The state of Rhode Island would fit inside the King Ranch with room to spare. At 825,000 acres, it is the epitome of “everything is bigger in Texas”. Its base of operations is outside Kingsville, in a home overlooking Santa Gertrudis Creek, and with a living room almost as big as a tennis court.
Captain Richard King started in business with steamboats, but soon recognized potential profit in the cattle business. His first purchase was 15,000 acres in 1853. A noteworthy aspect to his story is that there was a drought in the Mexican area to the south, and he purchased a number of cattle to bring to his ranch. Captain King realized that, in solving an immediate problem for the people of Cruillas, he had simultaneously removed their long-term means of livelihood. He turned his horse back and made a proposition: he would provide them with food, shelter and income if they would come to work on his ranch. The townspeople conferred and many of them agreed to move north with Captain King.
Already expert stockmen and horsemen, these denizens of the Mexican range became known as Los Kineños – King’s people. They and many generations of their heirs would go on to weave a large portion of the historical tapestry of King Ranch. The expert Kineño cowboys now occupy a legendary place in the annals of the taming of the vast American West. Descendants of the original Cruillas residents still live and work on the ranch today. Their children attend classes in the ranch’s two schools.
King’s wife Henrietta was a genteel woman from the East, and she brought a lasting civility to the ranch operation. Upon her passing, she ensured that all the heirs were given a fair share of the land. With the discovery of oil on the ranch, there was also wealth to be distributed among the fifty-member family corporation. There are now 2,730 oil wells on the King property.
At the end of the Civil War, King Ranch had grown to 146,000 acres. While working to improve the ranch, King also invested in building railroads, packinghouses, ice plants and harbor improvements for the port of Corpus Christi. He had to create the infrastructure that would get his product to market in the most efficient way possible.
THE SANTA GERTRUDIS BREED
With a vision to improve his cattle and horse stock through an aggressive upbreeding (breed improvement) program, King aimed to transform the hardscrabble longhorns and wild horses of his lands into the finest cattle and horses in Texas. After King’s death, the ranch developed the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle, the first officially recognized new breed of beef cattle in America. The cattle were a crossbreed of Brahman bulls, native to India, with British Shorthorn stock. They could take Texan heat, and still yield tender meat. It is now the most prevalent cattle breed in Australia.
King met a lawyer, Robert Justus Kleberg, while in Corpus and took him on as the ranch’s primary counsel. Kleberg married the captain’s youngest daughter, Alice Gertrudis King in 1886. He became active in the further prosperity of the ranch; one of his contributions was to develop artesian wells at the ranch. Kleberg also designed the first cattle dipping vats to battle the Texas fever tick.
After World War II, the ranch’s agricultural business was extended through the purchase of property in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and West Texas, and through joint ventures and partnerships in Florida. Management also developed ranching operations overseas with land purchases in Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, Australia, Venezuela, Spain, and Morocco.
STEWARDSHIP OF THE LAND
Managing renewable resources in a sustainable manner has resulted in the King Ranch “systems” approach to management. The King Ranch game conservation programs have become industry standards and models for other Texan ranchers. The Kleberg family’s game conservation efforts were some of the earliest and most progressive initiatives of their kind in American ranching history.
As history recorded, it was the vibrant wildlife and flora that the land supported which attracted Captain King to the Wild Horse Desert country. He observed wildlife from the surrounding brushlands converging in the evening to drink the life-giving waters of Santa Gertrudis Creek. Successive generations of the Captain’s descendants have maintained a commitment to preserving the vast variety of plant and animal life that populates the rugged South Texas rangelands between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande Valley.
Wildlife conservation and habitat maintenance go hand-in-hand and are of paramount concern to King Ranch shareholders who continue to share the vision of stewardship and reverence for the land that their forbears have instilled in them for generations.
KING RANCH MUSEUM
Visitors can learn more at the King Ranch Museum, at 405 North 6th Street in Kingsville. The exhibits include Toni Frissell’s award-winning photographic essay of life on King Ranch in the early 1940’s; saddles from around the world, guns including a King Ranch commemorative Colt Python .357 magnum revolver, a limited edition series of full-scale replicas of historic Texas flags, and antique carriages and vintage cars, including El Kineño, a custom designed Buick Eight hunting car built for Congressman R. M. Kleberg, Sr., in 1949 by General Motors. A new permanent exhibit displays a sculpture of Mrs. Henrietta King and her son-in-law Robert J. Kleberg, Sr., beside the first artesian well that was drilled on King Ranch in the summer of 1899.