TIL #1 — Henry Miller: “The Cattle King”

3 min readJan 27, 2022

Today I learned that, once upon a time, you could reclaim title to property by “rowing” across dry land.

Line Drawing of Henry Miller’s Rowboat

On September 28, 1850, the United States passed what became known as the Swamp Land Act.

This legislation gave States title to any “swamp and overflowed lands” that were “unfit for cultivation.” The Act further authorized States to “reclaim” and sell such lands to private parties as a way to generate funding and supplement westward expansion.

Putting an end to the Mexican-American War, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Feb. 2, 1848) established terms that ceded more than 525,000 square miles of land to the United States. This included the unorganized territory of California, where gold was discovered merely one week before (Jan. 24, 1848).

Talk about timing, eh?

By the time statehood came around in 1850, California was already the ultimate destination for migrants who hoped to make a name for themselves. Thousands upon thousands of prospective miners, entrepreneurs, and yeoman settlers made the trip by land or sea.

Have you ever wondered how the San Francisco 49ers got their name?

Struck by gold fever, Henry Miller, a German who emigrated to New York in 1847, saw opportunity out west and decidedly took advantage of a one-way ticket to San Francisco. He arrived by boat on September 24, 1850—four days before the Swamp Land Act was passed.

Overtime, Miller would go from possessing no more than a gold watch and six dollars to owning close to 1.3 million acres of land in California, Oregon, and Nevada. Not only would he earn title to much of the west, but earn title as “The Cattle King” as well.

And while most of these land purchases were made in line with legal consideration, there is one story that—if true—certainly raises eyebrows:

In accordance to the Swamp Land Act of 1850, California enacted laws outlining the process of surveying, approving, and selling “swamp and overflowed land.” To paraphrase, three steps were required:

  1. Perform a land survey at the county level.
  2. Submit the land survey to the State and Federal Government for approval.
  3. Upon approval, the land could be sold at $1 per acre.

With few details, one could only assume that Miller was arrogantly confident in his ability to manipulate the governments’ enforcement of such a process, especially given the infancy of Merced County (est. 1855).

To illustrate this point, Miller placed a rowboat upon the running gear (i.e., chassis) of a wagon. After climbing into the rowboat, Miller then instructed his driver, Chris, to drive him around the county on land that would occasionally—if ever—flood during the wet season.

It was summer.

Intending to reclaim the dry land under the Swamp Land Act at $1 per acre, Miller and his driver took to the county office where Chris could swear and sign—by legal affidavit—that Henry Miller was seen traversing the land in a boat.

It worked.