King Ranch

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King Ranch logo - the running W brand
King Ranch logo - the running W brand

King Ranch, located in south Texas between Corpus Christi, Texas and Brownsville, Texas, is one of the world's largest ranches (larger than Rhode Island). The 825,000 acre (3,340 km²) ranch, founded in 1853 by Captain Richard King and Gideon K. Lewis, sprawls across six Texas counties, including most of Kenedy County. The ranch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.



Paddle steamer on an American river.
Paddle steamer on an American river.

Richard King

Richard King (1824-1885) was a riverman, born in New York City of Irish immigrants. He was apprenticed to a jeweler at age eleven but broke his bond by running away to seaLea_p2. He first served as cabin boy on the Desdemona. After arriving on the Gulf coast, King worked on Captain Hugh Monroe's steamboat. At age 13, upon Monroe's recommendation, King signed on with Captain Joe Holland's steamboat as "cub", where he learned to read and reckon. Holland sent King to Connecticut for schooling, but King again ran away at the end of the school term. He served on a Florida steamboat for the Second Seminole War. By 1842, King worked on the steamboats on the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee rivers, where he attained a pilot's rating. In 1843 King first met his future business partner in the King Ranch, Mifflin Kenedy (1818-1895), captain of the steamboat Champion.

The Wild Horse Desert

The striped area includes the Wild Horse Desert between the Nueces River and Rio Bravo
The striped area includes the Wild Horse Desert between the Nueces River and Rio Bravo

In 1845 Texas was annexed by the United States, but the Wild Horse Desert, the land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces river was disputed territory, as the Nueces River was claimed to be the boundary with Mexico. The Wild Horse Desert remained unsettled, as the Karankawas, the Lipans and the Comanches kept the holders of the Spanish land grants from settling the land. Tom Lea writes that the cattle of the Wild Horse Desert ran free on unfenced land, from the early 1800s to 1840, when there were no more cattle to be stolen by the Cow Boys of early Texas Lea_p108.

Mexican War

On July 2 1846 Kenedy had signed on as captain of the steamer Corvette, in New Orleans, in Zachary Taylor's campaign for the war with Mexico; Kenedy was sent to pilot the waters of the Rio Grande. At that time, the Rio Grande was navigable from the mouth of the river to slightly past Roma, Texas. Richard King, by this time, had arrived on the Rio Grande May 1847, and had signed on as a Second Pilot for the steamer Colonel Cross. After the end of the war, King was able to buy the Colonel Cross for $750 as surplus equipment which the US government had previously purchased for $14 000.Lea_p45 King then attempted to make a living hauling merchandise on the Rio Grande. In the meantime, Kenedy was able to make money by carrying goods overland into Mexico. By March 1, 1850 King, Kenedy, Charles Stillman and James O'Donnell entered into a business partnership (M. Kenedy & Co.) to trans-ship Stillman's goods from the Gulf of Mexico and up the Rio Grande. The enterprise required two type of steamers, one designed for the open water, and one of shallow draft for the river; the first steamers were Grampus and Comanche, respectively, manufactured in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Stillman sold out after the Civil War; the new firm operated as King, Kenedy & Co. until 1874.

Santa Gertrudis Creek

King first saw the land that would become part of the enormous King Ranch in April 1852 when he was traveling north by horseback from Brownsville to attend the Lone Star Fair in Corpus Christi, a four day trip by horseback. After a grueling, hot and dusty ride, King caught sight of the Santa Gertrudis Creek, one hundred twenty four miles from the Rio Grande, the first stream he had seen on the Wild Horse Desert. The land, which was shaded by large mesquite trees, so impressed him that when he arrived at the fair, he and a friend of his, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon K. "Legs" Lewis, agreed then and there to make it into a ranch.

The King Ranch LK brand stands for partners Lewis and King.


From September 1 1852 to March 13, 1853 Lewis served as captain of Texas Mounted Volunteers, which patrolled the Corpus Christi area. Concurrently, King and Lewis established a cow camp on Santa Gertrudis Creek. During this time, Richard King purchased the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis grantm, a 15 500 acre (63 km²) holding which presently encompasses Kingsville, Texas, from the heirs of Juan Mendiola of Camargo, July 25, 1853 for $300. King thereupon sold Lewis an undivided half-interest in the land for $2000. At the same time, Lewis sold King undivided half interest in the ranchos of Manuel Barrera and of Juan Villareal for the same sum, on November 14, 1853. In 1854 King and Lewis purchased the de la Garza Santa Gertrudis grant, which had been surveyed in 1806 and conveyed to Don José Lorenzo de la Garza, and to his sons José Domingo and José Julian de la Garza on January 25, 1808. King and Lewis purchased this grant from the heir, Praxides Uribe of Matamoros for $1800, on the condition of a perfected title (complete documentation of the land grant) on May 20, 1854 to 53 000 acres (214 km²). As the years passed, more land was added, growing to 1 250 000 acres (5 060 km²) at its largest extent, until reaching its current total.

The death of Legs Lewis

In 1855 Lewis attempted a run for Congress. But an irate husband gunned down Lewis April 14, 1855, upon his third visit to the husband's office, when Lewis sought the return of damaging letters Lewis had written and addressed to the wife, which were intercepted by the husbandLea_p133.

On July 1, 1856, a court sale of Lewis' property (including the undivided half-interest in the land of the Ranch) was held. King had arranged for MAJ W.W. Chapman (died 1859) to bid on the Rincón property, which Chapman acquired for $1575 payable with notes due in one year, with title subject to forfeiture if the notes were in arrears.

The de la Garza Santa Gertrudis property was not technically in arrears, as perfect title did not yet exist. But King interested Captain James Walworth in acquiring the entire de la Garza grant, which Walworth completed on December 26, 1856, for $5000 paid to Praxides Uribe. King thus retained operational control of the Ranch, with Walworth as a silent partner who held title to the land, and who paid taxes on it.Lea_p138 Thus no claim from the Lewis estate was ever made.

King and Walworth's brand was registered June 27, 1859 along with his earlier brands (see below).


According to oral tradition, when King and his partners began hiring people to staff the ranch, they hired a number of Mexican hands, including an entire Mexican village that had been decimated by drought in 1854. Lea records that King led the entrada of villagers from Cruillas, Tamaulipas, Mexico in the early months of 1854. As the ranch grew, its hands came to be called "kineños," or "King's men." King's payroll records from the King Ranch Account Book include Lea_p120

Kenedy County is intertwined with tracts of the King Ranch
Kenedy County is intertwined with tracts of the King Ranch
  • Francisco Alvarado
  • Juan Villareal
  • Damón Ortíz
  • Ylario Chapa
  • Frylan and Lucián Cabazos
  • Chili Ebano
  • Juan Cantú
  • James Richardson
  • William Gregory
  • William Houston
  • Tom Craig
  • Luke Hart
  • Faustino Villa

As the operation grew bigger, some original grantees returned to their land. "King once said he 'could not have kept on and held on if Andrés Canales had not been adjoining'" Lea_p124


Records show that a Mexican range cow cost $6 in 1854; a mustang cost $6; a stud horse might cost $200-300 Lea_p121. In sum, in 1854 King paid $12 275.79. Lea estimates that 1855 expenses were smaller. The first brand was the Ere Flecha (a R with arrow through it) Lea_p150. In 1859, the ranch recorded its first official brands (HK and LK). In 1869 the ranch registered its "Running W" brand, which remains the King Ranch's official mark today. At the time, the ranch grazed cattle, horses, sheep and goats. However, by the mid-1870s the ranch's hallmark stock had become the hardy Texas Longhorn. The ranch also boasted several Brahman bulls, as well as shorthorns and Herefords.

The Brahmans — which were bred specially to thrive in South Texas' hot climate — were crossed with the ranch's shorthorns to produce the ranch's own trademark stock — the Santa Gertrudis cattle, which were recognized as a breed in 1940. The Santa Gertrudis was one of the first American breeds of beef cattle.


Lea portrays King's purchase of the Ranch as motivated by his wooing of Henrietta Maria Morse Chamberlain (1832-1925). Their first encounter in February 1849 was on the Rio Grande, where her father Hiram Chamberlain, a Presbyterian minister, had rented the Whiteville as a houseboat. King swore at the crew of the Whiteville to leave the customary mooring of the Colonel Cross when he encountered his future bride, aged 17, who returned his fire Lea_p64_note40p431 from the houseboat. King then wooed her by dutifully attending prayer meetings and church socials. Their marriage license was entered at Cameron County, Texas on December 9, 1854. They were married in the First Presbyterian Church, Brownsville, Texas, Sunday December 10, 1854, by the Rev. Hiram Chamberlain, immediately after the evening service. King had prepared carefully; the Ranch Account Book lists the purchase of a stagecoach for $400 on November 28, 1854. The stagecoach ride to the Ranch took four days from Brownsville, accompanied by armed riders, attended by a ranch cook for the journey.

"When I came as a bride in 1854, a little ranch home then — a mere jacal as Mexicans would call it — was our abode for many months until our main ranch dwelling was completed. But I doubt if if it falls to the lot of any a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon. On horseback we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquite tree. ... I remember that my pantry was so small my platters were fastend to the walls outside. In those days large venison roasts were our favorite viands. ... At first our cattle were long horns from Mexico. We had no fences and branding was hard work."

— Henrietta King Lea_p128-9

The King Ranch HK brand stands for Henrietta King.

After an extended stay at the Ranch, the Kings were to open up a cottage next door to the Kenedys on Elizabeth Street in Brownsville, where they were to befriend Robert E. Lee. Their lives then entered cycles of Ranch life, followed by town life.

Robert E. Lee

Richard King first met LTC Robert E. Lee (1807-1870), Second Cavalry, United States Army in Fall, 1856 while transporting Army supplies on the Rio Grande. Lee was on the Rio Grande while engaged in courts-martial at Fort Brown. King and Lee would sometimes ride horseback together when the court was in adjournment. Thus Robert E. Lee was able to visit the Ranch; in Tom Lea's opinion, Robert E. Lee chose the site for the Ranch house at Santa Gertrudis, which was completed sometime between 1857 and 1859. Lee would visit the Ranch several times in the period from 1856 to 1861.

"I am sure if General Lee were to recall those days, he would say that a dinner served off our tin plates on this old ranch was more appetizing than many a banquet accorded him in later years."

— Henrietta King Lea_p144_note16p


Their first-born was Henrietta Maria King (April 17, 1856-1918). She would later become Henrietta M. K. Atwood; as there were two Henriettas in the King family, she was nicknamed "Nettie".

Encounters, Old-West style

  • The Kings would travel between Brownsville and the Ranch; one evening, the Kings were encamped by the side of the road when a lone man (who would later reveal his intentions as a bandido) asked to join camp that night. King then assented and sent him out for firewood. Henrietta was tending Nettie on a blanket. King was lighting twigs for the fire when Henrietta yelled out "Captain King! Behind you!". The experienced riverfront fighter slammed back his arms and grabbed the knife-wielding arm, tossing the entire weight of the bandido to the ground, wrenching the knife-wielding arm helpless. King then sternly ordered him to get out of camp.Lea_p147_note22
  • As Henrietta King was baking bread in their jacal, with the infant Nettie in a cradle at the doorway, she turned to see an indio at the threshold. Brandishing a club, he leapt to the cradle and pointed to the bread with his other hand. Henrietta King gave him all the bread he could carry; he then disappeared without a word uttered.Lea_p147_note23

A duty-free zone on the Mexican border

In spring 1858 a Zona Libre (duty-free zone), six miles wide, was established along the Rio Grande along the boundary of the entire state of Tamaulipas. This had the effect of increasing smuggling across the Rio Grande, as goods could be imported into Mexico free of duty. Concurrently, General D.E. Twiggs ordered all US troops in the Department of Texas away from the border, thus on February 5, 1859, the US Army abandoned all posts west of the Nueces River Lea_p_note440.

On July 13, 1859 a siege of Brownsville was instigated by the unnecessary brutality by a City Marshall, Robert Shears, during the arrest of a former servant of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina. Cortina happened to be at a café in Brownsville when he witnessed the arrest for drunkenness. Cortina then disrupted the arrest and rescued his former servant by pulling him up on the saddle behind him, and galloping off. Cortina subsequently freed all Mexican prisoners from the Brownsville jail. It took General José María Jesús Carvajál of Matamoros to quiet the streets of Brownsville. A company of Texas Rangers proved ineffective at restoring order. No US Army representatives of law and order intervened until December 5, 1859.

Robert E. Lee was ordered back as the new commander of the Department of Texas in March 1860. After quelling the incursions of banditry on the Rio Grande, he was able to return to San Antonio; at this time he was able to drop by the Santa Gertrudis Ranch on May 12, 1860.


King and Kenedy anticipated more steamer business as the Civil war loomed, and increased the number of steamers to seven by 1861.

When secession from the Union was decided, General D.E. Twiggs surrendered all US troops in the Department of Texas to the State, to the surprise of Robert E. Lee Lea_p176.

The cattle market

In the Civil War, initially, the disruption of the flow of cattle to market caused a drop in beef prices. In 1861, the price of cattle dropped to $2 a head, rising to $11 per head by August 1862.


By the end of 1861, the blockade of the ports of the Confederacy caused an influx of cotton from across the South to Matamoros, which was not subject to the Union blockade. Kenedy re-flagged his ships with friends in Matamoros to evade the blockade.Lea_p186

The planters of the southeastern states of the Confederacy were forced to sell their cotton to agents of the Confederacy, and were paid in Confederate money. The planters west of the Mississippi could sell their cotton to the Mexican border where they could be paid in gold. To prevent this loss of income, on October 14, 1862 the commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department, General Theophilus H. Holmes, prohibited the export of cotton to non-Confederate agents.

This was a situation tailor-made for the duty-free zone of Tamaulipas. Thus cotton sank to 6 cents a pound in Galveston in 1863, compared to a range of 20 to 74 cents a pound on the Rio Grande for the same period. By 1865, cotton ranged from 68 cents a pound to $1.25 a pound. The ships anchored on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande rose from 20 ships in September 1862 to 200-300 ships in early 1865. Lea_p192

In return, munitions flowed from Europe disguised as Hollow Ware, Bean Flour, Canned Goods, and Bat Metal, names for Enfield guns, gunpowder, percussion caps, and lead, respectivelyLea_p193. However Lea records that the value of this trade was unrecognized by the authorities of the Confederacy.

The partners of King, Kenedy and Stillman divided the labor of transhipment for the Confederacy as follows: King would procure cotton from Confederate depots; Kenedy would ship it; Stillman would provide other merchandise, with a commission of 2.5% for selling and 2.5% for advancing. For example, Lea cites an April 28th, 1863 contract with the Confederate Army: in exchange for 500 bales of Confederate cotton per month, for 6 months, King, Kenedy and Stillman would receive $900 000 dollars in gold, as the Confederate dollar had already depreciated to 25% of its face value, which they could demand in lieu of paper Confederate dollars, as Mexican gold was the basis of value in the region of the Rio Grande. Lea_p200

By February 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant dispatched Major General Lew Wallace to Brazos island to learn how to shut off the international trade centered on Matamoros. The last battle of the Civil War, May 13, 1865 was fired in this region at Bolsa Chica. Upon surrender, Richard King, as a Rebel, was evading Union capture by hiding in Matamoros. King was obliged to ask for presidential pardon. Kenedy's steamers were seized by the Union, but King and Kenedy were able to buy them back. They bid on a Union Army railroad in 1866, but their $60 000 offer was outbid.


Both rivermen quit the river by 1868. King and Kenedy decided to split their ranch holdings and fence their properties from each other, a considerable expense. Kenedy was the first substantial owner of fenced range in the West.

The Big Drift

The 1863-1864 winter pushed uncounted cattle south toward the Nueces and Rio Grande. By the end of the Civil War, the Texas Rangers were disbanded by the Reconstruction. It became too tempting to simply herd cattle across the Nueces or Rio Grande.

Even in this time of loss, by 1869 Richard King was able to round up 48 664 cattle out of an estimated 84 000 head. Allowing for 10 000 remaining, Richard King claimed a loss of 33 827 head from 1869 to 1872.

To handle depredations, the ranchers formed the Stock Raisers Association of Western Texas in 1870; Mifflin Kenedy led the first meeting.

By 1874, the Texas Rangers were re-established, and were a factor in controlling the depredations.

Beef Price Fluctuations

By 1870, 300 000 head of cattle made their way from the West to the railroads of Kansas, and thence to the stockyards of Chicago. In a Texas ranch, a steer worth $11 would bring $20 from a buyer in Abilene. The buyer in turn could ask $31.50 at the stockyards of Chicago. Richard King could drive his cattle for a hundred days to the railheads of Kansas.

But by 1871 700,000 head of cattle caused a market glut, which King avoided by personal negotiation in Abilene.

King managed to to avoid the September 19, 1873 Black Friday panic by selling early. During the lean year that followed, King continued to fence his land, and husband his cattle, horses and sheep.

One technique that King used to manage costs was to make his trail bosses the owners of the herd. The bosses would sign a note for the cattle, which they would begin to drive to market in February of each year, for the 100-day drive. The bosses were also the employers of the outfit. Upon the sale of the herd to the northern buyers, the trail bosses could relieve their indebtedness, and earn a profit greater than their ordinary wages.

  • 1884 Trail boss Walter Billingsley, while driving 5600 steers to Cheyenne, Wyoming, needed a $600 loan to pay off 5 cowboys he fired for drunkenness. With no identification, he could not get a loan from a bank in Fort Sidney, Nebraska. He drove the cookwagon and 150 horses, all branded with the running W in front of the bank, and got the loan on the strength of the brand. Lea_p363

Death of Henrietta King

After seventy years at the Santa Gertrudis ranch, Henrietta King died March 31, 1925; she had outlived all but one of her children, Alice Gertrudis King Kleberg (1862-1944). When word came to the Kineños' families, some of them rode across the Ranch on horseback for more than two days to converge on the Santa Gertrudis in time for the funeral. All the Kineños, nearly two hundred of them, rode on their horses with La Patrona to her interment in the cemetery in Kingsville, Texas. But when she was lowered into the ground, the Kineños spontaneously mounted their horses, and bareheaded, their hats to the side, cantered in single file around her grave in final saluteLea_p604.

Taxes on the estate

At the death of Henrietta King, the appraiser's Statement of Gross Estate, Mrs. H.M. King listed a net total of 5.4 million dollars, as the owner of 997 444.56 acres (4 037 km²), which did not include the Santa Gertrudis headquarters, nor did it include the Kleberg's Stillman and Lasater tracts, which were not of the estate. Her son-in-law Bob Kleberg, Sr. said "A valuation of four to five dollars an acre [$1236/km²] on a million acres [4000 km²] of raw ranchland was about right, but it took a long time for the Government to admit it." Lea_p611. By 1929 the taxes ($859 000) had been been paid up, in installments, but the trustees had to borrow money, so that by the market crash of 1929, Henrietta King's estate was in debt $3 000 000.

But in 1933, Bob Kleberg, Sr. leased the exploration and drilling rights on 971 000 acres (3 930 km²) to the Humble Oil and Refining Co., Houston, Texas, for 13 cents an acre ($32/km²), in exchange for the usual royalty of 1/8th of every barrel (20 L) of oil pumped from the property. Humble Oil loaned enough money to pay the debts of the H.M. King estate, secured by a first mortgage on the land. Humble struck oil and gas by 1939. During all of this, the Ranch was a going concern, with a net profit of $227 382, as early as 1926Lea_p613.


The King family and the ranch are part of the myth and mystique of Texas, and they have been featured in numerous stories and novelizations. For example, the Kings of Texas traces the history of the ranch through "decades of conflict arising from the Mexican War, the Civil War, and countless skirmishes between Texas Rangers and border bandits".

Edna Ferber's novel Giant of the ranches of Texas was turned into a film: Giant. The theme song of the film is a staple for high school bands in Texas. Many of the events of the King Ranch, such as the discovery of oil on the property are also in the film. It should be noted that working-class millionaires can still be found in the oil towns of Texas as well; Richard King is not a unique example.

Present day

King Ranch also raises quarter horses, cutting horses and thoroughbreds and produced the 1950 Kentucky Derby winner, Middleground. In addition, the King Ranch company also operates a local museum, maintains other property concerns and works with Texas A&M University to perform agricultural research and development.

In 1997, Ford Motor Company added a King Ranch edition to their F-series Super Duty truck line, complete with the King Ranch cattle brand logo.

External links


  • ^ Lea,p.2: For King's biographical details, Lea cites Richard King's sworn deposition before F.J. Parker, US Commissioner, Eastern District of Texas, April 11, 1870, filed with the US and Mexican Claims Commission, Washington, D.C., August 30th, 1870. -- Records of Boundary and Claims Commission and Arbitrations, Claims vs. Mexico - 1868, Claim No. 579, RG 76 GSA, National Archives and Records Services, Washington, D.C. Lea,p423
  • ^ Lea, pp128-9. Notes from the King Ranch vault in Henrietta King's handwriting.
  • ^ ,^ : Reminiscences by Henrietta King to members of her family.


  • Tom Lea (1957), The King Ranch. Two volumes. 838 pages. Index. Maps and drawings by the author. Boston: Little, Brown. Library of Congress catalog card:57-7839

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