Land monopoly? Or is it water?

Donald J. Pisani
Chapter 5: Land Monopoly in Nineteenth-Century California
Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920

Synopsis: “In no American state,” Pisani says, “was land monopoly more of a perceived problem than in nineteenth-century California.” Pisani reviews Paul Wallace Gates’ indictment of monopolists, and suggests that “the state’s scarcity of water and the nature of irrigation agriculture contributed even more to the concentration of ownership than venal, shortsighted, and carelessly drawn national and state land land laws.” (86)

Bt 1872, “each of 122 individuals and companies owned more than 20,000 acres” of California farmland. (86) “Perhaps even more alarming, 2,298 people owned more than 1,000 acres, and the 620 largest farms and ranchos in California averaged 22,000 acres. By the 1870s, the state’s easily arable land was gone.” (87)

Gates argued that an 1851 law confirming prior Mexican land grants led to the rapid “grabbing” of most of California’s best land (including a big chunk in San Francisco). Pisani agrees that “The Mexican claims were the wellspring of monopoly,” but adds “Congress did little to reserve California’s remaining public land for bona fide settlers... Given the flood of miners, Congress saw no need to provide special incentives.” (88-9) Pisani speculates that the lack of land may have pushed discouraged 49ers into urban life, but they may not have been the best potential farmers. And their overwhelming presence in the state (and its resulting reputation) may have encouraged farmers to look elsewhere. Whatever the reason, “As early as 1860...21 percent of California’s people lived in communities of 2,500 or more. (Ten years after Ohio statehood only 1 percent of its people lived in towns larger than 2,500, and a decade after Illinois entered the union, that state did not contain a single community that large.)” (92) California certainly developed differently than New England and the midwest (from which concerned citizens and historians drew their models of independent, small-farm development).

Between “1868-1873, when about 6,000,000 acres of public land were taken in California, Homestead Act entries covered only 809,621 acres...California railroads acquired most of their 11,500,000-acre subsidy after 1870.” The small number of family farms, relative to ranches and giant wheat producers in the Sacramento valley, set a pattern for California agriculture, “long before the rise of ‘agribusiness’ as we know it,” or maybe as a model for agribusiness elsewhere. (90)

But the land was dry. “Most land in California’s Central Valley and south of the Tehachapi Mountains had little value without water.” (94) The failure of Californians to envision a public domain for water rights ultimately reinforced monopolistic land ownership and factory farming. “In 1875,” Pisani says, competing capitalists bought up so many small water claims that between them they “claimed 3,000 cubic feet per second from the Kern river, about three times more water than the stream had ever carried.” (94) “The Bakersfield Grange bitterly protested to the legislature,” but the capitalists owned the legislature. (95) To realize short-term, personal gains, and to avoid fighting a losing battle, “Many sold their riparian rights to upstream interests, as California courts abandoned the timeless principle that such rights were inalienable and appurtenant to the land.” (97) During the 1870s, opponents of land monopoly hoped that state ownership or control of water would force large landowners to sell their holdings. In eerily modern “red state” terminology, “arguments...against a comprehensive state water system [said] that the new bureaucracy would build up corrupt political ‘rings,’ [and] that government was essentially wasteful and inefficient.” (98)