Riverboat captain Richard King got hold of some south Texas wilderness and with his equally determined wife built a ranch beyond their wildest dreams.
The name fits the state of Texas like a crown— King Ranch. Over the course of its 150-plus years this fabled giant of a ranch has been a symbol of pride, power, wealth and larger- than-life romance in the Lone Star State and beyond. Its 825,000 acres rank it larger than Rhode Island. While it will always be associated with cattle and the first cattle drives in the Wild West, the ranch has since diversified into a major agribusiness with farming, feedlot operations, pecan processing, commodity marketing and recreational hunting all part of its operations. The roots of this immense kingdom have nothing to do with royalty but rather with a riverboat captain named Richard King, who was an opportunist of humble origins, and a Presbyterian minister’s daughter, Henrietta, who consented to marry him in 1854 and became “La Patrona” of their domain.
Richard was born in New York City on July 10, 1824, to immigrant Irish parents so poor that they signed him out at age 9 as an apprentice to a Manhattan jeweler. Young Richard had room and board and was learning a trade, but he found life too sedentary. At age 11 he left New York on the steamer Desdemona, first as a stowaway and later as a cabin boy. The ship sailed to Mobile, Ala., and instead of returning to New York on the ship, King crewed steamboats on the Alabama rivers. Captain Joe Holland, one of the men schooling King in the art of navigation, sent young Richard to Connecticut for formal schooling, but he apparently didn’t take to the classroom. Eight months later he was back on the rivers.
By age 16 Richard was an experienced riverboat pilot. In 1842 he was serving on a steamer in Florida during the Second Seminole War when he met Mifflin Kenedy, master of the steamboat Champion. Although Kenedy was six years older and not the typical rough-and-ready boatman (having been raised a Quaker with an education), the pair hit it off and became friends. In 1847 King joined Kenedy on the Rio Grande to serve the United States during the war with Mexico. As commander of the ship Colonel Cross, King transported troops and supplies. At war’s end the friends became partners in M. Kenedy and Co., a Rio Grande steamship company they formed in 1850. It came to dominate trade along the river.
In 1852 King bought land on Padre Island that turned out to be a bogus claim, but he was more careful about his land deals after that, usually relying on capable lawyers in the transactions. He became captivated by a region in south Texas known as the Wild Horse Desert, especially the area along Santa Gertrudis Creek. Wildlife thrived there, and he figured stock would do the same. In 1853 he and partner Gideon “Legs” Lewis bought a 15,500-acre Mexican land grant then known as the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis. They paid less than 2 cents an acre. The next year they bought the 53,000-acre Santa Gertrudis de la Garza grant. These two tracts of wilderness became the nucleus around which the future King Ranch developed and grew. Richard was so enamored of his purchases that he developed a simple motto: “Buy land and never sell.”
Legs Lewis dropped out of the picture in April 1855, killed in a jealous rage. It seems a Corpus Christi doctor discovered love letters between his wife and Lewis and promptly blasted Legs with a double-barreled shotgun. Lewis’ half-interest in the ranch went up for public auction, and King, through friend Major William Warren Chapman, bought Lewis’ share. The Army soon transferred Chapman out of Texas, and he never made it back, dying in Virginia in 1859. (In 1879 Chapman’s widow, Helen, sued for a piece of the ranch, and a court seemingly settled the case four years later, but all was not legally resolved until the 21st century—in favor of King Ranch).
By late 1860 King and Kenedy had formed a ranching partnership, which would last eight years. After that King continued to expand his holdings, buying mostly former Spanish and Mexican land grants. His ranch—called Rancho de Santa Gertrudis until after his death—quickly became the most famous in the state of Texas. When he died in 1885, Richard had about 614,000 acres and 300 employees. He also left some $500,000 in debt.
Back when King was piloting boats anywhere “a dry creek flows” and speculating in south Texas land, he found his lifelong mate in Missouri-born Henrietta Chamberlain. After moving to Texas in 1849, she taught at the Rio Grande Female Institute and was living in Brownsville with her father, Hiram, who founded the area’s first Presbyterian church the following year, around the time Henrietta and Richard met. The courtship lasted four years until Henrietta finally gave in and said yes. The Rev. Chamberlain officiated at his daughter’s marriage to Richard on December 10, 1854. Born in Boonville, Mo., on July 21, 1832, Henrietta must have been, like her husband, a person who loved a challenge. After their marriage the newlyweds first lived in a lean-to built against the ranch commissary before replacing it with a house near Santa Gertrudis Creek, 45 miles southwest of Corpus Christi and 125 miles north of Brownsville, on the Rio Grande. Henrietta shared her husband’s vision of building a profitable ranch, even though he had little experience with cattle or ranching. As an intelligent man of action, however, Richard knew he needed help and went out to get it. In 1859 the ranch registered both the HK brand, for Henrietta King, and the LK brand, for Lewis and King.
As the area was suffering from a drought, King had no trouble buying thirsty cattle owned by the citizens of Cruillas and other small villages in northern Mexico. He then offered to hire the Mexicans themselves, since they knew how to work cattle. In need of work, most agreed to move north. These grateful new employees came to call themselves Kineños (“King’s people”) and remained loyal to the family and their ranch for generations. They taught King the cattle trade and how to train horses. The grateful rancher was in turn loyal to them and worked beside them. The Kineños were not the same as the era’s cowboys—transient horsemen usually hired on a seasonal basis who were most valuable on the long cattle drives north after the Civil War. The Kineños had year-round jobs on King Ranch with security and the opportunity to advance. They could marry and raise their families on the ranch. Henrietta showed her leadership abilities early on by supervising housing and schooling for the Mexican-American families.
Henrietta weathered a number of desperate situations during these early years. In one incident she was baking bread while one of her babies slept in the kitchen. An Indian burst through the door and began waving his club over the infant. Henrietta knew if she didn’t feed the man, he would kill the baby. Without hesitation she gave him all her bread, and he left. Another time she was camped along a wilderness trail with Richard and one of the babies. As she tended the child, she noticed a knife-wielding bandit approaching her husband. “Behind you!” she shouted. Richard whipped around, threw the man to the ground, disarmed him and sent him packing.
In November 1863 Federal forces captured Brownsville, and Richard King, a Confederate sympathizer, correctly assumed the Yankees would soon march north to raid the ranch. In Mexico at the time, searching for stolen cattle, he was concerned about Henrietta and their children and hoped the enemy would be honorable enough not to harm his family or the property. He was partly right. When the bluecoats arrived in the yard, a loyal ranch hand named Francisco Alvarado opened the front door and stepped outside. He intended to tell them Richard was gone and hope they would believe him or else search the grounds and then leave. Before he could say a word, though, the Yankees shot him dead at the door—a case of mistaken identity. The soldiers thought they had killed Captain King, but when they carried the body into the parlor and saw otherwise, they were furious. They ransacked the house, smashing and looting as they went, vandalizing out of revenge or perhaps just for the thrill of it. Henrietta could only stand by and watch, her children holding onto her skirts. Two months later she gave birth to a boy, whom she named Robert E. Lee King. Soon after she took her five children to San Antonio until it was safe to return home. Richard King himself tempted fate in Texas during the Civil War. He and his partners had entered into contracts with the Confederate government to supply European buyers with cotton. In return the South received beef, clothing and munitions, among other things, and King and company made considerable fortunes. Their steamships had been skirting the Union blockade under the Mexican flag, shipping cotton from the South to Europe through Mexico. While the Confederates did reclaim south Texas in 1864, putting King back in business, he fled to Mexico when the South surrendered and did not return to his ranch until late 1865 when President Andrew Johnson pardoned him for aiding the Confederacy.
After the war, as before, the ranch’s biggest problem was cattle rustling. It was easy for Mexican thieves to ride into south Texas, cut out a few head and race back across the border. As a deterrent King built more fences and beefed up his patrols with guards, especially along the southern border of his land. On a bigger scale he eventually helped form the Stock Raisers’ Association of Western Texas to combat rustling. Whether they rustled or not, squatters also bothered King, and he saw to it they were removed. Armed bandits were another concern. When he traveled in a coach to do his banking in Brownsville, he brought along an armed driver and four to five armed vaqueros. He kept his cash (sometimes as much as $50,000 at a time) in a secret safe built into the coach. He eventually set up relay stations 20 miles apart to ensure fresh teams for his carriages and fresh remounts for his guards during the 125-mile-plus trip to Brownsville. This way he would not have to stop long anywhere along the way.
In 1868 King and Kenedy decided to amicably dissolve their partnership, with King ranching at Santa Gertrudis and Kenedy at Los Laureles. In 1869 King registered the Running W brand (which remains King Ranch’s official brand; see sidebar, P. 59). By that year King was sending many of his Longhorns north to the Kansas railheads. He called the drovers his “Kansas men.” Usually he traveled ahead of them to negotiate the cattle sales in the various northern cow towns. Between 1869 and 1884 more than 100,000 head of King cattle made the long trek north. He also sold horses and mules and wool from his sheep. He financed a hide and tallow enterprise, enabling him to cull out the weaker cattle and upgrade his herds. He was making loads of money—spending it, too. His expansion in land and livestock seemed limitless.
The area had long operated on a hacienda system rooted in its Spanish and Mexican traditions. The owner of a land grant governing a hacienda was expected to care for his workers. Indeed, at his ranch King provided food, shelter and medical care while the Kineño families provided reliable and loyal labor. Some of the early Kineños became caporals (foremen), mayordomos (bosses of “foot sections,” tasked with jobs other than cattle work) and remuderos (overseers of the horses), terms still in use today. Sons of vaqueros often became vaqueros like their fathers, while the girls became homemakers like their mothers. If they branched out to become butlers or maids, to work at the dairy and so forth, their chief duty was to support the men. When a couple married, they sometimes received a cow as a wedding gift. These cows were often then butchered for the wedding feasts. The families usually seemed happy with the arrangement. Richard King adopted such practices on his ranch, and the system worked and remained in place for years.
The ranch itself was not one vast expanse of contiguous land. Eventually it comprised four separate properties, or divisions, in six counties (Jim Wells, Nueces, Kleberg, Brooks, Kenedy and Willacy). The four division headquarters—the original Santa Gertrudis, the Laureles, the Encino and the Norias— would each fall under a separate foreman. During the 1870s and early 1880s the Running W was as well known as any brand from the Gulf of Mexico to Kansas. Despite his success, however, by 1883 Richard King was in poor health and worried. His 19-year-old son and potential successor, Robert E. Lee King, had died of pneumonia.
According to some accounts Richard began drinking heavily and was so distraught that he listed the Santa Gertrudis Ranch for sale. A British syndicate showed interest in buying the property but couldn’t—or wouldn’t—meet King’s asking price of $6.5 million. That was the last time the ranch was put up for sale. In fact, when the 60-year-old former riverboat captain turned pioneer rancher died of stomach cancer at San Antonio’s Menger Hotel on April 14, 1885, he left instructions with a lawyer “not to let a foot of dear old Santa Gertrudis get away.”
Henrietta certainly didn’t let King Ranch get away. The widow showed her strength and resourcefulness by skillfully supervising the ranch the way her late husband had. More frugal than Richard, Henrietta soon freed the ranch of debt. She did not go it alone, however. Robert Justus Kleberg, the ranch lawyer and her son-in-law, helped her manage the holdings. It was Richard King who had hired Kleberg to do most of the ranch’s legal work. This young lawyer with the opposing counsel impressed Richard during a lawsuit in Corpus Christi in 1881. Kleberg also became drawn to Richard and attracted to Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Alice Gertrudis King, and the couple married in 1886, a year after Richard’s death. The ranch grew from the 146,000 acres they had after the war to 650,000 acres by 1895, and that year Henrietta gave Kleberg her power of attorney and more responsibilities on the ranch.
Kleberg took a strong interest in cattle and horse breeding, improving range grasses and irrigated farming. In 1899 he drilled several artesian wells and discovered a river of water running beneath the property. His revelation brought an end to a decade of harsh conditions that had begun with a severe drought known as “the great die-up.” Another of Kleberg’s successes was to design the first cattle-dipping vats to fight the dreaded Texas fever tick that had long plagued area cattle. For two years (1899–1901) he served as president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Henrietta and her son-in-law were instrumental in getting the St. Louis, Brownsville & Mexico Railway to come their way, and she provided land along the track for several towns, including Kingsville. She also paid for a public school, donated land for the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute and the Spohn Sanitarium and helped establish South Texas Normal School (now Texas A&M University–Kingsville).
By the time Henrietta died in 1925 at age 92, she had seen the ranch increase to more than a million acres. Families came from everywhere to camp on the grass near the house as they waited for the funeral. Kineños past and present arrived, some riding horses for days to arrive in time. They immediately went to her daughter, Alice Kleberg, to express their sadness and extend their fealty to her family. At the funeral in Kingsville a guard of nearly 200 vaqueros on Running W horses flanked the hearse to the cemetery. The Rev. S.E. Chandler gave the service, and as her coffin was lowered into the grave, each vaquero cantered his horse around the opening, holding his hat at his side in salute. La Patrona left behind a legacy of philanthropy and devotion. As for the late Patrón, his remains were interred from San Antonio and reburied next to his beloved wife in the Kingsville cemetery, as were two (son Lee and daughter Ella) of their five children.
After Henrietta’s death King Ranch struggled to market beef during the Great Depression. Recognizing the need to diversify, the family negotiated a few long-term oil and gas leases with Humble Oil & Refining Co. (a precursor of ExxonMobil), which helped fund the ranch through the 1930s. Robert Kleberg died in 1932, passing the torch to son Robert Justus Kleberg Jr., who became manager of the ranch. Another son, Richard Mifflin Kleberg, was also instrumental in running the ranch and became a U.S. congressman from south Texas.
The Kleberg brothers worked together to breed Santa Gertrudis cattle, a combination of Brahman and Shorthorn recognized as a distinct breed in 1940. King Ranch began breeding quarter horses in 1916 and thoroughbreds in 1934. In 1946 its prize 3-year-old colt Assault won the Triple Crown. In the 1950s King Ranch bought ranches abroad, in Cuba, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain and Morocco. Meanwhile, Stateside expansion included operations in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida and Mississippi. These properties greatly expanded the ranges of Santa Gertrudis cattle.
By the late 20th century King Ranch had sold many of its foreign properties to concentrate on domestic operations. The ranch has since bolstered its agricultural (man cannot live on beef alone) and energy operations and become more involved in tourism. Many descendants of Richard and Henrietta King have continued to work the ranch. The patrón system has not totally disappeared from the ranch, although more contemporary management practices are in use, and some Kineños have risen to management positions. Progress happens, good and bad—it’s necessary for survival. Today you can visit the still-working King Ranch and King Ranch Museum in Kingsville to relive the legacy of Richard and Henrietta. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the ranch remains one of the largest in the world, home to its thriving San Gertrudis cattle and many other successful ventures.
Pat Decker Nipper of San Jose, Calif., thanks King Ranch archivist Lisa Neely for her help. For further reading: The King Ranch (two volumes), by Tom Lea; Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch: A Worldwide Sea of Grass, by John Cypher; and Voices From the Wild Horse Desert: The Vaquero Families of the King and Kenedy Ranches, by Jane Clements Monday and Betty Bailey Colley.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.