Private islands, forgotten California oligarchs, and Jewish converts. Say hello to our ruling class.

It’s not everyday that two of my seemingly disconnected interests — California oligarchic farmers and the weaponization of Jewish identity — come together.

I’m sitting in our new place in San Francisco, just around the corner from Haight Street — trying to catch up on some writing and do work on the documentary that I needed to do weeks ago. Yeah, we’re still hard at work on the California water oligarch doc. It’s taken us way longer than we ever imagined. But Rowan and our editor Luka have been making serious progress over the last few months.

I’ve been looking through some old research for the next bit that we’ve getting ready to polish up. And digging into my notes, I came across a bit of oligarch trivia that I clipped years ago and promptly forgot. It’s about two privately owned islands in the San Francisco Bay.

The New York Times, 1984

Yeah, there used to be two private islands owned by an old oligarch family right off the coast of San Rafael in Marin County. I know of private islands that exist deeper inside the bay — in the San Francisco Bay Delta, at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. But they’re usually agricultural pieces of land — less islands and more like big dirt patches, surrounded by earthen mounds and levees that’ve been built up to keep the river and salty bay water out. Rowan and I spent a night on an island like that out in the Delta a few years back while shooting our doc. It’s called Winter Island and it’s a duck hunting lodge today that sits on a soggy piece of land surrounded on all sides by reeds. It’s a cool, weird place. Look to one side and it’s all pristine. Water as far as the eye can see. Reeds, all sorts of birds, otters splashing in the water. You can sort of imagine how the Bay looked before industrial colonization. But turn around 180 degrees and you a bunch of giant industrial facilities that line the coast a mile or so away come into view. They’re fantastically lit up and clang and hum all night long.

Interestingly, before Winter Island got converted into a hunting lodge, it was the site of a long-forgotten radical socialist commune — the Brotherhood of Winter Island. Now I think the island is mostly owned by the the state of California.

The Marin Islands are a bit different. They’re in the Bay itself, not in the freshwater estuary bit. And the reason I saved them in my notes is because they used to be owned by one wing of California’s biggest, most sprawling oligarch families — a network that traces its origins in part to the state’s biggest land baron, the infamous Henry Miller. They’re California’s persistent, low-key aristocracy.

Henry Miller was a butcher’s kid who came over from Germany and proceeded to build the largest cattle operation in California, providing protein to the the hordes of crazed men pouring into San Francisco and hoping to strike it rich with gold. I wrote about him a bit in Oligarch Valley:

The son of a German butcher, he ran away from home as a teenager, made his way to California by boat, adopted the name Henry Miller and scammed his way to unbelievable riches as a cattle baron, supplying beef to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. At some point, he was considered the largest landowner in the United States. The man had so much land that he liked to brag about being able to drive his cattle from Los Angeles to San Francisco without ever leaving his own property.

“Henry Miller left behind him the largest area of land under a single ownership ever assembled in America, probably the world, if private individual ownership and now the feudal domains of Kings is alone considered,” gushed the New York Times in a 1921 profile five years after his death. “Eight hundred thousand acres in California—more than 1,250 square miles—nearly as much in Oregon and half as much in Nevada, constituting the entire holdings of Miller & Lux, Inc.”

In San Francisco, he married into elite anglo society and started leveraging his profits and connections into buying as much real estate as he possibly could, always on the lookout for land with water rights and access to rivers and streams. Miller was among the first to understand that water was the key to power and wealth in California, and was the state’s most valuable and strategically important resource. He snatched up land on both sides of major California rivers, monopolizing water supply.

The man was obsessed with growing his business operation, and supposedly took pleasure in nothing but work, not even in food. “I’d stop eating if I could,” he once wrote a friend.

The man was a miser and skinflint. “Even after he had become a multimillionaire, he always insisted on having his potatoes boiled in the jackets because the skins could be peeled thinner that way, and he would go into a rage if he were given a full cup of coffee after he had asked for only a half cup, because this meant he was going to have to drink more than he thought was good for him in order to avoid the wastefulness of throwing any coffee out,” according to a 1967 profile in the American Heritage Magazine.

The Nation’s legendary editor Carey McWilliams was in total awe of Miller’s business abilities, writing “His career is almost without parallel in the history of land monopolization in America. He must be considered as a member of the great brotherhood of buccaneers: the Goulds, the Harrimans, the Astors, the Vanderbilts.” California water historian Marc Reisnser also showed deep respect for the man’s talents, reverently describing Miller a “mythical figure in the history of California land fraud.”

Miller used corrupt state courts to steal land from owners of Mexican land grants. One of his crowning achievements was when Miller and Lux litigated a Mexican-American landowning family into insolvency and then forced them to sell Buri Buri Ranch, a chunk of land stretching from the southern edge of San Francisco down to Burlingame. He did it all with the help of notoriously corrupt lawyer and future California governor, Harry Haight. Yep, the guy hippy Haight Street was named after. Stealing Buri Buri was all about securing grazing land for his massive cowherds as close to San Francisco’s hungry meat market as possible. They didn’t have ice boxes then. So once you kill it, you better eat it fast.

Henry Miller interbred with the emerging anglo ruling elite of Northern California and his kids and grandkids went on to form several branches of the state’s — and more importantly, the Bay Area’s — emerging aristocracy, birthing progeny in all sorts of directions. And with every generation, their names got longer and longer, as if they were some kind British aristocracy — names like Constance Crowley Bowles Hart Peabody. And why not? They lived and acted like aristocrats.

One of the big branches of the Miller clan were the Bowles’s — which formed a union with the Crowley’s, a family that owned a sprawling maritime shipping and tugboat business out of San Francisco. (Crowley is still one of the largest private shipping companies in the world, just in case you’re wondering.) And it is this family — the Crowley and Crowley-Bowles union — that owned and had access to those private islands and lived and vacationed there, surrounded by water on all sides.

Here’s a bit on one of the old matriarchs of that line, Constance Crowley Bowles Hart Peabody:

And here’s the matriarch herself, hunting on a stretch of her vast Central Valley estate.

If you’re a New York Times subscriber you might recognize the “Bowles” name. Nellie Bowles — who I believe is Connie’s granddaughter — is one of the paper’s star reporters. Or she used to be. Nellie self-cancelled herself from her job recently, following the footsteps of her partner, the Zionist Death Star Toady Bari Weiss. Bari also quit the New York Times for the same reason that Nellie did: they say the paper’s reporters and newsroom culture was too progressive, too stifling to free thinkers like themselves. It’s hard to be an influencer in today’s America.

Nellie started out at the New York Times as a young and eager tech booster. But she really hit the big time when she wrote a long hit piece on Chapo and the dirtbag influencer left and blamed them for America’s problems and for inciting the youth to violence against the system.

I looked up Nellie to see what she’s been up to lately. And I couldn’t believe it: she’s a hardcore Jewish Zionist now. Apparently this San Francisco Debutante Ball Anglo oligarch brat converted to Judaism and has became a Zionist zealot. And funniest of all, she runs a Substack — “Chosen By Choice” — featuring her reflections on what it’s like to cosplay as a Zionist Jew and, among other things, educating her readers about how evil the USSR was and how bad Jews had it there. The Substack also features other vapid Jewish converts, who use Nellie’s Substack to declare their love for Israel and to complain that their liberal non-Jewish friends in America don’t understand how perilous the situation is for Jewish survival in Israel. It’s all very nuts. But not surprising. I mean, she is married to Bari Weiss.

Not sure what all this means or what to say. But it’s not everyday that two of my seemingly disconnected interests — old school California oligarchic farmers and the weaponization of Jewish identity — come together in one subject. They do with persevering clan of the Bowles. And that counts for something.

—Yasha Levine

PS: The private Marin Islands are no longer private. They’re owned by the federal government now and left wild as a bird refuge. I think the Crowley family got too cheap to take care of them and pawned them off to the gov.

PPS: Here’s a news clip on the islands when they were up for sale in the 1980s.