Disappointment and Triumph at the King Ranch

We all face disappointment and we all face challenges. Read Tom Lea’s two-volume masterpiece, The King Ranch, and you’ll learn that disappointment was nothing new in the early days of Captain King’s Ranch. And, while triumph eventually found the heirs of the King Ranch fortune, it wasn’t nearly as easy as we may have been led to believe.

A spot along the Santa Gertrudis

The King Ranch reigns not only as Texas’s largest ranch, but also has a larger-than-life history, repleat with trial, disappointment and challenges overcome.  The nation’s best-known ranch is named for founder Captain Richard King, an Irish immigrant who came to Texas by way of New York to pilot steamboats on the lower Rio Grande river.  When King met a former Texas Ranger named “Legs” Lewis in Corpus Christi in 1853, the two men quickly decided to go into the cattle business together. They set up a fortified cow camp on high ground near a spring at the head of the picturesque Santa Gertrudis Creek.  That summer King bought 15,500 acres for $300, and in November 1853, he sold Lewis an undivided half-interest in the land for $2,000. Lewis, in turn, bought some additional land nearby and similarly sold King a half-interest. In less than a year, the two men owned more than 68,000 acres and a substantial herd of cattle and horses.  They named their new cattle ranch, the Santa Gertrudis Ranch, after the river that impressed them both so much.

In order to expand the ranch during its early years, King hired a lawyer to seek out the owners of the old land grants throughout the area granted by Mexican General Santa Anna, and bought the parcels and annexed them to the ranch. King also began to buy and sell cattle in large quantities, including buying trips that frequently took him into Mexico. In 1854, King brought back not only all of the cattle from a certain Mexican village, but also all of the remaining residents who were suffering through a devastating drought.  The transplanted villagers went to work for King on the ranch, and their descendants, who became known as kineños, or King’s men, have formed the legendary core of the King Ranch’s mounted workforce ever since.

The original carriage house of the Santa Gertrudis Ranch.

The partnership between King and Lewis likely would have continued had Lewis not become romantically involved with the wife of a prominent Corpus Christi doctor. As was not uncommon in those days, the matter was, umm, settled by the doctor taking Lewis’ life with a single gunshot. With no heirs, Lewis’s estate, including his half interest in the Santa Gertrudis Ranch, went up for auction. Through his severe disappointment, King successfully bid on Lewis’s share of the ranch, and became the sole owner of the sizable expanse.

Early challenges

The ranch managed to survive the challenges of its early years in spite of a hostile environment created by the presence of bandits, unhappy Indians, and an assortment of rustlers, thugs, and gangsters associated with the wild days of post-revolutionary South Texas.  King split his time between his two businesses, ranching and river boating, and in 1858 built the first ranch house at the newly-renamed King Ranch, where thousands of head of cattle were roaming the then-150,000 acre ranch.  In 1867, King began using the iconic “running W” brand to mark his cattle. History does not inform us how Captain King came to choose a running W, although popular lore claim it’s because the brand resembled the slithering rattlesnakes that frequented the King Ranch and the Santa Gertrudis Valley.  

The iconic “running W” brand of the King Ranch.

Captain King and his wife, Henrietta Chamberlain King, continued to acquire land over the years until King died in 1885.  A saddened Henrietta, with help from her husband’s advisors, managed the ranch for a year until she appointed her new son-in-law, Robert Kleberg, as the ranch manager. One-by-one, the challenges associated with running a growing ranch were encountered and addressed. Annoying wild donkeys and mustangs and were captured and shipped out. Crews were assigned to slow the encroachment of mesquite brush, which was quickly displacing the favorable grasses.  And, as a result of the horrible drought years of the 1890s, Kleberg experimented with various ways of getting water to the land, eventually drilling an artesian well deep enough to support all of the ranch’s livestock and agriculture. 

Robert Kleberg ran the ranch until his health declined and in 1918, his son, Robert Kleberg Jr., took the reins and continued as manager well after his father’s death in 1932.  Along the way, the ranch’s selective breeding efforts intensified. They began crossbreeding Brahman bulls native to India with their own shorthorn stock. The resulting breed, which they called the “Santa Gertrudis” combined a beefiness common to British shorthorns with the Brahmans’ ability to withstand the intense heat of South Texas. King Ranch sold Santa Gertrudis bulls to other ranches throughout the 1930s, and in 1940 the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the Santa Gertrudis as the first ever American-produced beef breed.

“When the casket was lowered into the earth, there was a stir at the edge of the crowd where the bare-headed horsemen stood. They mounted to their saddles. They came reining forward in single file, unbidden and uncommanded save their hearts, to canter with a centaur dash around the open grave, their hats down at side salute to Henrietta King.”

Tom Lea in The King Ranch

Confusion and consolidation

Henrietta King died in 1925, at the age of 92. And while by the time of Henrietta’s death the ranch consisted of well over 1,250,000 acres and supported 125,000 head of cattle and 2,500 horses, her death brought about a web of complications stemming from the division of her estate, high estate taxes, and various debts. Add in the onset of the Great Depression, which caused beef prices to drop to the century’s lowest levels, and matters went from bad to worse.  Disappointment and challenge was everyone. While the King Ranch was still more than 1,000,000 acres in size and was home to 94,000 head of cattle and 4,500 horses and mules when Robert Kleberg died in 1932, confusion remained over who would operate the ranch going forward.

When Mrs. King’s estate was finally untangled, Kleberg’s widow, Alice, and her children consolidated as much of the ranch as possible by purchasing the properties of other heirs. In 1935, the Klebergs incorporated the King Ranch so that its future would be secure. Estate taxes had left the ranch $3 million in debt, however, and for the next few years the young company struggled to remain afloat.  To get the business back in the black, the Klebergs turned to petroleum and negotiated a long-term lease for oil and gas rights on the entire ranch.  

Under the leadership of Kleberg Jr., who studied genetics in college and had an avid interest in livestock breeding, the King Ranch also achieved a legacy of breeding both thoroughbreds and quarter horses. By acquiring and breeding superior foundation stallions, the King Ranch quarter horse program produced Wimpy, which was awarded the first registration in the American Quarter Horse Association’s stud book and registry, as well as Peppy San Badger and Mr. San Peppy, two of the all-time leading money-making sires in the National Cutting Horse Association (and my quarter horse’s second and third great grandsires, respectively).  In addition to its quarter horse lineage, the ranch produced numerous prized thoroughbreds, including Assault, the only Texas horse to win the Triple Crown, and Middleground, a winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

The Main House of the King Ranch is still used by Captain King’s descendants when visiting the ranch.

The King Ranch today

The King Ranch is still owned by the descendants of its founder and, today, is a diversified agribusiness corporation, with interests in cattle ranching, feedlot operations, farming, citrus groves, pecan processing, commodity marketing, and recreational hunting. Its retail operations include luggage, leather goods and home furnishings, farm equipment, commercial printing, and ecotourism. Its properties near the city of Kingsville cover nearly 1,300 square miles on four divisions—Santa Gertrudis, Laureles, Norias, and Encino—and is larger than the state of Rhode Island!

Reading Tom Lea’s book, I realized that from such great disappointment came a truly great and iconic ranch, a diversified international corporation, and a horse program that has produced world-renowned champion horses including the forbears of the very horse I rode to sooth disappointing news I sometimes receive.

I choose to believe that all things work out in the way in which they should work out, and in the time frame in which they should work out. Yes, we need to work hard to make things happen and, no, we should simply not let ourselves become the “victim” of what happens to us. But, some things work out or don’t work out based on nothing more than their very intrinsic nature.

I choose to believe that all things work out in the way in which they should work out, and in the time frame in which they should work out.

What I have reaffirmed is that there’s little we can do about what happens to us, but there is everything we can do about how we view what happens to us. And, with that knowledge, and with the recognition that Captain King faced much bigger problems than me, I slept comfortably the next day. And, for that I have Whiskey, whiskey and the legacy of the King Ranch to thank.

Until next time, happy trails! ★


One thought on “Disappointment and Triumph at the King Ranch

Comments are closed.