Texas: King Ranch Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Developed by Henrietta M. King and her son-in-law Robert Justus Kleberg along a railroad right-of-way, King Ranch covers some 825,000 acres and is engaged in cattle ranching and oil producing.

Site Office

King Ranch Visitor Center

P.O. Box 1090

W. Highway 141

Kingsville, TX 78363

ph.: (512) 592-8055

An agricultural and oil-producing town in southeast Texas, Kingsville began its existence in 1904, when Henrietta M. King and her son-in-law Robert Justus Kleberg developed it along a newly built railroad running from St. Louis through Brownsville to Mexico. Originally a farming town, Kingsville grew and adapted as the nearby mammoth King Ranch developed oil fields.

Kingsville contains Texas A&M University; the Henrietta Memorial Museum, which houses memorabilia from the King Ranch and the King and Kleberg families; and the John E. Conner Museum, which contains ranching memorabilia as well as displays of natural history and Indian and Mexican artifacts.

The King Ranch

The town’s most interesting facet is its intimate relationship with King Ranch. The 825,000-acre ranch covers an area larger than the state of Rhode Island and is the largest beef cattle operation in the United States. The ranching and oil-producing behemoth contains much of Kleberg, Nueces, Brooks, Kenedy, and Jim Wells Counties. The ranch began in 1853 when Richard King, a brash Rio Grande steamboat captain, recognized the beef-producing potential of the Wild Horse Desert and began buying old Spanish land grants in the area.

King was a rough sort of man who drank whiskey and liked to fight. He was born on July 10, 1824, to Irish immigrants in New York City. Apprenticed early to a jeweler, he stowed away on the steamship Desdemona when he was eleven years old and was made a cabin boy. His captain taught him to read and handle numbers, and he even sent King back to Connecticut to attend school for eight months.

In the late 1830’s, King signed on to serve aboard a steamboat during the Seminole War in Florida. After the war, he worked on the steamboats that carried freight up and down the Apalachicola and Chattahoochee Rivers in Florida. At the tender age of nineteen, he became a ship’s pilot.

In 1843, King met Mifflin Kenedy, master of the Champion. In 1846, Kenedy was recruited for the Mexican War and became captain of the Corvette, which plied the Rio Grande. On Kenedy’s advice, in 1847, King also signed on for government service. By the summer of 1847, King had become first pilot on the Corvette and was working under Kenedy carrying supplies eight miles from Brazos Santiago across the open sea and then up the Rio Grande. By November, 1847, King, then twenty-three, had become captain of the steamer Colonel Cross.

At the end of the Mexican War, King set up an inn at Boca del Rio and waited for new steamship opportunities to arise. In April, 1848, he paid $750 for the Colonel Cross, a boat for which the government had paid $14,000 only three years previously. As captain of the Colonel Cross, he hauled cargo for the merchants of Matamoros, Mexico. Business was not good and despite cutting his crew to a minimum he barely made his expenses.

In 1850, Charles Stillman, King’s chief competitor, brought King and Kenedy into a partnership to revive Stillman’s own ailing steamboat business. With firmer financial backing, King devised a plan to have larger boats to carry cargo from Brazos across the open sea and smaller ones negotiate the shallow Rio Grande. This plan was so successful that in less than two years, the partnership, M. Kenedy and Company of Brownsville, Texas, drove every other freight hauler from the river.

Beginnings of the King Ranch

Richard King first got interested in ranching in April of 1952, when he rode through the Wild Horse Desert on a trip inland to attend Texas’s first state fair at Corpus Christi. At the fair, King made friends with Richard “Legs” Lewis, and in the course of their association they decided to build a cow camp in the Wild Horse Desert.

King and Lewis made a good pair. King knew of Mexican families that held grants in the area. Lewis, a captain of the Texas Mounted Volunteers, could protect the stock. Together, they built a camp along a spring that fed into Santa Gertrudis Creek. Lewis tended and protected the herd from outlaws and Indians, while King provided the funds, which he drew from his successful freight operation.

On July 25, 1853, King paid $300 for the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis, a grant of 15,500 acres in which the town of Kingsville now stands. Next, he spent $1,800 for the Big Santa Gertrudis grant, which covered 53,000 more acres, contained several streams, and touched the earlier purchase at one point.

King built dams to capture water for mass watering of cattle, while Lewis engaged in livestock deals and the delivery of herds. Together they upbred the local stock of mustangs by mixing them with the blood of good studs. As for cattle, King chose only the best available Mexican bulls and range cows for his breed herd. The horse business was good from the beginning, but with cows there were problems of transportation and markets. Overall outlays for stocking his cow and horse herds topped $12,000 in 1854 alone.

A notorious womanizer, Lewis was shot and killed by an irate husband on April 14, 1855. To prevent Lewis’s shares from falling into unfriendly hands, King joined with his friend Major W. W. Chapman and bought them at auction on July 1, 1856, for $1,575. Chapman himself was soon forced to withdraw from the partnership. For stability, King then turned to his old friend and partner, Mifflin Kenedy. Along with fellow steamboater Captain James Walworth, they formed a new corporation, R. King and Company, to hold the ranch. King and Kenedy each held three-eighths of the shares, and Walworth owned two-eighths.

The Civil War

During the Civil War, King and his ranch played important roles for the Confederacy. He had known General Robert E. Lee well during that officer’s service in Texas, though the story that King first bought land on Lee’s advice is untrue. What Lee actually told King is “buy land and never sell.”

Early in the war, Northern ships blockaded many Southern ports. Desperate for imported munitions and medical supplies, the Confederacy moved cotton through its “back door” at Brownsville, where M. Kenedy and Company steamers made huge profits on wartime shipments. When the North blockaded Brownsville, the South, along with smugglers across the river in Matamoros, used Mexico’s neutrality to evade the blockade. M. Kenedy and Company steamers, under the guise of Mexican ownership, continued to carry freight.

King’s ranch was another important link in the cotton trade. Since the ranch stood along cotton’s overland route, approximately one hundred fifty miles north of Brownsville, King naturally became involved in brokering cotton. In fact he and Kenedy contracted to supply the Southern force with cotton to export for gold, weapons, and supplies for the latter part of the war. The profits King made on the deal may have reached sixty thousand dollars.

By the war’s end Stillman had withdrawn from the steamboat partnership and Walworth had died. King and Kenedy bought Walworth’s shares for fifty thousand dollars, and flush with cash from the war, ordered four brand-new steamboats. Trade on the Rio Grande declined after the war. Chaos hit Mexico, depression hit the South, a hurricane damaged both Brownsville and Matamoros, and the railroad began to compete with the river trade. In May, 1874, both Kenedy and King sold out of the shipping business.

In 1868 King and Kenedy, who remained close friends all their lives, divided their land and livestock holdings and began fencing in their lands. As sole possessor of the Santa Gertrudis, King registered his famous brand, the “Running W” the following year. Called the viborita, or little snake, by King’s workers, that brand would mark more than 58,000 head of cattle and 4,400 head of horse stock by November of 1869.

The Great Cattle Drives

In 1869, King began sending his now immense cattle herds on long drives to Kansas City and St. Louis, where they were shipped to northern centers like Chicago. These cattle drives were sometimes as long as a thousand miles, and King would often supervive the actual selling himself. It has been calculated that King made an average of fity thousand dollars per drive and repeated this type of venture scores of times through the booming 1870’s.

Flush with money from these drives, King bought land in the Carricitas region. Often the titles of these lands were divided among the descendants of the original holders of the Spanish land grants. Sometimes these grants overlapped. Other times they contained separate and conflicting grants made by the Republic of Texas. King and his lawyers patiently bought up these rights, called “derechos,” sometimes paying for the same piece of land twice or more. By the end of the 1870’s, King’s holdings covered more than 600,000 acres.

Robert Justus Kleberg

In 1881 Robert Justus Kleberg, a lawyer, soundly beat King in a minor law suit in Corpus Christi. King recognized Kleberg’s talent and put him on retainer. Kleberg soon became an important factor in ranch management and a frequent visitor to Santa Gertrudis, where he courted King’s daughter, Alice Gertrudis King. By the time Richard King died of stomach cancer, on April 14, 1885, King’s wife and heir, Henrietta M. King, had enough confidence in Kleberg to appoint him ranch manager.

Robert Justus Kleberg was born to Prussian immigrants on his family’s farm near Meyersville, Texas, on December 5, 1853. His father, also named Robert Justus Kleberg, was a judge in DeWitt County, Texas, and had been a hero in the Texas Revolution and prominent in the Confederacy. The younger Kleberg was a stocky man a little below medium stature. His complexion was ruddy and he wore a bushy mustache.

Kleberg, who married Alice Gertrudis King in June of 1886, became manager at a time when the King Ranch’s debts equaled its huge assets. He faced a collapse in cattle prices and a drought in south Texas that lasted from 1886 to 1893.

He kept the ranch going by selling some land and pursuing a more methodical, business-like approach. He rid the Santa Gertrudis of mustangs, added barbed wire to the board fences King had erected, and hired a professional livestock manager named Sam Ragland. Not one to neglect expansion, he also bought land as discouraged ranchers gave up and sold cheap. By 1895 the Santa Gertrudis was one of the world’s largest commercial producers of horses and mules.

Kleberg had a scientific bent and was always ready to invest in new technologies to advance the ranch. He helped finance a cure for southern cattle fever, and in the early 1890’s he invented the first cattle dipping vat. In 1898 he hired Theodore L. Herring, who solved the ranch’s fresh water problem by using heavy equipment to drill artesian wells.

At the turn of the century, Kleberg began negotiating for the Laureles property, which would extend the Santa Gertrudis holdings east to the shores of the Laguna Madre. In two separate transactions, one in 1901 and the other in 1906, Henrietta King paid almost $700,000 for 170,000 acres. These purchases brought the ranch’s area to the million-acre mark.

Beginnings of Kingsville

Kleberg, like Richard King, was constantly in search of better ways to bring cattle to market. In 1903, he and his fellow ranchers were finally able to bring the railroad to southeast Texas. That year, the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway was incorporated, with Kleberg as president. On July 4, 1904, the railroad’s inaugural train ran from Brownsville to Corpus Christi, passing about three miles from the ranch’s main house at a site that would soon become Kingsville.

To build the town, Kleberg organized Kleberg Town and Improvement Company in 1903. Led by Kleberg and owned by Henrietta King and the Johnston Brothers (the firm that built the railroad in exchange for land grants), the Kleberg Town and Improvement Company installed waterworks, built an ice factory, set up a weekly newspaper, and constructed the Kingsville Power Company. A separate company, Algodon Land and Irrigation, was organized for farmers growing tropical and citrus plants. In deference to Henrietta King’s religious beliefs, the sale of alcohol was prohibited in Kingsville. On February 27, 1913, Kingsville became the seat of the new Kleberg County.

On January 4, 1912, the original King Ranch house burnt to the ground. In two years, at a cost of $350,000, a new house was built with twenty-five rooms (each with a fireplace) and nearly as many baths, a veranda, a grand salon, and a dining hall for fifty guests. The architectural style included “scrambled elements of Mexican, Moorish, and California Mission of Long Island and Wild Horse Desert,” according to historian Tom Lea.

By the time of World War I, the King Ranch had established large herds of shorthorn and Hereford cattle. These English cattle produced better beef than Texas longhorns but were too fragile for the hot Texas climate. Searching for a better breed, Kleberg in 1910 began crossing shorthorns with Brahman cattle from India.

After the war, he arrived at a breed about five-eighths Shorthorn and three-eighths Brahman. Using a bull named Monkey, the ranch developed a herd that was astutely developed and carefully watched. In 1940 the United States Department of Agriculture officially recognized the Santa Gertrudis as a new and separate breed of cattle.

The raising of horses was also an important element of the ranch’s business. Initially King and Kleberg had tried to improve their stocks by crossing the native mustangs with thoroughbred stock. These mounts, however, were too nervous to be useful on the range. Eventually Robert Kleberg’s younger son, Robert “Bob” Kleberg, Jr., found an ideal mare named Old Sorrel. From this mare, the King Ranch developed its own distinctive American quarter horse, alert but not nervous, strong, agile, fast, yet compact enough to handle. King horses became prize-winners often used in circuses.

At the start of World War I, Robert Kleberg was attacked by palsy and Bob took over active management of the nation’s biggest beef ranch. After the war, the younger Kleberg, who had been schooled in agriculture, cut back his father’s pet project of agricultural development and made several large land purchases. More than forty thousand acres had been sold to meet a postwar slump, but Bob Kleberg more than made up for those losses by acquiring almost thirty-five thousand acres of Stillman property south of Falfurrias.

On March 31, 1925, Henrietta King died at the age of ninety-two. In her declining years she had given the Santa Gertrudis main house to her daughter Alice and made a will to divide her properties among her children after a ten-year trusteeship. Appraisers of her estate indicated that, at her death, she owned 94,347 head of cattle, 3,782 horses, 802 mules, 47 jennies, 355 goats, 595 sheep, and 997,444.56 acres of land not including what she had willed to her daughter. Her assets totaled $7.1 million, while her liabilities reached $1.7 million.

Financial Threats to the Ranch

In the mid-1920’s, the country’s deflationary environment caused the ranch to lose money consistently. Furthermore, estate taxes from Henrietta King’s will were high enough to imperil the ranch’s financial integrity. By 1933 Bob Kleberg, the ranch’s manager and the estate’s trustee, was desperate for money.

A savior came in the form of the Humble Oil and Gas Company (later known as Exxon U.S.A.). In exchange for exclusive drilling rights on the land, Humble obligated itself to make annual bonus payments large enough to cover the interest on the debts owed by King’s estate. The ranch also got a yearly bonus of thirteen cents an acre and retained a one-eighth royalty on the gross proceeds of oil production.

With at least his interest payments guaranteed, Bob Kleberg consolidated the family debts under a $3,223,645 first mortgage. He also moved to bring as much of the ranch as he could under the control of his branch of the family. He was able to buy some land from more distant heirs but one estranged element of the family, the Atwoods of Chicago, brought suit in 1933 over the trusteeship and division of the estate. These suits were not brought to a close until after World War II.

Incorporation of the Ranch

On December 14, 1934, the Klebergs incorporated their part of the ranch under the name King Ranch. They controlled more than 802,000 acres, including the original Santa Gertrudis and Laureles grants, as well as Norias and Encino.

In the 1930’s Bob Kleberg became fascinated with the world of thoroughbred racing. Working with his nephew Richard “Dick” Kleberg, Jr., who later managed the ranch, he bought many expensive horses and began a breeding program that rapidly brought great success to the ranch, including a Triple Crown winner.

Meanwhile in the oil fields, Humble worked conservatively. It sought extensions of existing fields, and in May, 1939, it tapped the edge of the Luby Field in Nueces County. It was not until 1945, however, that Humble drilled the ranch’s first successful wildcat well and hit the second-largest reserve of oil and gas in Texas.

In the 1950’s, oil activity expanded as Humble and the Klebergs negotiated two lease extensions. In exchange for a one-sixth royalty they added first ten years and then fifty years to the lease. All this drilling created the necessity for roads to carry heavy equipment, roads that brought the motor vehicle into use for transporting cattle.

As the King Ranch entered the mid-1970’s, schisms began to develop among the descendants of Henrietta and Richard King. Arguments over how much each member of the family should be paid led to the departure of former managers Robert Shelton and Belton Kleberg Johnson. Though oil and gas royalties peaked at $100 million dollars in 1979, in the early 1980’s Shelton and Johnson sued their relatives, claiming their failure to police the oil company resulted in lost revenues.

In August, 1988, the family chose former Kimberly-Clark chief executive Darwin E. Smith as the ranch’s first outside chairman. At the time, Fortune described the ranch as “suffering falling revenues from its oil leases, a decline in beef consumption, a troubled shrimp farming venture and captious family members anxious to liquidate their holdings.”

In August, 1989, the Texas Monthly estimated that Helen “Helenita” Kleberg Groves, Bob Kleberg’s only daughter, was believed to control one-third of the ranch, worth $400 million. Her cousins Ida “Illa” Larkin Clement and Katherine Kleberg Yarborough split their branches’ fortunes with siblings or their heirs. In 1993, the ranch was estimated to have seven hundred employees and revenues of $250 million.

For Further Information
  • Dehnhardt, Robert Moorman. The King Ranch Quarter Horses. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Contains a capsule history of the ranch but is primarily concerned with horse breeding.
  • Lea, Tom. The King Ranch. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957. The most complete history of the ranch. It contains facsimiles of many early documents but is marred by Lea’s somewhat romantic tone. It was commissioned by the ranch to celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary.
  • Sizer, Mona D. The King Ranch Story: Truth and Myth–A History of the Oldest and Greatest Ranch in Texas. Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 1999. A history of King Ranch. Includes bibliographical references.
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