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King Ranch logo - the running W brand
|Nearest city||Kingsville, Texas|
|Area||1,225,000 acres (496,000 ha)|
|NRHP reference #||66000820|
|Added to NRHP||October 15, 1966|
|Designated NHLD||November 5, 1961|
King Ranch, located in South Texas between Corpus Christi and Brownsville near Kingsville, is the largest ranch in Texas. The King Ranch comprises 825,000 acres (3,340 km2; 1,289 sq mi) and was founded in 1853 by Captain Richard King and Gideon K. Lewis. It includes portions of six Texas counties, including most of Kleberg County and much of Kenedy County, with portions extending into Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces, and Willacy Counties. The ranch does not consist of one single contiguous plot of land, but rather four large sections called divisions. The divisions are the Santa Gertrudis, the Laureles, the Encino and the Norias. Only the first two of the four divisions border each other, and that border is relatively short. The ranch was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.
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Richard King (1824-1885) was a river pilot, born in New York City to Irish immigrants. He was indentured to a jeweler at age 11, but later ran to sea, eventually attaining 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. Both served under General Zachary Taylor, operating steamboats from Brazos Santiago Harbor to Matamoros, and on up river to Camargo, Tamaulipas, in support of the U.S. invasion of Monterrey and Saltillo. After the Mexican War, King made a good living hauling merchandise on the Rio Grande, as far up river as Camargo, and Rio Grande City. In the meantime, Kenedy was able to make money by carrying goods overland into Mexico. By March 1, 1850, King, Kenedy, Charles Stillman, founder of Brownsville, and James O'Donnell entered into a business partnership (M. Kenedy & Co.) to transport Stillman's goods from Brazos Santiago Harbor on the Gulf of Mexico and up the Rio Grande. The enterprise required two types of steamers -- the Grampus and Comanche. During the American Civil War, the steamboat fleet was reflagged under the name of the Matamoros, Mexico citizen Francisco Iturria and the Mexican flag. As Mexico was a neutral country, the steamboats could not be stopped by Union blockaders, and engaged in a lively commerce of transporting Texas cotton to many deep-water ships anchored offshore Matamoros, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Stillman sold his share of the enterprise after the Civil War; the new firm operated as King, Kenedy & Co. until 1874.
King first saw the land that would become part of the 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 a grueling ride, King caught sight of the Santa Gertrudis Creek, 124 miles (200 km) from the Rio Grande. It was the first stream he had seen on the Wild Horse Desert. The land, which was shaded by large mesquite trees, so impressed him, when he arrived at the fair, he and a friend, Texas Ranger Captain Gideon K. "Legs" Lewis, agreed then and there to make it into a ranch.
The King Ranch LK brand, still in use today, stands for partners Lewis and King.
King and Lewis established a cow camp on Santa Gertrudis Creek. During this time, Richard King purchased the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis grant, a 15,500 acres (63 km2; 24.2 sq mi) holding that encompassed present-day Kingsville, Texas. It was purchased from the heirs of Juan Mendiola of Camargo on July 25, 1853, for $300. King sold Lewis an undivided half-interest in the land for $2,000. 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 from Praxides Uribe of Matamoros for $1,800, on the condition of a perfected title (complete documentation of the land grant) on May 20, 1854 to 53,000 acres (210 km2; 83 sq mi). As the years passed, more land was added, growing to 1.2 million acres (1,875 sq mi, 4,900 km²) at its largest extent, until reaching its current total.
In 1855, Lewis was killed by the husband of a woman with whom he had been having an affair. 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 $1,575. Chapman had been the quartermaster of Fort Brown in Brownsville, and regulated the steamboat contracts to supply Fort Ringgold, up river in Rio Grande City. Chapman's heirs published the letters home from his wife in a new book named The News From Brownsville.
King interested Captain James Walworth in acquiring the entire de la Garza grant, which Walworth completed on December 26, 1856, for $5,000 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.
King and Walworth's brand was registered June 27, 1859 along with his earlier brands (see below).
When King and his partners began hiring people to staff the ranch, they hired a number of Mexican hands. In one notable case, King traveled to the village of Cruillas, Tamaulipas, Mexico in the early months of 1854 (the village having been decimated by a severe drought) and purchased the village's entire cattle population. But shortly after leaving the village, King realized that, by solving the village's short-term problem (providing needed income to survive the drought), he created a longer-term one (now the village had no source of future income). King thus returned to Cruillas and offered the entrada of villagers the opportunity to work for him, in exchange for food, shelter, and income. Many of the villagers accepted King's offer and relocated to Texas. As the ranch grew, its hands came to be called kineños, or "King's men". Over time, 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."
Records show a Mexican range cow cost $6 in 1854, a mustang cost $6, and a stud horse cost $200-300. In sum, in 1854, King paid $12,275.79. Lea estimated the 1855 expenses were smaller. The first brand was the ere flecha (an R with arrow through it).
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. By the mid-1870s, though, the ranch's hallmark stock had become the hardy Texas Longhorn. The ranch also boasted several Brahman bulls, as well as Beef Shorthorns and Herefords.
The Brahmans, which were native to South Asia, were well adapted to thrive in South Texas' hot climate; they were crossed with the ranch's Beef 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 the first American breed of beef cattle.
Lea portrays King's purchase of the Ranch as motivated by his wooing of Henrietta Maria Morse Chamberlain (1832-1925), whom he married in the First Presbyterian Church, Brownsville, on Sunday, December 10, 1854. The King Ranch HK brand stands for Henrietta King.
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.
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 of an estimated 84,000 head of cattle. Allowing for 10,000 remaining, Richard King claimed a loss of 33,827 head from 1869 to 1872.
To handle depredations (rustling), 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.
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. On 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 Union Stock Yards. Richard King could drive his cattle for a hundred days to the railheads of Kansas.
By 1871, though, 700,000 head of cattle caused a market glut, which King avoided by personal negotiation in Abilene.
One technique 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.
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, as the owner of 997,444.56 acres (4,036.5 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." By 1929, the taxes ($859,000) had been paid up, in installments, but the trustees had to borrow money, so by the market crash of 1929, Henrietta King's estate was in debt $3,000,000.
In 1933, Bob Kleberg, Jr., the son of Bob Kleberg, Sr. and Alice Gertrudis King, leased the exploration and drilling rights on the ranch to Humble Oil of Houston, Texas for $127,824, in exchange for the usual royalty of 1/8 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 1926.
On November 18, 1936, Luther Blanton and his son, John, trespassed on the ranch by crawling through the fence surrounding it. They had intended to hunt ducks and nearby residents reported hearing shots fired. Shortly thereafter, locals organized a group to force their way onto the ranch around the area where they were known to have gone hunting. However, neither Blanton nor his son were ever seen again. A subsequent police investigation resulted in no arrests. Although most residents suspected them being murdered by ranch guards for trespassing, it remains a long-standing unsolved mystery.
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-American 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 of the same name. 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. Working-class millionaires can still be found in the oil towns of Texas, as well.
The King Ranch, by artist/author Tom Lea, is a two-volume definitive work that covers not only the history of the ranch, but also that of the region--most notably the Rio Grande Valley. "Captain King" came to Texas as a riverboat captain at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
A cowboy's perspective on the King Ranch subsidiary in Australia, the cattle station Brunette Downs, is captured in the 2012 autobiography by Nick Campbell-Jones Don't Die Wondering. Campbell-Jones was a "jackaroo" (Australian cowboy) who started at Brunette Downs in 1963 and worked his way up to overseer and assistant manager before leaving in 1975.