Henry Miller at about age sixty, 1887

Henry Miller at about age sixty, 1887

Henry Miller: The Cattle King of California


Henry Miller immigrated to the United States in 1847. After building up a thriving butcher business in San Francisco, he engaged in cattle rearing and farming, invested heavily in irrigation systems, and formed a partnership with fellow German immigrant Charles Lux in 1858. By the end of the nineteenth century Miller & Lux had become America’s largest integrated cattle and meatpacking enterprise, owning close to 1.3 million acres of land in California, Nevada, and Oregon.


Henry Miller (born July 21, 1827, in Brackenheim, Kingdom of Württemberg; died October 14, 1916 in San Francisco, CA) immigrated to the United States in 1847. He arrived in San Francisco on September 24, 1850, with only six dollars in his pocket but soon became one of the most successful entrepreneurs on the West Coast. After building up a thriving butcher business in San Francisco, he engaged in cattle rearing and farming, invested heavily in irrigation systems, and formed a partnership with fellow German immigrant Charles Lux in 1858. By the end of the nineteenth century Miller & Lux had become America’s largest integrated cattle and meatpacking enterprise, owning close to 1.3 million acres of land in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Miller became famous as “the Cattle King of California.” By the time of his death in 1916 (Lux had died in 1887), his estate was appraised at about $40 million (approximately $820 million in 2010$), and he had played a decisive role in reshaping large tracts of California’s natural landscape, laying the foundations for the rise of the state’s modern, agribusiness economy.[1]

Family and Ethnic Background

Henry Miller was born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser on July 21, 1827, in the small town of Brackenheim (near Stuttgart) in the Kingdom of Württemberg, where his ancestors had lived for many generations.[2] His mother, Christina Dorothe (née Fischer) Kreiser came from a family of vintners, and his father, Christian Johannes Kreiser, was able to provide relatively well for the family as a master butcher and cattle trader. Besides Heinrich, the couple also had three daughters, Frederike Christine (born April 22, 1821), Elisabeth Johanna (born May 21, 1823) and Karoline Christina (born March 1, 1825). They all had to help in the family business. As a small boy, Heinrich was responsible for herding calves and sheep, and by age twelve he was purchasing calves and goats for his father’s shop. Like most German children at that time, Heinrich attended public school from age six to fourteen, which was the only formal education he ever received. According to his own statement, he never liked school and couldn’t wait to get out, even though the teachers were happy with his performance and noted his special aptitude for figures and math, as well as his outstanding memory. Overall, Heinrich did not have many fond memories of his childhood and youth. Apparently, he did not get along well with his sisters, did not have any close friends, and he resented his father’s harsh treatment and the demanding, often boring, workload exacted from him as a butcher’s apprentice. The situation became even more unbearable for him after the death of his mother in 1842, so he decided to leave home and seek his luck in America, which he believed to be the land of freedom and opportunity. As he recalled later: “My father was a smaller man than I, and his ideas and mine did not correspond at all. My idea was to leave the country as soon as I was able to make my own living…. I saw people coming back from America that hadn’t been there long, that had made lots of money and I would think… that’s the country for me to go to…. I wanted more freedom and greater opportunities; home had no attraction for me.”[3]

Heinrich first went to Holland for three years and then spent another two years in England. In both places, he worked in the butcher’s trade, and he learned English. He eventually managed to save enough money to sail to New York City, where the nineteen-year-old arrived sixty days later, in 1847, without any resources or friends, but determined never to return to Europe and to make America his new home.[4]

Unable to find work as a butcher at first, the young man worked as a gardener for four dollars per month, then again as a butcher's assistant for eight dollars per month. His job included everything from killing hogs to dressing and selling them at the Washington Market, as well as making home deliveries. He was allowed to keep the intestines of the slaughtered animals, which he sold as sausage casings, more than doubling his monthly income. During this period, Heinrich met the American shoe salesman Henry Miller, who was the same age, and they became friends. Henry apparently also helped Heinrich improve his English skills. Seized by the Gold Rush fever in 1949, both young men made plans to go to California, but for unknown reasons, there was a last minute change of plans. Miller, who had already purchased a non-refundable, non-transferable ticket to San Francisco (via Panama), could not go and gave or sold the ticket to his German friend. In order to be able to use the ticket, Heinrich Kreiser pretended to be Henry Miller when boarding the steamer Georgia on April 13, 1850.[5] Originally, this was intended to be only temporary; however, he ended up liking his new anglicized name better than his original one and decided to keep it. Eight years later, the California legislature passed a law officially recognizing the name change from Kreiser to Miller.[6]

After making his way to Panama City, Miller had to wait for the next ship to California and contracted a dangerous virus raging through the crowded, unsanitary city, the so-called Panama fever. Many people died, and Miller spent three months in the hospital before recovering enough to continue his journey. He was finally able to board the steamship Republic, which arrived in San Francisco Bay on September 24, 1850. All that Henry Miller had in his possession when he stepped off the ship was his gold watch, the clothes on his body, a walking stick, and six dollars. San Francisco, at that time, was a rather rough and dirty place that consisted only of a handful of muddy roads; most inhabitants still lived in tents or huts. But as with many other newcomers to the City on the Bay, Miller was determined to make his fortune there, and he was willing to do anything he could to make this dream come true.[7]

Business Development

Immediately after his arrival, Miller started to look for work. While he had originally been attracted to California by news of the Gold Rush, he decided against trying his luck in the mines when he arrived there. One reason was that he didn’t have enough money to buy the necessary mining equipment; the other was his realization that digging for gold was a very haphazard business, whereas the need for San Francisco's growing population to be fed was certain, and prices for food were extremely high. Concluding that it would be more advantageous to find work in his own trade, Miller kept searching for such a position until he was hired by the owner of a French butcher shop on Jackson Street. He butchered sheep there for eight weeks for two dollars a day, sleeping behind the slaughterhouse and doing his own cooking from scraps to save money.[8] During the following months, he worked for a number of different butchers, building up his reputation as a master of his trade (for example, he once killed and dressed 100 hogs in three days on request, which was more than four times as many as most butchers would have been able to do), while continuing to live frugally. As he commented later: “My object [then was] to get acquainted around town. I would work in the shop and get acquainted with the people and in that way, carried on my aim to get into business myself.”[9]

After the fire of June 1851 had burned down much of the city and its butcher shops, Miller seized the opportunity to branch out on his own. He leased a lot on Jackson Street and had a one-story building erected there, at first only furnished with a block and a few hooks. On July 5, 1851, he started his new business. With the $150 capital he had left after paying for the shop, he bought some calves, slaughtered them, and carried them on his back to retail butchers. At first, he bought his stock only on the San Francisco waterfront, but soon he ventured into the countryside, too, where prices were more advantageous. Besides cattle, he bought hogs and made real pork sausages — one of his specialties in these early days — which became very popular.[10] He also obtained brains and intestines from the slaughterhouses as a special treat for the French customers he supplied with meat, securing their patronage. Due to Miller's skills and the superior quality of his products, his business soon grew. In 1853, he hired an assistant and also engaged in a couple of partnerships to acquire more capital.[11] At that time, most of the cattle in California were the Spanish or Mexican long-horn variety, which were, from a butcher's perspective, leaner and of lower quality than the sturdier American short-horn cattle. Aware of this, Miller immediately went to the San Joaquín Valley in 1854 when he heard that a herd of American cattle had been brought there from Salt Lake City. He purchased the entire herd (300 animals) for $33,000 in cash.[12] His was the first sizeable herd of American cattle ever to be brought to San Francisco, and while the price per head had been significantly higher than the going rate for Mexican cattle, Miller had calculated that this would nonetheless be a profitable endeavor. This proved accurate: the average animal in his herd weighed over 800 pounds, and he was able to sell the meat wholesale at 18-20 cents a pound, thus making a total profit of over $12,000 dollars.[13]

During the next few years, Miller continued to expand his business and spent a lot of time on horseback, exploring the land around the peninsula in search of high-quality cattle. In the mid-1850s, there were about 60 butchers operating small shops in San Francisco, and the competition was keen. In 1857, one of these competitors, Charles Lux, a German immigrant from Alsace, approached Miller about jointly purchasing a large herd of American cattle that had been driven from Texas to the Pacheco Pass (south of San Francisco). Miller agreed to the deal, and the two of them bought 1,600 animals for $67.50 per head, splitting the purchase price as well as the substantial profits of the meat sale fifty-fifty.[14] In the fall of 1858, after a similar, very profitable deal, Miller and Lux decided to form an official partnership that would include not only butchering and retail sales but also buying land to produce their own livestock. Since Miller was more of an outdoor person who did not enjoy city life and urban socializing, he was to be in charge of land acquisition and all cattle and ranching business, while the genial, more refined Lux was to cultivate the necessary business and political connections and organize the finances of the new firm Miller & Lux.[15]

Sharing a mutual drive for business expansion and consolidation, the two young Germans thus began a business partnership that lasted for almost three decades, until Lux’s death in 1887, and was one of the most successful partnerships in American history. Several factors contributed to this success: Both founders had excellent business skills, worked hard, and were willing to take calculated risks. Also, they happened to be at the right place at the right time, since the Gold Rush (1848-1855) and the Comstock Silver Rush (1859-1875) triggered an extensive cattle boom in California that increased prices more than tenfold.[16] Finally, a number of Miller & Lux's business strategies proved to be very advantageous:

First and most important was the company's large-scale land acquisition while land was still relatively cheap.[17] Miller had a great passion for buying land and insisted on concentrating all of the company’s investments on land and cattle as opposed to speculating with land (buying in order to later sell it for a profit) or diversifying into other areas (such as wheat, sugar, or silver). Lux had considered this option but gave up because of his partner’s opposition.[18] While Lux usually remained in the city, Miller spent much of his time riding through the countryside, scouting out new opportunities for the firm. By observing an area’s water supply and soil characteristics, paying attention to every detail, including micro-climates created by topography, Miller was able to evaluate the land's suitability for ranching and farming with great accuracy. His expertise with land and cattle, combined with Lux’s outstanding financial skills, helped the partners consolidate vast stretches of fertile land around the Bay Area and throughout the San Joaquín Valley in the following decades. Their territorial acquisitions, which included public land and private estates, were symptomatic of the larger process wherein Anglo-American and immigrant elites replaced Mexican land-owning elites after the American conquest of California in 1848. Miller and Lux did not refrain from exploiting the desperate situation of many indebted Mexican landowners who had to sell their ranches as a result of the California Land Law of 1851, and they also cleverly used laxly administered land laws, such as the Swamp and Overflow Lands Act of 1850, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the Desert Land Act of 1877, to their advantage.[19] The partners were not particularly ruthless men, and their methods were not worse than those of most California businessmen of the time (for example, the “Wheat King” Hugh Glenn, the “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels, and the railroads' “Big Four,” Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins). Like these other entrepreneurs, though, Miller and Lux sometimes also utilized unfair and illegal means to obtain land titles, such as using so-called dummy buyers, engaging in exploitative credit-giving practices, and bribing state officials.[20]

Among the most important properties they obtained early on were the former Spanish ranches Buri Buri, Las Animas, and Sanjon de Santa Rita. Lux had already bought part of the Buri Buri property and built a country house there in 1859. The partners acquired the rest of this former grazing land for Mission Dolores and the San Francisco Presidio by 1866. This ranch was of great strategic importance to Miller & Lux since the company could hold its cattle there as long as needed to time delivery to the city for maximum profit. Next, Miller purchased part of the Las Animas ranch in Santa Clara County (about 70 miles south of San Francisco), and built his “home ranch” Bloomfield Farm there (near Gilroy) in 1863. The company proceeded to buy most of Las Animas plus surrounding areas. Known as the “center place,” this ranch soon became very important in connecting the cattle ranches of Southern California with the San Francisco markets. Also in 1863, Miller began buying parts of the Sanjon de Santa Rita ranch. Originally owned by Francisco Soberanes, this property was located along the west side of the San Joaquín River and consisted of almost 50,000 acres of the finest grassland on the valley floor. By 1865, Miller & Lux had purchased the entire ranch together with the livestock on it, which included the later famous Double H (“HH”) brand, at the bargain price of only four dollars an acre.[21] It was an ideal area for grazing cattle as well as for growing agricultural products, and the company further increased its productivity by constructing an elaborate canal and irrigation system. Santa Rita soon became Miller’s favorite ranch (many people referred to it as his “pride”) and, together with Buri Buri and Bloomfield, it formed the foundation of the rising Miller & Lux empire.[22]

By the 1870s, the partners already owned more than 300,000 acres of land in California. In the next two decades, they further expanded their holdings, eventually crossing into Oregon and Nevada (where Miller began to buy up ranches and brands in the 1880s and established the Pacific Livestock Company).[23] By the end of the nineteenth century, Miller & Lux’s property consisted of about 1.4 million acres of land, and Miller liked to boast that he could ride from Mexico to Oregon, sleeping on his own land every night. Moreover, the strategic locations of his ranches, as well as favorable water rights and leasing arrangements, allowed the company to control ten times as much land as it actually owned, according to many sources.[24] The total number of animals it possessed varied constantly, but in 1888 it was estimated that Miller & Lux owned at least 100,000 head of cattle and 80,000 sheep.[25]

Aside from its large-scale land and cattle acquisition, the company could attribute its success to its control over water. Miller had realized early on that water was ultimately of higher value than gold in California. Therefore, he and Lux made sure to buy up as many riparian properties as possible, securing the exclusive water rights for huge areas along the San Joaquín, Kern, and San Benito Rivers. Water management, which consisted of reclamation and irrigation, was, and still is, the key to all successful agriculture and ranching in California. This is especially true for the San Joaquín Valley (the southern part of the Central Valley) with its semi-arid desert climate, its frequent, severe droughts and occasional heavy floods.[26]Miller & Lux spent a lot of money building up the most advanced irrigation systems of the time in this valley, including the company's initial investment in, and later complete takeover of, the San Joaquín and King’s River Canal and Irrigation Company between 1871 and 1878. Through some clever maneuvering, using their superior knowledge of the area as well as their water rights as leverage, Miller and Lux were able to buy out the other shareholders of the canal company, which by that time had been a financial failure. Miller then ensured that the canal was managed more efficiently and kept in good condition. The original canal, constructed between 1871 and 1873 at a cost of over one million dollars (approximately $18.8 million in 2010$), was 78 miles long. In 1897, it was renewed, widened, and extended to a length of 103 miles (at a cost of $250,000). With countless side-canals and irrigation ditches branching off of it, this canal was the first large-scale canal system in California; it became quite profitable and helped to transform a huge territory (about 150,000 acres) of previously arid land into highly productive dairy and cattle country.[27]

In the process of acquiring so much land and control over California’s limited water supply, Miller & Lux became involved in a number of conflicts with other landowners whose properties were not along the river but who still wanted access to the water. The most widely publicized of these conflicts was the Lux v. Haggin lawsuit. James Haggin, a financier and speculator from Kentucky, and his partner Lloyd Tevis had purchased large tracts of land in the Buena Vista Lake area upstream from Miller’s property on the Kern River in the late 1870s. Wanting to sell parcels of this land to small famers and then also sell them water diverted from the river to irrigate their non-riparian plots, Haggin and Tevis ran into the stern opposition of Miller & Lux, who insisted that their opponents had no right to appropriate this water from the Kern River. Thus began an intense legal battle between the proponents of riparian water rights and those of appropriative water rights that lasted from 1881 to 1886.[28] In the end, Miller & Lux won the case after an appeal to the California Supreme Court, and this landmark decision was celebrated as a major victory for the riparian water rights faction in California. However, recognizing the continuing volatility of this issue, Miller pragmatically came to a private agreement with Haggin in 1888 (Lux had died in 1887). This contract guaranteed both sides sufficient use of the water supply from the Kern River and made them cost-sharing partners in the construction of a new Buena Vista reservoir for storing unused water. Thus, Miller & Lux slowly but effectively consolidated the largest irrigation system in the state, enabling the company to control the engineering of land- and waterscapes and influence regional developments in central California to its own advantage for decades.[29]

In addition to controlling water and land, Miller & Lux also benefited from its excellent farm and labor management practices. Its ranches were models of efficiency. Tapping into the constant flow of migrant workers, the company had a pool of inexpensive, unskilled workers at its disposal, which kept labor costs comparatively low. They employed white Americans, Hispanics, German, and other European immigrants as well as Chinese immigrants. Work groups were often divided along racial and ethnic lines to optimize and stabilize the workforce. [30]

Able to grow and stockpile its own food for the cattle on a large scale, Miller & Lux was also in a much better position to deal with natural disasters than smaller competitors. During the great drought of 1862-1864, for example, Miller and his partner suffered losses, too, but by being able to buy up land and starving cattle from other bankrupt ranchers, their firm actually benefitted from the crisis.[31] In contrast to wheat farmers of California, whose feud with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company over shipping rates and land ownership was immortalized in Frank Norris’s The Octopus, Miller & Lux enjoyed a very cordial, mutually beneficial business relationship with the railroad, so the enterprise hardly ever suffered from transportation problems.[32]

Finally, as the Haggin case illustrated, Miller was willing to compromise and join forces with competitors or former adversaries if it was advantageous for the company. This strategy is also evident in his dealing with the American Cattle Trust, a Chicago-based organization of meatpackers who controlled the meat markets of the Midwest and attempted to take over the West Coast meat market at the end of the nineteenth century. To this end, the Trust founded the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company (SFLIC) and the Western Meat Company in 1891. This was followed by their construction of a modern slaughterhouse in San Francisco featuring the latest technology such as refrigerators. Fearing an impending economic disaster, Miller and other leading butchers of the city organized the “Butchers' Board of Trade of San Francisco and Alameda Counties” (BBT) in 1893. Calling the Western Meat Company a “money-grabbing octopus,” the BBT organized a boycott and a rather effective propaganda campaign against its opponent, stressing, for example, that the trust’s method of refrigerating meat was “highly dangerous to the public health.”[33] However, to be on the safe side and to gain inside knowledge of this formidable competitor, Miller simultaneously invested $40,000 in the South San Francisco Land and Improvement Company and was elected to its board of directors. Thus, in 1894, when the BBT boycott went into full force, Miller was in a position to serve as an intermediary between the BBT and the Western Meat Company. The boycott lasted until the earthquake of 1906 and eventually caused all but one of the trust members (Gustavus F. Swift) to withdraw their investments. Miller probably hoped to eventually buy out Swift and then acquire his modern packing plant. However, the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906 put an end to all schemes of that sort. Most of San Francisco’s Butchertown, including the Miller & Lux slaughterhouse, burned to the ground. The company soon built a new one (remarkably, with its own state-of-the-art refrigeration facilities), but Swift also remained in business and Miller & Lux never regained exclusive control of the western meat market. While Miller regretted this, his firm still managed to significantly increase its meat production (from 83,332 slaughtered animals in 1881 to 988,357 in 1912) and continued to prosper.[34]

By connecting hinterland resources with urban markets, combining a system of horizontal expansion with one of vertical integration — from land, water, and ranch management, production of livestock, running its own wool-pulling establishment and slaughterhouses to the marketing and sales of its meat products — Miller & Lux created America’s first integrated agribusiness company. In the two decades after his partner’s death — despite a long, bitter legal war against some of the Lux heirs — Miller managed to almost double the company’s holdings.[35] However, the company faced many new challenges as the new century opened, such as soil exhaustion, Progressive Era anti-monopoly reform laws, rising taxes and, above all, market changes that made the western cattle business much less profitable. Miller & Lux still possessed enough capital, land, and resources to remain an important player in the California agribusiness for the next two decades, yet the firm had already entered a state of decline by the time Miller died in 1916.[36] J. Leroy Nickel, Miller’s son-in-law, who became president of the company in 1914, proved to be rather incompetent and was unable to adjust the business to the new economic conditions. Moreover, his relatives and the next generation of heirs engaged in decades of intensive litigation over what each considered their fair share of the Miller & Lux empire, which also contributed to the ultimate disintegration of the firm. Most of the land and cattle were sold by the end of the 1930s, and what remained of the company was formally dissolved in 1964.[37]

Immigrant Entrepreneurship

In contrast to many other German immigrants, Henry Miller displayed almost no desire to stay connected to his German cultural roots, practice German traditions, or teach them to his children. Unlike his partner Charles Lux (or the “Sugar King” Claus Spreckels), he also avoided participating in the social activities of the German community of San Francisco, and he was not a member of any of this group’s many associations. Moreover, Miller visited his native country only once in over six decades.[38] Even though he never lost his German accent and made frequent spelling mistakes in English, there are no records of him ever speaking or writing in German after his arrival in California. All of his surviving correspondence, not only with other German companies, but also with his own German employees, and with German friends, is written in English.[39] It was very clear that he identified himself as an American; he applied for U.S. Citizenship as quickly as possible and was elated to receive it after the legal recognition of his name change in 1858.[40] Moreover, he openly admitted that he had no affinity for the German lands (and Germany after 1871), for Germans as a people, or for German culture: “The people that come from my country are not very sociable…. There was no man ever more tested than I was in that country… and I could never assimilate. What was [a] pleasure for them [the Germans] was simply an annoyance for me…. My course has been away from them from a very early time.”[41] Miller also stressed how different he was from his partner in this regard: “There is no similarity between Lux and myself — not in sympathy, nor in view nor nothing. He was a native of Germany and his stock is more German than mine.”[42]

However, even though he usually dismissed his and Lux's common ethnicity, Miller still benefited from it in ways that he may not have been fully aware of or did not care to admit. The company’s connection to the economic and political networks of the German-American community on the West Coast assisted it tremendously, and by having forged a partnership with a fellow German who happened to become very well connected with the German business and financial elite of San Francisco, Miller gained access to this community as well.[43]

Moreover, despite generally expressing disdain for the German states, the hardships of his childhood and youth in Württemberg, as well as his belief that his experiences there did not contribute to his success in America, Miller clearly had a significant comparative advantage over American butchers because of his German training in the trade.[44] In Württemberg, this training was much longer and more intensive than in the United States. To become a butcher, one had to work as an apprentice for several years, as a journeyman for another seven years, and then pass another examination to become a master butcher. The trade included knowledge of all aspects of the business, as Miller himself pointed out: “There [in Germany] the butcher’s business comprises everything, even down to making a fiddle string [from sheep guts]… he [the butcher] had to know how to cure meat and to make sausage and everything connected in that trade. Here [in America] one man kills the sheep and another stays in the shop and does the shop work, but there a man… has to learn the business in every branch.”[45] Miller also gained valuable experiences in stock raising and cattle, sheep, and hog trading in Württemberg. As he noted himself, German livestock markets were organized very differently from most American ones. In the German lands, there were strong regional systems of cattle production with a strong emphasis on constantly improving the breeds, and great attention was paid to proper range management techniques, which allowed for high livestock density. Thus, even though Miller may not have had fond memories of his harsh and long butcher’s apprenticeship in his birth country, there can be no doubt that his business success and rise to being the “Cattle King” of California was in large part due to the excellent training he received in Württemberg, including the expertise he acquired there in the raising, holding, and trading of cattle.[46]

Personality, Social Standing and Family Life

While some of Henry Miller's contemporaries noted that he was very “alert in his movement” and had “a remarkably expressive countenance,” he was not a man whose outward appearance impressed people at first sight. Miller was relatively short and of square build, had a low forehead, brown hair, and brown eyes. While he always dressed neatly, he did not care about fashion and mostly wore simple, dark garments.[47] However, his personality and lifestyle were more remarkable.

Miller’s greatest passion was his work. He worked almost all the time, getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. every day, traveling thousands of miles each year, sometimes in terrible weather, to tend to his ranches, only sometimes taking Sundays off to be with his family.[48] His personal life was rather quiet; he did not participate in the fancy pastimes that many other wealthy Californians indulged in (such as horse-racing, gambling, vacationing, or attending elegant high-society events); he did not even smoke or drink any alcohol with the exception of an occasional glass of wine.[49] In contrast to his partner Charles Lux, who was known to be charming, genial, and calm, having a pleasant word for everyone, Miller apparently had a rather temperamental disposition. While he could be friendly and considerate to people he knew and trusted, his general nature was much more aggressive and combative than Lux’s. Miller was famous for his fiery temper; he could explode with rage upon finding out that a business deal had gone wrong, or that one of his employees was lazy, untidy, or dishonest. There are countless accounts of him yelling at people, pounding his fists on a table, or, when especially infuriated, throwing his own hat on the ground and stamping on it.[50] Outside his family, Miller had only a few friends, and he always remained very formal with people, for instance, even addressing his partner and brother-in-law as “Dear Sir” in all of his letters.[51] He himself once remarked to one of his employees: “My social side has never been developed. I guess I’ve been too busy.”[52]

Yet, although he lacked the smooth social skills of his partner, Miller apparently had some other character traits that proved to be very valuable to his career. For example, numerous sources stress that he had a brilliant memory, was exceptionally gifted with regard to mathematical calculations, and people were amazed by the great and intricate knowledge that he held in every detail of his business. He was an outstanding judge of character, which helped him find good and loyal employees and also make good business decisions.[53] Miller had a reputation for sometimes being selfish and driving a hard bargain but also for being fair and reliable, so he was generally regarded as “a man of integrity.”[54] He was prudent and foresighted, always preparing for possible future emergencies, for example, by building dams and levees against flooding, creating huge hay piles and alfalfa reserves to prepare against droughts and by taking every possible precaution against fire on his ranches.[55] He was also known for his extreme frugality. Miller hated any form of waste and was always looking for ways to run his ranches more cost-efficiently. As he put it once: “I rather have a dollar saved than five dollars made!” Others described him as “the epitome of the traditional German virtue of thrift.”[56]

Trying to get all of his employees to work as efficiently as he himself did, Miller became an almost obsessive micromanager. He spent every morning writing letters with precise instructions to all his managers and supervisors (usually 25-30 a day) and spent much of his time traveling from ranch to ranch. On the ranches, he would inspect facilities, check staff efficiency, and give detailed directions on every aspect of daily life, from animal care and agricultural management to ordering supplies and the proper disposal of kitchen scraps.[57] While much of his advice was doubtlessly valuable and his constant attention helped maintain the high quality of his farms and business on the whole, the commanding tone and authoritarian manner he used with his employees did not suit everyone; some left the firm because of it. Miller consulted occasionally with his most experienced foreman on certain matters, but often he just gave orders, and this leadership style did not encourage visionary and independent managers. Rather, it sometimes stifled potential progress and ultimately created a corporate structure that was ill-equipped to deal with the challenges that arose after his death.[58]

Miller was a strict and demanding manager who expected all his instructions to be followed without question, and who often came across as a “penny pincher,” but he was also known to take good care of his employees, making sure they always had good food and decent housing, rewarding loyalty, and sometimes showing remarkable generosity. For example, he contributed to, or entirely paid for, the education of many of his employees’ children and gave extra money or grocery gifts when families were in need or when someone was ill. Long-time employees, who lived in Miller & Lux-owned property, frequently received the deed to their houses as a retirement gift. Miller also saw to it that all employees and their families were given Christmas presents every year and that the schoolchildren in his area got extra gifts.[59] This generosity, which was not limited to Miller's employees, increased during his old age. Several accounts reveal that he would engage in unsolicited acts of kindness, such as forgiving someone’s debt, buying shoes or a warm coat for a person who needed it, allowing the hungry to consume one of his cattle (as long as they gave back the hide) and families who needed milk to take one of his cows (as long as they brought him the calves). He also often gave money to beggars (except for known alcoholics, whom he abhorred), and he made it a rule at all of his ranches that no-one asking for food should ever be denied a free meal.[60] In order to avoid extra work for his cooks, tramps and travelers who made use of this free-meal policy on their way through California had to eat from the plates used by Miller’s employees beforehand. Thus the practice was soon known as the “Dirty Plate Route” (DPR), and it became very popular, especially in winter. From Miller’s point of the view, the DPR was not only an act of charity but also a clever business strategy. The tramps' goodwill and gratitude turned out to be excellent insurance against haystack fires, open gates, and cattle robberies, which plagued many less generous ranchers in California (and which became a problem for Miller & Lux again after J. Leroy Nickel abolished the DPR in 1915).[61]

A classic patriarch, Miller was also a staunch supporter of the Republican Party. He very much approved of the American way of governance, with the exception that he would have liked to abolish general suffrage in favor of suffrage limited to property owners. He was also supportive of protective tariffs and believed that a practical education was better than a college education, always advocating that children should be taught the value of hard work early on.[62] Miller was proud of being a self-made man. He liked to point out that he had never received help from anyone and that his extraordinary strength of character, self-reliance, determination, and hard work alone led to his extraordinary success.[63] At the same time — and somewhat atypical for rich businessmen in that period — he was apparently not as concerned with his social standing among the business elite and the German community of San Francisco as many of his peers (such as Lux, Stanford, Ralston, or Spreckels). Miller usually liked to stay out of the limelight. While he was not without political influence, he preferred to remain in the background and had a strong aversion to speaking in public (perhaps also due to his flawed English). However, even though Miller did not endow any colleges or museums, he donated large sums of money to charitable institutions such as churches, schools, and hospitals (including the German hospital of San Francisco) without seeking public recognition for it.[64] And instead of participating in the elegant parties of the San Francisco elite, he often organized big barbecues for his employees, family, and friends on his ranches. Most famous among these feasts was Los Banos May Day Festival, which was initiated by Miller and has become an annual tradition that continues to delight its participants to the present day.[65]

Henry Miller’s first priority in life was his work; family life came second, as is evident in his choice of spouses. In the same year that Miller & Lux was founded, Miller cemented this business partnership by marrying Lux’s sister-in-law, Nancy Wilmarth Sheldon, on April 14, 1858. Unfortunately, his wife died in childbirth thirteen months later, along with the son she bore. Only one year after this tragedy, Miller asked his deceased wife's niece, Sarah Elizabeth Wilmarth Sheldon, to marry him, reportedly only leaving her one afternoon to make a decision; the wedding took place the next day, on June 10, 1860.[66] Elizabeth Sheldon was 20 years old at that time, her husband 32. They were married for 45 years until her death on July 21, 1905, but since none of their personal correspondence or papers survived, not much is known about their relationship or their family life.[67] According to the testimony of friends and employees, Miller’s wife was a plain, down-to-earth woman, who was devoted to her family, left all business matters to her husband, and accepted her husband’s frequent absences as well as his domineering ways without complaint.[68] The couple had four children. The first one died in infancy; the second was a son, Henry Jr., born in 1862, followed by two daughters, Nellie Sheldon, born in 1865, and Sarah Alice, born in 1871. His wife and the children spent most of their time in their city home in San Francisco, some months of the year on the Bloomfield farm (where Miller had built a beautiful new $500,000 (approximately $11.8 million in 2010$) 19-bedroom mansion in 1888), and occasionally visited the Santa Rita Ranch. They also liked to spend weekends and vacations at their summer retreat in Mount Madonna, but Miller traveled so much that he was usually only with them on Sundays or special holidays.[69]

His relationship to his children was rather autocratic. Even though Miller himself had suffered from his father's strictness and high expectations, he apparently treated his children in a rather similar manner. He hardly knew how to express affection for them and had little tolerance for their weaknesses or misbehavior. Especially problematic was the relationship with Henry Miller Jr., who had been a frail child and attended private school in San Francisco. This son liked to party, disdained any type of work, became a heavy drinker, and apparently contracted syphilis or some other debilitating venereal disease at a young age. Deeply disappointed, Miller responded by almost completely ignoring the young man. Furious upon learning that Henry Jr., had secretly married a female friend, Maud Oldham, in 1889, he publicly disowned his son and it took several years until he was willing to speak to him again.[70] His youngest daughter, Sarah, whom he called “Gussie,” was Miller’s favorite child. Cheerful, strong-willed, and lively, she was most like him in character, and it was she, not the oldest son, who became “the apple of her father’s eye.”[71] When Gussie was tragically killed in a horseback-riding accident at age eight, Miller was devastated. Apparently his severe depression after Sarah’s death led to a health crisis that prompted the local newspaper to wonder whether he would survive. Miller then decided to leave California for a while; an extended trip to the East Coast in 1881 helped him to recover.[72] The only child to survive him was his daughter Nellie, a well-behaved, sociable person who married Yale-educated lawyer James Leroy Nickel in 1884. Miller did not like his son-in-law very much. He felt that Nickel was a somewhat arrogant city person, who lacked good managerial skills, had no real interest in the cattle business, and was a terrible judge of character. Miller also regretted that Nellie became “a lady of fashion” after her wedding, not taking much interest in the family business anymore. However, the couple gave him four grandchildren, and Nellie always remained devoted to her parents, taking care of her mother when she was ill toward the end of her life and assisting her father during the last few years of his life. Thus, the relationship between Nellie and her father always remained cordial. Over the years, Miller also came to accept his son-in-law: he gave him a job with the company and, despite his misgivings regarding Nickel’s leadership qualities, he even let him become vice-president in 1897. When health concerns forced Miller finally to retire at age 87, J. Leroy Nickels became the new president of Miller & Lux, so that control of the business was kept in the family.[73]

While Miller was not a very affectionate father or husband, he was deeply committed to his family, always trying to be a good provider and to encourage them to follow his example to lead a productive and successful life. He supported not only his own family, but sent money home to his relatives in Germany, too, eventually arranging for his sisters to come to California, where he continued to support them and their families. After the early death of his oldest sister Elizabeth in 1870, Miller and his wife raised her four children at their home. Miller’s sister Frederike and her children were apparently also very close to the Miller family, and when Frederike died in 1891, Miller arranged for a big funeral at the Bloomfield Farm cemetery. There is no information available on where his youngest sister Karoline settled, but she apparently also managed to immigrate to the United States with Miller’s help. In total, Miller paid for the education of fifteen nieces and nephews and left all of his relatives well provided for in his will, including trust funds he established for his great-grandchildren.[74]

After lapsing into a two-day coma at the end of his life, Henry Miller died quietly at his daughter’s home in San Francisco on October 14, 1916. According to his wishes, the family held only a small private funeral service, and his body was laid to rest on the family estate at Mount Madonna.[75] At the time of his death, federal tax authorities estimated Miller’s holdings to be some 1.4 million acres (along with control of up to six million more through lease agreements, grazing, and water rights); his assets were assessed to have a value of about forty million dollars.[76] His will not only provided generously for his direct family, especially for his daughter Nellie, but he also bequeathed large sums to charitable institutions in San Francisco and Gilroy. In addition, he left many individual gifts to relatives, friends, and former employees (ranging from $5,000 to $50,000), gave $15,000 to the poor of the city of Gilroy and another $25,000 dollars to the poor of his German birthplace Brackenheim (together with the obligation to take care of Miller's parents' grave).[77] With this money, the city of Brackenheim bought the old city hospital building, which was renamed “Henry Miller House” and converted into a residence with 18 apartments. The revenue made from the rent of these units has been used to maintain the gravesite and to support social welfare causes.[78]

Aside from the Henry Miller House, the people of Brackenheim also named a street after Miller in 1930, received some of his descendants as guests, organized a public celebration and a photo exhibition to commemorate his 175th birthday in 2002 (among the guests of honor was Miller’s great-great-grandson James Leory Nickel), and named a school after him in 2007.[79] In California, Miller's memory is also kept alive. The city of Los Banos named its new elementary school after Henry Miller in 1953 and dedicated a life-sized statue of Miller on horseback overlooking the new “Henry Miller Plaza” in September 2005; the city maintains the old Miller & Lux company’s headquarter building as a historic site, and the Ralph Milliken Museum in Los Banos contains an extensive collection of Miller memorabilia.[80] Some of the former Miller & Lux land in the San Joaquín Valley is still used for agricultural production, while a substantial section has become part of the extensive San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (over 130,000 acres of land along the San Joaquín River north of Los Banos). There are also a number of large properties in the valley that belong to the descendants of the Cattle King, the Nickels, and the Bowles families, who — due to their share of Miller’s fortune — continue to hold prominent positions in various fields in California including agriculture, land development, outdoor sports, and philanthropic institutions.[81]


Henry Miller was one of the most successful businessmen in the history of the American West. No single individual on the Pacific Coast ever personally owned a greater amount of land than he did. Together with his partner, Charles Lux, Miller built a powerful water and land empire throughout California, Nevada, and Oregon that combined horizontal expansion with vertical integration, including all aspects of livestock production and farm management. Thus, Miller and Lux created America’s first (and in 1900 largest) integrated cattle and meatpacking enterprise.[82] They paved the way for a new era of agribusiness in the West, and their business activities, especially the introduction of large-scale irrigation systems, opened up the heartland of California to a level of productivity that had been previously unimaginable.[83]

With regard to Miller’s land acquisition and business methods, the record of his actions is rather mixed. While some sources stress that Miller was an honest man who did not try to cheat anyone and always kept his word, others describe him as a more or less ruthless land-grabber who was willing to use tricks and bribes if necessary to get his way.[84] In view of the historical evidence it is safe to assume that the truth was somewhere in the middle, and that as a businessman Miller was neither more corrupt, nor more generous, than most of his contemporaries. Descriptions of his personality are also quite diverse. Everyone seems to agree that Miller was hard-working, strong-willed, decisive, intelligent, and frugal. But while some sources praise his good humor, fairness, and generosity, others accuse him of being a selfish penny pincher whose obsession with thrift sometimes made life miserable for his employees.[85] As Miller himself admitted, his social skills were not very good, and he disdained participating in the elegant events of San Francisco’s social elite. Therefore, even though he didn’t like to admit it, his partnership with the more urbane, genial, and well-connected Lux was essential to the success of their company.[86]

Miller was not a very affectionate man, and his family always came second to his work. However, he did provide well for the members of his immediate and his extended family, and towards the end of his life, he apparently became increasingly charitable. Perhaps these acts of generosity (or the fact that most people prefer to talk favorably about the deceased) made most of the testimonies collected among his contemporaries by Ralph Milliken after Miller’s death remarkably positive.[87] The early pioneer and historian Billy Stockton, for example, called him “the greatest man I ever knew,” “a giant among men.”[88] Miller’s driver Henry Agard stressed his great sense of humor and fairness as well as his generosity to people in need, and his thoughtfulness towards his employees. Agard as well as former Miller & Lux worker Charles Stafford both thought that their former boss was “a wonderful man” — and Stafford recalled that Miller “spent millions of dollars developing the country.”[89] Other former employees and farmers who knew Miller emphasized that Miller “never forgot a favor,” that he “built up his employees,” that “if he liked you, he would go to the limit for you,” that he “never turned away a man hungry.” Moreover, they said he helped the sick and the needy, would give “thousands of dollars’ worth of Christmas presents” every year, and that he was particularly friendly and generous to schoolchildren and to “old timers.”[90] Bascom Newton, one of the early pioneers in the San Joaquín Valley, even called Miller “the most kind-hearted man that ever lived.”[91] Of the numerous appraisals made of Miller’s character and accomplishments by his contemporaries, the richest one can be found in the memoir of John Clay, another western cattleman, who wrote:

Nothing in my experience… equaled the matchless energies displayed on these San Joachín ranches…. The great motive power, the irresistible force in this ranch life and management was Henry Miller, a nervous little German who possessed some fairy’s wand, for he transformed whatever he touched into gold. He was selfish, grasping, indomitable, thrifty, with a wondrous brain that schemed and twisted and generally routed his opponent…. In his business he was decisive and you knew where you were at… his word was good when given. Aside from his own genius his great asset was in choosing men. He had an army of them and they were splendidly drilled, loyal and intense workers. His magnetism permeated the valley… his employees, from the Mexican vaquero to the boss of the ranch, worshipped him and would fight for his honor, for they considered it their own. The love of your fellow man is the best monument that you can leave behind.[92]

Only slightly less enthusiastic, historian Charles Sawyer concluded that Henry Miller “did whatever it took to build his empire and live his boyhood dream, leaving the San Joaquín a better place than he found it.”[93] Modern historians and conservationists might disagree with this last statement, especially considering some of the serious environmental problems that Miller & Lux’s large-scale cattle business spawned in California.[94] However, the mixed record that Miller as a person and as a businessman leaves behind does not change the fact that he was among the most extraordinary Germany immigrants and entrepreneurs in American history and deserves to be remembered.


[1] All monetary conversions to 2010 dollars have been done using the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The conversion provides a rough approximation of current values for historical monetary sums based on the changing costs of household purchases including food, housing, medical care, and so forth. Conversion calculations were conducted via MeasuringWorth.

[2] Miller himself stated in an interview with Edwin Fowler for the California History Company that he was born on July 21, 1828 (Miller, “Dictation of Henry Miller, Esq.,” Henry Miller Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 4). This date is also listed in Hubert Bancroft’s Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth (San Francisco: the History Company, 1892), V. 333, 273. However, according to the official church register of his hometown, the correct date was July 21, 1827. Landeskirchliches Archiv Stuttgart, Familienregister Brackenheim, Vol. II, 164.

[3] Miller, “Dictation,” 2-4. Also cf. Bancroft, 373-374, and Charles Sawyer, One Man Show: Henry Miller in the San Joaquín. Los Banos (CA: Loose Change Publications, 2003), 3.

[4] Cf. Miller’s comment: “I came to America in 1847. I was sixty days on the way. I was sick about fifty of them. I was entirely alone, no friends nor nothing with me. I cut loose from everything. I came with the intention of never going back there [Europe] to make it [America] my home.” Miller, “Dictation,” 6-7. Also cf. Sawyer, 3-4 and Bancroft, 374.

[5] Miller, “Dictation,” 7-8; Sawyer, 4-5; David Igler, Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850-1920 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001), 15. Some sources mention that Heinrich Kreiser, while in New York, may have had a relationship with a girl called Linda whom he had known as a child in Brackenheim and who had come to America with her parents. In his fictionalized Miller biography, Edward F. Treadwell, former counsel general for Miller & Lux, Inc., claims that this relationship was a rather serious one and speculates that the fear of being tied down by marriage may have also been a reason for Heinrich Kreiser’s abrupt departure to California. Treadwell, The Cattle King: The Biography of Henry Miller, c. 1931 (San Francisco: Western Tanager Press, 1981), 21-26. Also cf. Gertrude Atherton, Golden Gate Country (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1945), 174-175.

[6] The act, signed by Secretary of State Ferris Forman, slightly misspelled both his original and new first name, giving the latter as “Henri” although the name was always spelled “Henry Miller.” Cf. John O’Mear, State Printer, The Statutes of California, Ninth Session of the Legislature, 1858, “Chap. CXXXVI. – An Act to change the Name of Henry Alfred Kreicer to Henri Miller [Became a Law by operation of the Constitution, March 30, 1858], 104.

[7] Miller, “Dictation,” 8-9; Sawyer, 5-6; Bancroft, 375.

[8] Miller, “Dictation,” 9; Atherton,175-176; Treadwell, 42, Sawyer, 8; According to Treadwell and Sawyer, Miller first spent a few days as a dishwasher before finding employment with the French butcher shop on Dupont Street (Grant Avenue today). Miller might not have mentioned this in his account out of embarrassment; however, if true, this fact would make him a perfect example of the German form of the idiom “from rags to riches,” i.e., “from dishwasher to millionaire.”

[9] Miller, “Dictation,” 10; Sawyer, 8-9; Bancroft, 375.

[10] Miller, “Dictation,” 10-11; Treadwell, 43; Sawyer, 9.

[11] Miller’s first two partners were called Zimmermann and Lawler, but both partnerships were only temporary. Miller, “Dictation,” 11-14; Sawyer, 9; Bancroft, 375-376; Igler, 38-39; also cf. Ann Foley Scheuring, Valley Empires: Hugh Glenn and Henry Miller in the Shaping of California (Rumsey, CA: Gold Oak Press, 2010), 39-40.

[12] This was, as Miller proudly stated later, “more money than any other butcher had in town.” Miller, “Dictation,” 13; also cf. Igler, 19; Sawyer 9 and 33. Regarding Miller’s later success in breeding a new cattle type that was ideal for beef production by crossing American shorthorn with Devon and Hereford breeds, cf. Sawyer, 285. Also see endnote 62 for discussion of Miller’s finances and whether he may have received funds to assist his early business activities.

[13] Miller, “Dictation,” 13-14; Sawyer, 9; Bancroft, 376, Igler, 19; and Scheuring, 62.

[14] Lux, who had been born in Hatten, a small Alsatian town in 1823, had come to New York in 1839 and arrived in California several months before Miller. Shortly after his marriage to the young widow Miranda (neé Sheldon) Potter in February of 1858, Lux moved back to the East Coast to start a new life. However, realizing that business opportunities were better in California, he, his wife, and stepson returned to San Francisco in September 1858. Sawyer, 9-10; Bancroft, 376; Igler, 13-16; Scheuring, 59-60; Miller, “Dictation,” 15.

[15] Miller, “Dictation,” 14-15; Sawyer,10 ; Bancroft, 376-377, Igler, 38-40; Scheuring, 60-62.

[16] Scheuring, 62; Sawyer, 27-28; also cf. Richard A. Walker, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of Agribusiness in California (New York: The New Press), 257-258.

[17] Atherton, 182-191; Igler, 45-59; Scheuring, 45-47, 178-182.

[18] Miller and Lux were apparently almost always in perfect agreement regarding their business decisions, but in their rare disagreements, Miller’s would always prevail. Bancroft, 377; Atheron, 179-180; Sawyer, 12, 28, 80, 222. Sawyer and Atherton also cite the name of the company as evidence of Miller’s dominance. Also cf. Edwin Fowler, who stressed that with regard to business investments, “Mr. Lux yielded to Mr. Miller.” Fowler, “Letter to History Company,” ca. 1890, Henry Miller Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 3; also see Miller, “Dictation,” 28.

[19] The California Land Law required all rancheros to prove their land grant titles before the California Land Claims Commission in San Francisco or Los Angeles. This process often lasted several years and required extensive documentation as well as English language skills and in many cases money to hire a lawyer, which many Mexican landowners could not afford. In most cases, the original Mexican landowners lost their lands. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, cf. John Q. Warren, California Ranchos and Farms, 1846-1862 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967); Paul W. Gates, Land and Law in California: Essay of Land Policy (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1991); and Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press), 2005.

[20] Over half of the land the company owned in California by the 1870s came from former Mexican land grants. Atherton, 180-181, 188; Sawyer, 18-24; Igler, 36-59, 67-68; Scheuring, 45-49, 178-182. Also cf. Stephen Birmingham, California Rich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 34-36. One often-recounted anecdote about Miller in this context is that he once had the running gear of a lumber wagon installed on a rowboat and then had a worker named Chris drive him all over a tract of land along the San Joaquín River north of Los Banos. He wanted to claim this property under the Swamp and Overflow Act, and in this way he could go to the land office to sign the affidavit, as he was able to truthfully swear that he had been all over this piece of land in a boat, and Chris could serve as his witness. Cf. Sawyer, 24, 211-214; Treadwell, 301; Igler, 60; Scheuring, 182; Birmingham, 34. While the older sources, such as Bancroft, Treadwell, and also Sawyer generally paint a mostly favorable image of Miller, stressing his fairness and generosity, most others, especially Igler, also illustrate the more ruthless side of the Miller & Lux empire.

[21] After many years of litigation, Soberano’s title to the Sanjon de Santa Rita was confirmed by the U.S. General Land Office with a certificate signed by President Abraham Lincoln on November 20, 1862 (cf. Sanjon de Santa Rita records, Vault MS 54, California Historical Society). But by that time, large parts of his ranch had already been bought up by Anglo-Americans, among them Thomas Hildreth, the owner of the Double H brand, who then lost much of his prized American cattle herd in the San Joaquín River flood of 1861-1862. The indebted Hildreth sold Miller his 8,835 acres and all surviving animals for a mere $10,000 in 1863. Cf. Miller, “Dictation,” 16-17; Igler, 53-56; Scheuring, 71-72; Bancroft, 378; and Sawyer, 14-17.

[22] Regarding Miller’s special regard for Santa Rita, cf. his comment: “When I saw this Santa Rita Ranch, I thought that is just the place I am looking for…. The grass is green there 9 months out of the year and a great many natural advantages and handy to all parts of the state – nice level country – and I thought that was the most favorable place that I had struck yet.” Miller, “Dictation,” 17; Sawyer, 17; also cf. Igler, 35-59.

[23] Cf., e.g., Igler 55-59, 149-154; Scheuring, 72-75; Bancroft, 378; Birmingham, 38-42; Atherton, 177-179. In order to simplify proof of ownership, all of the Miller & Lux cattle in California were eventually branded or rebranded with the HH brand; the Oregon cattle received the “S-wrench brand” (with the S reversed), and the Nevada ones a “7” or an “L.F.,” which were the brands Miller had purchased there. Sawyer, 29; and Treadwell, 46-62, 95-148.

[24] James Rawls and Walter Bean, California: An Interpretive History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), 185. Miller himself stated once that his company controlled about ten times as much land as it owned. Miller, “Dictation,” 19. The East Oregon Herald proclaimed on October 30, 1895, that Miller’s company had monopolized 14,439,300 acres of land, and various other newspapers printed similar statements throughout the 1890s. When Miller died in 1916, a number of papers reported that he left an estate of over fourteen million acres. Sawyer, 24; Igler, 153; also see 227n3. This vastly exaggerated number is still incorrectly cited by more recent sources today; cf. e.g. Birmingham, 42; and Bernard Taper, “He Owned California: Henry Miller – Story of an Empire Builder,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 20, 1954.

[25] Besides cattle and sheep, the company owned many hogs, horses, and mules. Igler, 143; Miller, “Dictation,” 19; Press Reference Library, Notables of the Southwest (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Examiner, 1912), 255. According to a report cited by Bancroft, Miller & Lux supplied the San Francisco market in 1881 alone with more than 83,000 animals (among them 12,818 steers, 2,682 cows, 6,564 calves, 21,202 lambs, and 7,631 hogs), Bancroft 281.

[26] Igler, 9-10;21-26; Scheuring, 69-71; Birmingham, 31-33.

[27] According to many sources, the S.J. and K.R. Canal also became known as one of the best-run and cheapest water systems in the state. Atherton, 183-184; Scheuring, 185-192; 209-219; Sawyer, 37-42, 220-230. Also cf. Igler, 61-62, 71-87; Bancroft, 379-380, and Miller’s statement: “The canal was not a success at all until we got a hold of it.” Miller, “Dictation,” 21.

[28] Riparian water rights fall under common law in England and most northern European countries. They generally grant all landowners whose properties adjoin a body of water the right to make reasonable use of it. If there is not enough water to satisfy all users, allotments are fixed in proportion to frontage on the water source. In areas with a scarcity of water, this system puts landowners without direct access to a body of water at a disadvantage. By contrast, the doctrine of appropriation, generally used in arid and semi-arid countries such as Spain and Mexico, states that rights to water are acquired when the water is diverted from its natural course for beneficial use. Contrary to the doctrine of riparian rights, the general principle here is that water rights are unconnected to land ownership.The right that is acquired first has priority over those acquired later.

[29] Igler, 92-121; Scheuring, 209-219; Sawyer, 45-52, Atherton, 186-188. It is interesting to note that when Miller later became involved in litigation regarding water rights for his properties in Nevada and Oregon, he successfully used the doctrine of appropriation to his own advantage. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, cf. Catherine Miller, Flooding the Courtrooms: Law and Water in the Far West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993; also cf. Rawls and Bean, 208-209.

[30] Until the mid-1870s, most of Miller’s leading vaqueros were Mexicans, whose superior skills in dealing with large bands of cattle became less important with the end of open-range grazing. Their place was in most cases taken by American buckaroos (cowboys). Almost all of the ranch cooking was done by Chinese, and Chinese gangs were also employed to dig canals and build levees. The majority of company shop and farm managers were white Americans, while Germans, Italians, and other European immigrants often tended to crops and cattle feed. Salaries varied greatly. Head vaqueros and skilled laborers (such as carpenters and blacksmiths) would earn up to $80 a month and farm managers even up to $200; however, cooks and other unskilled workers were often paid only $25-$30 a month. Igler, 122-146; Sawyer, 261-262.

[31] Atherton, 190; Igler, 25-26; Scheuring, 70-71; Bancroft 378, Miller, “Dictation,” 18-19.

[32] Igler, 51-53, 58-59, 64-65, 148; Scheuring, 195-196, 219. Norris’s famous 1901 novel The Octopus: A Story of California centers around the so-called Mussel Slough Tragedy that happened on May 11, 1880, and left seven people dead. The violence centered on a dispute over land titles between wheat farmers in the San Joaquín Valley and the Southern Pacific Railroad. For a more detailed discussion, cf. Richard Orsi, Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930 (Berkeley: University of California press, 2005).

[33] The Butchers’ Board of Trade, Programme of the Second Annual Festivities (San Francisco: n.p., 1901); Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[34] Scheuring, 264-266; Sawyer, 34-35; Igler, 143, 160-167.

[35] What saved Miller in the end was a legal agreement he and Lux had made on June 24, 1875, guaranteeing that if one partner died, the other would be able to keep running the company for seven more years without having to liquidate assets to pay any potential heirs. Cf. copy of original document “Witnesseth – Agreement of Henry Miller and Charles Lux” in “Lux Family Papers,” California Historical Society. The Lux heirs challenged this agreement, but after years of litigation, a compromise was reached. Eventually Miller, who never had given up control of the firm, bought all heirs out and was the sole owner of Miller & Lux by the end of the century. See Igler, 148; Sawyer, 95; Scheuring, 232-234; 267-268.

[36] Cf. Igler, 170-174; Scheuring, 281; Walker, 206; Miller, ”Dictation,” 19-22.

[37] Igler, 154, 157, 172- 178; Scheuring, 286-288; Sawyer, 107-111, 305-307. In 1933, Nickels sold the breeding herd of Miller & Lux together with the famous “Double H” brand to Miller’s arch-rival Gustavus Swift, which signaled the end of the firm’s active cattle business (and probably made Miller turn over in his grave).

[38] Miller went back to Brackenheim for health reasons in the spring of 1875. Some sources talk of a severe throat inflammation, others of an impending apoplexy caused by too much stress. In any case, American doctors had apparently been unable to cure him, but he received effective treatment and enough rest in Germany to return to his California business in the fall of 1875. Cf. Miller, “Dictation,” 5; Scheuring, 190; Sawyer, 96, 175.

[39] Miller, “Dictation,” 2-3. Also cf. hundreds of business letters and a few private letters from Miller to Lux and Nickels in “Henry Miller Papers” and in “Miller and Lux Records, General Correspondence,” Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, as well as one private letter from Miller to Mr. and Mrs. Otto of February 24, 1877, in Henry Miller Papers, California Historical Society. Also cf. Sawyer, 117-150 and 282.

[40] As noted before, his name change was legalized by the California legislature in 1858. According to Treadwell Miller obtained his citizenship soon afterwards and was very proud of it (Treadwell, 195). Miller himself claimed that he participated in the election of Abraham Lincoln (Miller, “Dictation,” 24). However, according to official documentation, he was not naturalized until June 10, 1875. Cf. Voter Register of California, Register 4th Precint, 10th Ward, San Francisco County, 1882.

[41] Miller, ”Dictation,” 2-3.

[42] Miller, ”Dictation,” 16.

[43] Igler, 17; Scheuring, 61-62.

[44] “My surroundings didn’t influence me to any great extent. I had no adviser…. I never called upon any man for assistance and never accepted assistance.” Miller, “Dictation,” 5.

[45] Miller, ”Dictation,” 1 and 4.

[46] Miller, ”Dictation,” 1 and 4. Also cf. Miller’s comment on the high quality of education in Germany: “The manner of educating there can be very little improved upon” (4). Also cf. Igler, 39.

[47] Sawyer, 102; Scheuring, 184; also cf. Miller’s self-description: “I am 5 feet 8 inches tall. Square build, weigh 182 pounds, brown hair, light complexion, light brown eyes.” Miller, “Dictation,” 25-26. Some people commented that Miller actually grew better looking with age, when he grew a neatly trimmed beard and wore dark suits with a black bow tie. Scheuring, 230.

[48] Most of his travel was done on horseback; when he was too old to ride, Miller traveled in a buggy; only in the last few years of his life did he use a car. Miller himself once complained that because of his work he sometimes did not see his family for two to three months at a time. Miller, “Dictation,” 29; Sawyer 191, 216, 252; Scheuring, 230; Treadwell, 201-215; Bancroft, 385.

[49] Scheuring, 230; Miller, “Dictation,” 28-29.

[50] Sawyer, 11-12, 223, 264, 286; Scheuring, 230; Igler, 17. For accounts of his friendliness and consideration, especially regarding his own house staff, cf. the recollection of his long-time-housekeeper at Canal Farm, Mollie Dailey, cited in Sawyer, 275-282.

[51] Cf. business letters from Miller to Lux in “Miller and Lux Records, General Correspondence.” The difference in Miller's and Lux's personalities actually made them ideal business partners, but because they had so little in common, they never became close friends. Thus, despite their thirty-year association and family relationship, Miller was not among the pallbearers at Lux’s funeral. Instead, he honored his partner by having all the flags in Butchertown lowered to half-mast — a gesture that may have been fitting from one butcher to another, but, of course, remained unnoticed by the high society people who watched Lux’s casket being carried down Nob Hill. Sawyer, 11-12; Igler, 147-148.

[52] Cf. Statement of Archie Smith, cited in Sawyer, 255. Miller’s letter-writing style also attested to his rather poorly-developed social skills, since they were almost always without any polite personal comments. He would sometimes even send letters on the 25th of December or January 1st without wishing the addressee a Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year. Cf. letter from Miller to Lux written on Dec. 25, 1876, in Henry Miller Papers, Box 1, as well as several other letters from Miller to employees in “Miller and Lux Records, General Correspondence.”

[53] Sawyer, 254-255, 269, 301-302; Scheuring, 184 and 279; While calling the Chinese immigrants a “necessary evil,” Miller did employ many of them (58 of the 60 ranch cooks were Chinese), and his former employees related that compared to most other white men Miller would treat his non-white workers rather well and had high regard for some of his long-time vaqueros. Cf. Miller, “Dictation,” 25; Sawyer, 247, 280; Igler, 128-129.

[54] Sawyer, 254, 283, 287, 299.

[55] Sawyer, 82, 199; Scheuring, 183; Igler, 1-2.

[56] Miller, “Dictation,” 29; Scheuring 182, also cf. Scheuring 269-270, Sawyer, 60-62, 64, 182, 191, 261-262.

[57] Scheuring, 182-183; Miller, “Dictation,” 22-23; Igler, 154-155; Bancroft, 385. In 1948, after having read thousands of the letters written by Henry Miller to his superintendents, former Miller & Lux employee Paul P. Parker put together an unpublished book with Miller’s advice on Farm Management arranged by topics. It shows the impressive scope and depth of Miller’s knowledge on everything from soil management and irrigation, as well as caring for all kinds of different animals, to raising seed and the optimal production of lard and tallow. Peter Parker, “Management of Miller and Lux Ranches in California, Nevada, and Oregon.” California Historical Society.

[58] Sawyer, 117; Bancroft, 385-386; Igler, 172, 178; Treadwell, 223-267. One of the employees who left because he could not stand Miller’s authoritarianism was the Dutch-born Hendrik A. V. Coenen Torchiana, who served as superintendent of the Santa Rita Ranch from 1895 to 1901 and wrote a novel based on his experience thirty years later called California Gringos. Igler, 156-157; Scheuring, 267; Sawyer, 237.

[59] Cf. Sawyer, 60-61, 129, 170-174, 178-179, 198, 211, 278-280, 295, 300. Sawyer lists many examples and testimonies of former employees praising Miller’s generosity. He also once compares Miller’s generosity to that of a benevolent overlord who felt that all people who were connected to the firm of Miller & Lux belonged to him in a way, which also made him responsible for their welfare; cf. Ibid., 266.

[60] Scheuring, 269; Miller, “Dictation,” 25; Sawyer, 103-104, 138, 198, 211, 251-252, 263, 303.

[61] Igler, 123, 132-133, 141-142,145,172, 175; Sawyer, 63-64, 207-208, Treadwell, 319-329. After Miller’s death, his charity was praised in many articles and obituaries, among them a remarkable poem published in the San Francisco Examiner, which directly hinted at the DPR, calling Miller “the truest, best friend the poor man had” and closing with the statement that God and “the angel choir will welcome dear Uncle Henry home.” To the Late Henry Miller, reprint of poem in Sawyer, 209.

[62] Miller, “Dictation,” 24-26.

[63] Miller, “Dictation,” 5, 26, 27-28; Scheuring, 230. It is noteworthy in this context how little credit Miller gave Lux with regard to the success of their company. Cf. his comment: “I have made three fortunes, one for myself, one for my partner, and one for my lawyers.” Miller, “Dictation,” 15-16; also cf. Sawyer, 12; Igler,17; Treadwell, 149. Despite Miller’s claim to never have received any help, he may have actually received some financial aid from one of his German friends in San Francisco, Mrs. Dorothy Otto. According to Otto’s obituary, published in the Gilroy Advocate, December 30, 1916, she had lent him the money to buy his first butcher shop. Cf. reprint of article in Sawyer, 223-224. Miller always remained especially close to Mrs. Otto and sent her an unusually large sum of money ($15,000) shortly before his death. But besides the one obituary, there is no clear evidence of Mrs. Otto's early support of Miller. Also cf. Sawyer, 308.

[64] Sawyer, 67-68, 197, 240; Scheuring, 230, 271; Igler 174. It is interesting to note that while Miller, who had been raised a Protestant, was not very religious himself, he regularly donated money to the Catholic and the Protestant churches on his land. Miller, “Dictation,” 2; Sawyer, 217; Scheuring, 231; Bancroft, 383. According to Sawyer, there was only one occasion when Miller apparently wanted to impress the business elite of San Francisco, inviting many of them, including Stanford, Crocker, and Ralston, to an extraordinarily fancy dinner (the “Peacock Dinner”) at his Bloomfield farm. Sawyer, 211-213.

[65] Sawyer, 180, 240-241; Scheuring 170-171; Treadwell, 216-222. Canal Farm, which was near Los Banos, became the headquarters of Miller & Lux in the San Joaquín Valley. Miller contributed a lot to the development of the town in the following years and is often referred to as “the Father of Los Banos.” For a description of Canal Farm and the “grand free barbecue and May Day Celebration” Miller organized there every year, cf. Ralph Milliken’s brochure, Canal Farm and Its famous Inn (Los Banos, CA. 1955, n.p.) California Historical Society.

[66] Miller, ”Dictation,” 25; Igler, 17, 40; Scheuring, 63; Sawyer, 95-96.

[67] Most of the private correspondence and papers of the Miller family burned in the San Francisco fire of 1906, and Miller’s daughter-in-law, Sara Onyon Miller, apparently burned all remaining personal papers shortly before her death in 1925. Sawyer, 97-98, 112; Scheuring, 205-206.

[68] Scheuring, 205-206.

[69] Sawyer, 94-95, 112; Scheuring, 206, 232.

[70] There are many reports by people who described Henry Miller Jr., as an alcoholic, an irresponsible and reckless person, who disrespected his parents as well as his wife, and never engaged in any productive work. Sawyer, 67, 216, 276. However, one former Miller & Lux employee also blamed Miller himself for the fact that his son “went to the dogs” because he neglected him too much and failed to prevent older people from getting young Henry drunk and “tak[ing] him places where they shouldn’t have.”. Cf. statement of James Dermot cited in Sawyer, 187-188. At the end of the century, father and son seemed to have come to a sort of peace with each other. When, after his first wife’s early death, Henry Jr. married Sarah Onyon in 1900, his father approved of the connection and built a house for the couple at Mount Madonna. Miller also later helped to take care of his son, whose health was rapidly declining, and saved his life when their San Francisco house burned down in 1906. The 45-year-old Henry Miller Jr., died on May 9, 1907. Sawyer, 67, 239; Scheuring, 231, 277.

[71] Sawyer, 96.

[72] Sawyer, 96, 100-101, 190; Scheuring, 206-207; Treadwell, 270. According to his housekeeper, Mollie Daley, Miller always carried a small, framed picture of Gussie with him after she was killed and kissed it every night. Daley cited in Sawyer, 277. It is also said that Miller named the small railroad town, which he founded in 1900, Gustine after his deceased daughter. Sawyer, 96; David Durham (1998). California's Geographic Names: A Gazetteer of Historic and Modern Names of the State (Clovis, Calif.: Word Dancer Press, 1998), 779.

[73] According to some accounts, Miller at first could not stand Nickels at all, once saying “When he [Nickels] comes in the room, I go out.” (Miller cited in Sawyer, 97, and in Scheuring, 232). Ibid., also Sawyer, 278; Igler, 157. Their relationship improved gradually, but Miller was much closer and fonder of his nephew Albert Long, who was his chief cattle buyer for many years and had his complete trust. Miller originally wanted Long to become his successor, but for reasons not entirely clear — perhaps Nellie’s influence — he changed his mind and granted Nickels the position. Long left the company shortly afterwards. Sawyer 99, 263, 268, 278, 286, 305; Treadwell, 367. As mentioned before, Miller’s judgment of Nickel proved correct later, when Nickel’s incompetence as a president became a major factor in the company’s demise. Sawyer, 97, 305; Scheuring, 278; Igler, 154, 157, 172.

[74] Miller, “Dictation,” 25; Sawyer 99; Atherton, 178. The first of his sisters to arrive was Elizabeth, who came to the U.S. in 1854, married an American named Henry Long in the late 1850s, and had four children with him (Lizzie, Sarah, Nellie, and Albert). His sister Frederike married the vintner Gottlieb Friedrich Pfeiffer in Brackenheim on October 12, 1854, and decided to go to California after her husband’s death on January 21, 1874. Cf. Sawyer, 99; Treadwell, 151; “New York Passenger List, 1820-1857,” Year: 1854; Arrival: New York, United States; Mircrofilm roll: M237_146; Line: 2. List Number: 1371; letter from Dr. Isolde Döbele-Carlesso (City Archive Brackenheim) to the author, November 8, 2012.

[75] Scheuring, 278; Sawyer, 234.

[76] Scheuring, 280; Igler, 180; Sawyer, 103, 242. When Miller & Lux began selling its assets after World War I, one estimate even valued the company land alone to be worth $40 million and placed an additional $13.7 million on its water rights. In 1935, the firm sold part of its water rights for $2.45 million to the federal government. Igler, 180; Scheuring, 287; and Catherine Miller, 149.

[77] Sawyer, 103-104. The list of recipients of Miller’s posthumous charity includes the San Francisco Home of Incurables with $10,000 and the First English Evangelical Lutheran Church of San Francisco with $5,000 dollars. Miller also made a gift of $300,000 for a hospital in Gilroy and $500,000 for a medical research hospital in connection with either the University of California or Stanford that was to become effective after both his daughter and son-in-law had died. However, by the time Nellie died in 1944 (her husband had already died in 1937), most of the company’s money was already gone and Miller's grandchildren were fighting a bitter legal battle concerning the rest, so this bequest apparently never materialized. Ibid.

[78] Because of the war and its consequences, Brackenheim did not receive the money until 1929, by which time the transferred sum (including interested) was 180,000 Reichsmark. Cf. Stadt Brackenheim, Amts- und Mitteilungsblatt, November 11, 1983 (Cityarchive Brackenheim); “Henry-Miller-Haus, Bandhausstr. 2/1 Zeittafel” (City-Archive Brackenheim); Telephone interviews with Dr. Isolde Döbele-Carlesso (Director, City Archive Brackenheim) and Markus Klein (City Administration Brackenheim) on January 11, 2012. In 2007-2008, the Miller House was completely renovated at a cost of more than €2 Million; since then, all revenues from the house have been invested to guarantee its upkeep. Letter from Mr. Klein to the author, December 18, 2012.

[79] “Festakt zum 175. Geburtstag von Henry Miller,” transcript of the mayor’s address at the 175th anniversary of Miller’s birth in Brackenheim (City Archive Brackenheim); newspaper clips and other information material provided by Markus Klein via e-mail between January and December 2012; letter from Dr. Döbele-Carlesso to the author, December 12, 2012. After World War II, all connections between Brackenheim and Miller’s heirs ceased until the son of Brackenheim’s mayor Richard Wenniger re-established contact while studying medicine in California. In November of 1983, Miller’s great-great-grandson William Mein visited Brackenheim, and in November 1990, George Nickel, Jr., went to Brackenheim. More Miller’s descendents are expected to visit Brackenheim in the future. “Verwandtschaft und Freunde in der alten Welt: Urenkel Henri Millers besuchte die Heimat des Vorfahren.” Heilbronner Stimme. October 20, 1983 (Stadtarchiv Brackenheim); Stadt Brackenheim, Amts und Mitteilungsblatt, “Urenkel Henry Millers in Brackenheim zu Besuch,” November 9, 1990, 6-7 (Stadtarchiv Brackenheim).

[80] City of Los Banos, “Henry Miller – Founding Father of Los Banos,” online statement on the city’s relationship to Miller, 2012, (accessed March 28, 2013); also cf. Sawyer, V; letter of Sandra Benetti (Deputy City Clerk of the City of Los Banos) to author, October 17, 2012; telephone interview with Benetti on December 18, 2012, and letter from Mary Cotta (Executive Secretary of the Los Banos Unified School District) to author, December 18, 2012.

[81] Cf. Scheuring, 287-288; Sawyer, 306-308. Also cf. Birmingham’s comment: “Despite their quarrels, all Henry Miller’s heirs were made comfortably wealthy by their enterprising patriarch. And, removed by a couple of generations from the… scandals of the past, the Miller heirs went sailing into American high society – on the water of California, as it were.” (49).

[82] Miller & Lux controlled the entire production process: from ranch to slaughterhouse to wholesale distribution to retail sales. Other meatpacking firms of the era such as Swift & Co. and Armour and Company focused on slaughtering and distributing livestock through wholesale networks, but did not integrate backwards into cattle or hog rearing. Meatpacking firms Cudahy and Wilson reached their peak in the twentieth century, during a period in which Miller & Lux had begun to decline in market significance. Consequently, Miller & Lux was in a unique position to influence the western U.S. market for meat products during the era in which it had its peak success.

[83] Sawyer, 25, 308; Igler, 120-121, 145; Scheuring, 280-281; Walker, 257-258.

[84] Cf. Atherton, 181,188; Bancroft, 378-382; Treadwell, 301; Sawyer, 18-24, 254, 287; Igler, 36-59, 60, 67-68; Birmingham, 34-36; Scheuring, 45-49, 178-182. While the first four authors paint a mainly positive image of Miller, the last three, especially Igler, are rather critical of his methods.

[85] Cf. Bancroft, 383; Treadwell, 319-320; Scheuring, 269; Sawyer, 211, 252, 258, 266, 303. Igler is, again, the most critical of Miller in this respect. He especially characterizes Miller’s treatment of his workforce as capitalizing on the difficult situation of migrant workers, paying low wages and annoying his foreman with his overbearing manner and need to micromanage. Cf. Igler, 123-144.

[86] Sawyer, 254; Igler 16-17; Scheuring, 60-62.

[87] Milliken had worked for Miller & Lux as a boy and later interviewed many of Miller’s “friends, foes, and employees” between 1916 and 1970. These testimonies were then published in Charles Sawyer’s One Man Show in 2003. Cf. Sawyer, V, 161-200, 245-304.

[88] Stockton cited in Sawyer, 197.

[89] Agard cited in Sawyer, 211-12; Stafford cited Ibid., 257.

[90] Testimonies cited in Sawyer, 178-179, 180, 248, 251, 252, 254, 257, 266, 280, 284.

[91] Newton cited in Sawyer, 303.

[92] John Clay, My Life on the Range (Chicago: private press, 1924), passage cited in Treadwell, 362-364; also cf. Scheuring, 279-280.

[93] Sawyer, 308.

[94] Cf., e.g., Igler, 92, 113-114, 175-178; W. L. Preston, Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 141-142, 208.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Henry Miller: The Cattle King of California
  • Coverage 1827-1916
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 20, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018