at Chinese immigrants and wealthy industrialists, they accurately assessed the sources of their economic problems.
Chinese immigrants did pour into the state during the 1870s, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 meant that this large labor force now competed with native workers in the state's fields, mines, and workshops. Moreover, the federal government seemed wholly indifferent to the threat these immigrants posed to native workers. In 1868, the United States and China signed the Burlingame Treaty, which allowed unrestricted entry—but no rights of naturalization—to Chinese immigrants. 22,000 Chinese entered San Francisco in 1876 alone.blank">suspended Chinese immigration. The ten-year exclusion act passed in 1882 was renewed in 1892 and made ongoing in 1902. Republican and Democratic policymakers in Washington decided, in other words, that the most effective way to combat this political threat was to absorb it.
Economic improvements also contributed to the rapid demise of the Populist Party. The discovery of gold in the Yukon dramatically increased the nation's gold supply and, consequently, the nation's money supply, as Populists had wanted. Furthermore, poor European harvests raised prices for American agricultural products abroad, yielding far better foreign and domestic prices for American foodstuffs.
In addition, the political party most threatened by the Populists decided that the best way to combat the threat was to absorb it. At its 1896 National Convention, the Democratic Party stole one of the Populists' central issues and the majority of the insurgent party's thunder. Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan delivered a ringing call for the free coinage of silver. Declaring that "you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this cross of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold," Bryan brought convention delegates to their feet. A few days later, he was named the party's nominee for the presidency.
The Populists were left in quandary. Many among the rank and file had earlier encouraged joining forces with the Democrats. These "fusionists" now urged their fellow-Populists to join the Democrats in nominating Bryan for the presidency. A second group, labeled "mid-roaders," argued that the Democrats would never embrace the breadth of the Populist agenda—after all, silver was just one plank of their platform. If they allowed themselves to be absorbed by the Democrats, the breadth of their agenda and the distinctive character of their movement would be lost. But the fusionists prevailed; the Party named Bryan their nominee while the mid-roaders succeeded only in placing one of their own, Tom Watson, on the ticket as the vice presidential candidate.
It may have been the judicious course, but the Populist Party would never be the same. A lot of the crusade-like enthusiasm that had animated the rank-and-file was lost in the decision to accept the candidate of the old, established party. Then, when Bryan was defeated by Republican nominee William McKinley in the general election, many Populists lost confidence in political action altogether.
The political revolt from the West proved short-lived. Both the Workingmen's Party and the Populists disappeared within a decade of their emergence. Today, many analysts find the brevity of their existences disheartening. These dynamic movements, proposing significant far-reaching reforms, simply ran out of gas when economic conditions improved. Even worse, their more ambitious agendas were abandoned when the political establishment threw them a bone—for instance, Chinese exclusion and free silver.
A longer view, however, suggests that these movements had more enduring and significant impacts. By 1920, the federal government had assumed far greater responsibilities within the economy, banks and railroads were more aggressively regulated, and the tax system had been restructured.
Patience, in other words, brought the Workingmen's Party and the Populists much of what they wanted.
Patience also ultimately brought a resolution to the Crocker-Yung dispute. Crocker's spite fence, built in 1876, made life unlivable for the Yung Family on Nob Hill. Unwilling to give in, they jacked up their home and moved it to another location. But they still refused to sell Crocker the lot on Nob Hill. Even after Nicholas Yung died in 1880, his widow, Rosina, refused to surrender to the railroad giant. Charles Crocker died in 1888, no doubt still fuming over his inability to gain control over the rogue lot.
But in 1902, Rosina died and the Yung's daughters, apparently lacking their parents' moxie, agreed to sell to Crocker's heirs. But if the Crockers celebrated, they didn't celebrate for long. San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the Crocker mansion. Perhaps seeing the hand of God, perhaps wishing to atone for his father's spiteful behavior, Charles' son, William, donated the Nob Hill estate to the Episcopal Church. Today, Grace Cathedral graces the site of this old dispute.
In March 1867, John Muir was working in a carriage factory when a freak accident sent a steel file flying into his right eye. His cornea was pierced, and its vitreous humor literally dripped into his hands.
Within hours, the damaged nerves had left him blind in both eyes. For weeks, Muir lay sightless in a darkened room. But by May, his sight had returned. A skilled machinist and inventor, Muir was offered his old job back. He turned it down and, instead, he set off on a thousand-mile hike from Jefferson, Indiana to Cedar Keys, Florida. Muir's life and the history of American conservationism would be changed by his injury.
Born in Scotland, Muir immigrated with his parents to America when he was 11. He spent the next decade in the "glorious Wisconsin wilderness."
In other words, this wasn't the first time that Muir had discovered that his commitments to nature were deeper and more unqualified than those of most others. However, a longer view of the Hetch Hetchy battle should have consoled the great preservationist. During the debate over the dam, thousands of newspapers, civic organizations, and individuals rallied to prevent the "despoliation" of this beautiful valley. From among the muddled constellation of ideas about the wilderness, the importance of preservation had been elevated and embraced by thousands. Concrete evidence of this fact was secured just three years later when Congress passed legislation creating the National Park Service.
The man whose career had been launched by a freak accident may have suffered another setback, but this setback, much like the first, served to "teach us lessons."