The King Ranch lies between Corpus Christi and Brownsville and is currently the largest ranch in Texas. Historically, it was even larger when it was known as the Santa Gertrudis under a land grand from the King of Spain to José Domingo de la Garza. It was later conveyed to José Pérez Ray whose descendants conveyed it in turn to Richard King.
King had been born in New York in 1824 and one of the earliest jobs he had held was to be a boat pilot for Mifflin Kenedy. Later the two became partners in a river boat company. They were in this business together during the Mexican-American War and transported men and supplies for the United States up and down the Rio Grande. After the Mexican-American War, the two acquired some land in what was known as the Nueces Strip, a roughly rectangular area between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers. It proved to be a volatile location, since Texas and later the United States claimed the Rio Grande as its border while Mexico claimed the border to be the Nueces, further to the east. Border disputes were not uncommon. Due to the age of the older grants, it was not also unusual for land owners to possess land on either side of these rivers. The Nueces Strip was more lawless and unstable at that time, due to its location, but King built a ranch house there.
King began his ranching operation by rounding up wild cattle, later adding to his stock with Longhorn cattle and horses acquired elsewhere, from Mexico and other states in the United States. Kenedy was a partner for a number of years. During the Civil War, King and Kenedy continued their shipping operation, bringing Texas cotton to market. Kenedy’s interest in the ranch was acquired by King and his wife after the Civil War. Another former partner was Gideon Lewis who with King owned a relatively smaller (but key) tract of land. Lewis was killed in an unrelated domestic incident in 1859 and his interest in the land was eventually acquired by the ranch. King died of cancer in 1885 and was interred in San Antonio. Management passed to Mrs. King and Robert Justus Kleberg, the family lawyer and later the son in law of the Kings (the husband of Alice, for whom Alice, Texas is named).
King’s widow was the former Henrietta Chamberlain whom he married in 1854. Mrs. King was born in 1832, the only child of of Presbyterian missionary Hiram Chamberlain and the former Maria Morse, who died when Henrietta was three years old. Henrietta had come to Texas with her father who was serving as a missionary of the Presbyterian Church. At the time Richard King died, the couple had been married about thirty years. The ranch was in debt and amounted to some five or six hundred thousand acres. Under the management of Mrs. King and Robert Kleberg, the ranch managed to withstand numerous economic cycles, droughts and other difficulties. Some of Kleberg’s contributions were to expand the ranch and to help found the town of Kingsville. Kleberg is also noted for developing and designing cattle dipping vats to combat Texas Tick Fever. During his management, he also successfully discovered and drilled water wells to supply the range that was otherwise prone to drought conditions.
Mrs. Henrietta King was well known in Texas. Kingsville was sometimes referred to as Mrs. King’s city, had a population of around 5,500 in 1925 and was located roughly in the center of the ranch as it was then configured. Completed around 1915, the Spanish-styled ranch headquarters was at least the third such structure, following a lean to or dugout and then a frame house that burned around 1912. King and Henrietta had five children. Among her other accomplishments, Henrietta King provided land for a railroad, the St Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway, opening up the area for shipment of the ranch cattle and other commerce. She lived into her 90s. She was also known for her philanthropy, donating land for schools, libraries and churches. Mrs. King was interred in Kingsville and her husband’s remains were later removed to Kingsville from San Antonio.
When Mrs. King died in 1925, the ranch amounted to over one million acres in the United States and many times that number outside the United States. The exact number of cattle on the ranch was not known, but estimates of the calf production were up to 100,000 per year.
The ranch is known for developing a unique breed of cattle, the Santa Gertrudis, taking its name from the old land grant (which was in turn a tribute to Roman Catholic Saint Gertrude). The objective was to develop an animal that could do well in the south Texas climate, have good weight gain as a beef animal and thrive on the native grasses of the ranch. The ranch began cross breeding Shorthorn and Hereford cattle with Brahman (bos indicus) bulls. Among other characteristics, bos incidus cattle come from the Indian continent, are known for having a hump on their shoulders and being able to trive in higher temperatures. After a series of breeding experiments, the ranch arrived at a 3/8 Brahman and 5/8 Shorthorn as the best ratio to achieve its desired goals. In 1920 a bull calf named Monkey was produced that seemed to possess every quality the ranch was looking for, including the now characteristic red color, muscular body and good weight gain on the native grasses of the ranch. When Monkey matured, he was used to produce Brahman and Shorthorn calves that had all his same characteristics. The ranch’s Brahman and Shorthorn cross received recognition as a unique breed of its own by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1940. It was the first officially recognized new breed of beef cattle in the United States.
After the passing of Robert Kleberg, Sr., management included his two sons, Robert and Richard, his inlaws as well as other individuals, some of whom were related by marriage to the family. Many family members and employees live on the property. Operations have expanded to include horse breeding, including well known quarterhorse stock. Oil was discovered in the early 1900s and added to the economic stability of the enterprise. Though the properties are not necessarily contiguous, the ranch now extends to parts of six counties in Texas, including Kleberg, Kenedy, Brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces and Willacy counties. Kleberg County, the towns of Kingsville and Alice are some of the Texas locations whose names are attributed to members of the King family.
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