Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1995


Published in Great Plains Research 5:1 (February 1995). Copyright © 1995 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


The arid but fertile San Joaquin Valley yielded fortunes for whoever owned the water that trickled down from the neighboring Sierra Nevada Mountains. Landowners avidly brought lawsuits seeking rulings that would favorably define stream flows, property boundaries, and economic uses of water. Oddly, California courts followed the legal doctrine of the eastern rather than neighboring western states, upholding the "riparian" claims of those who owned land bordering a river rather than "prior appropriators" who discovered and first used the water. Riparian law laid the foundation for the enormous cattle company, Miller and Lux. During its heyday between 1870 and 1930 the firm battled relentlessly in courts, the state political arena, and private negotiations to retain its hold on water. Drawing from the immense legal records left by the company, the author recounts its story, and in doing so, provides insight into the development of California water law.

From a base of valuable riverfront land, Miller and Lux expanded greatly in the latter nineteenth century, buying more land, hiring cheap labor and squeezing out would-be irrigation farmers. It eventually acquired almost one million acres and controlled considerably more. Cattle were raised in the highland ranches of Nevada and Oregon and then shipped to the San Joaquin Valley to be fattened for market and sold at a price determined by cofounder, Henry Miller. Other divisions of the company's cattle business included slaughter houses, farms, banks and canals. Its financial success brought it legal success, allowing the company to bring repeated suits against and eventually exhaust whoever contested its claims to water. More instrumental to Miller and Lux's legal success the author asserts, was the firm's ability to place its claims within the dominant legal ideology of the time; a philosophy which valued the security and stability of property rights over anti-monopoly sentiments or more efficient use of the water.