For more than a century-and-a-half, the Lone Star State of Texas has loomed large in the American imagination. And for almost as long, the members of one prominent family and their sprawling ranch lands have loomed large over Texas.
The Old West still exist deep in the heart of Texas on the sprawling King Ranch where it remains a symbol of power, wealth and true grit. The 825,000 acres historic ranch is bigger than the state of Rhode Island and at one point was more than a million acres.
This is the place where Texas legend and lore were born. King ranch is named from its name sake, Richard King, The King of Texas. Richard began life as a runaway orphan who first made his fortune running American soldiers up and down the Rio Grande River during the Mexican War.
During the Civil War, he put Mexican flags on his river boats to run Confederate cotton past Union naval blockades. It was his best friend, Robert E. Lee, who told King to keep buying up barren south Texas land. The desert of the dead was what the Mexicans called it, desert in the sense there was nothing there.
King first saw the land that would become King Ranch in April 1852 as he traveled north from Brownsville to attend the Lone Star Fair in Corpus Christi, a four day trip by horseback. After the grueling ride, King sighted the Santa Gertrudis Creek, which was the first stream he had passed in the Wild Horse Desert.
The land was shaded by large mesquite trees and was so impressive that when he arrived at the fair, King and a friend, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon K. “Legs” Lewis, agreed then and there to make it their ranch. The ranch brand LK is still in use today and stands for partners Lewis and King. Later King bought his partner out and began one of the largest private land expansions in history.
King Ranch is tied to cowboys and cattle. It begins with the loyal Kinenos, the ranch workers. King not only brought cattle up from Mexico, but an entire village of Mexican cowboys who would become his fiercely loyal kinenos, the king’s men.
When he was out riding with his kinenos and carbines on horseback, King was the law unto himself, in a place he owned, ran and carved out of a harsh world. He was a man who would settle things with his fists. Pictures of him show a bull neck, enormous shoulders and huge arms. King was a man who could settle things on his own.
In the 19th century the ranch was visited by many weary wayfarers that found the ranch a well run operation, but it also had an oasis of gentility at the ranch along with good warm hospitality provided by Kings new wife, Henrietta. While King was away on business, Henrietta ran the daily activities on the ranch.
Henrietta King, the queen of King Ranch, married Richard King on December 10, 1854. They had five children and in 1854 established their home on the Santa Gertrudis ranch. Not only was Henrietta King a wife and mother, but she also was supervisor of housing and education for the families of Mexican-American ranch hands. During the Civil War the ranch was an official receiving station for cotton that was ferried to Mexican ports and then on to England.
When King left the ranch to escape capture by Union forces in 1863, a pregnant Henrietta remained. After the house was plundered she moved the family to San Antonio until they could safely return home. Upon her husband’s death in 1885 Mrs. King assumed full ownership of his estate, consisting chiefly of 500,000 acres of ranchland between Corpus Christi and Brownsville and $500,000 in debts.
King became associated with Robert Kleberg during a lawsuit and later hired him as legal adviser on the ranch. Upon King’s death in 1885, Mrs. King retained Kleberg as ranch manager. He later married Alice King, their youngest daughter.
Under Henrietta King’s skillful supervision and with the help of her son-in-law, Robert Justus Kleberg, the King Ranch was freed of debt and increased in size. By 1895 the 650,000-acre ranch was engaged in experiments in cattle and horse breeding, range grasses and in dry and irrigated farming techniques. That year Mrs. King gave Kleberg her power of attorney and increased his ranch responsibilities. In turn, Kleberg grew the ranch to 1,173,000 acres.
Henrietta King died on March 31, 1925, on the King Ranch and was buried in Kingsville. At her funeral an honor guard of 200 vaqueros, riding quarter horses branded with the ranch’s Running W, flanked the hearse. Each rider cantered once around the open grave.
After the death of Mrs. King, the ranch came under the control of King Ranch, Incorporated, with Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. acting as manager and the King-Kleberg descendants as stockholders. One big reason the ranch prospered is because of what was discovered beneath the old desert of the dead. Water for one thing, but more importantly, oil.
During the first part of the twentieth century the King Ranch became a diversified enterprise. While continuing to develop its cattle activities centered on the Santa Gertrudis breed, the ranch derived sizable income from horse breeding and racing, oil and gas production and timber.
From then on the King Ranch wasn’t just about ranching. It was one of the biggest oil fields found in Texas, where they eventually drilled 3,700 wells. The oil revenues to Exxon alone in the 1980’s were $600 million, of which the King Ranch received $100 million.
And it was Robert “Bob” Kleberg, Richard King’s grandson, a big-living, bigger-than-life character himself who turned the oil deal, negotiating the largest private oil lease in US history. Yet the ranch was never without turmoil and Robert J. Kleberg Jr., ”Uncle Bob’,’ died after ruling with an iron hand for more than half a century.
The King family became are the closest thing to royalty in Texas. Admired for their hard work and generosity, the family is expressly private and protective of their land. The ruling family’s tiered Mediterranean-style main house at the headquarters looms like a palace over the kingdom.
After World War II, the ranch’s agricultural business was extended with acquisitions in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, West Texas and Florida. Management developed ranching operations overseas with land purchases in Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, and Morocco.
The systematic and ambitious expansion of agriculture, energy and real estate created the business platform for the King Ranch of today. When Robert Kleberg died in 1974, James Clement became CEO and he retired in 1988. Darwin Smith took over and was the first head of King Ranch that was not related to founder Richard King by blood or marriage.
The family’s legacy is portrayed by the New York Times best seller Giant and later the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson based on the Kleberg family whose lives were destined for greatness.
Whatever the future holds for this proud, noble family of Texans, the world Richard King created has become the stuff of legends and lore that still today shine brightly under the stars of Texas.