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The history of the King ranch

the King ranch

the King ranch


We bought a horse in 2009 that was originally from the King ranch. The horse is a stallion that we wanted to use for stud service. Because of this horse I started doing research on the history of the king ranch, and this article is the result of that research.

There are many misconceptions about the ranch, and I had even heard some of them as a child. It is not the world's largest ranch. It is not even the biggest ranch in this country. However the way the Kleberg family ran it, for almost a hundred years, make for an interesting story about American history.

Also this is the story of how Richard King, a man with no formal schooling who created a vast ranch before he was fifty. First we will examine how this young man, Richard King, developed into an individual capable of running a 500,000 acre ranch.

Richard King, founder of King ranch


The man behind the King ranch

Richard King was born in New York city on July 10th, 1824, as the son of Irish immigrants. His parents were destitute, and in 1833 at the age of nine, he was indentured as an apprentice to a jeweler. As far as we know, he never saw his parents again. In later life, the only thing that he would say about them, was that they were Irish.

The work with the jeweler was very demanding and after two years at the age of 11, he stowed away on a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama. The young boy worked hard at the steamboat business and by the time he was sixteen he had become a steamboat pilot.

The steamboat business was his school master, and where he grew up. He learned to have a quick acting mind and even quicker fists. Because he grew up in the south, he had a southern perspective on affairs of state. This caused him to become a confederate soldier, during the civil war.

In 1841, he met another young man who would become his lifelong friend. The young man was Mifflin Kennedy, who was a devout Quaker and seemed to have very little in common with Richard King. During the period from 1842 to 1847, Richard King operated steamboats on the rivers of Georgia and Florida.

When the Mexican American war started Richard King's friend Mifflin Kennedy enlisted as ship master, moving men and supplies for the Army on the Rio Grande river. In 1847, mr Kennedy convinced Richard King who was 23, to join the war effort on the Rio Grande river.

In 1850, after the war, Mifflin Kennedy, Richard King and two other partners formed the M Kennedy and company steamboat firm. They had secured an almost monopolistic control on the Rio Grande river from 1850 to 1874, when they dissolved the firm.

Richard King speculated on land with the large profits from the steamboat firm. He first bought lots in Brownsville Texas and then in Cameron county. Then in 1853, he started buying land on Santa Gertrudis creek. This was the beginning of the King ranch.

King ranch logo


How the King Ranch got started

The King ranch was started in 1853 by Richard King. At that time Richard King purchased 15,500 acres of a Spanish land grant Called Rincon DE Santa Gertrudis for $300.00. It was located on a creek in Nueces county Texas.

The thing to remember is that the ranch was a piece of the wild horse desert, so the creek was vitally important. When Richard saw the creek on a trip to a fair, he recognized the potential for a cattle ranch. At the time he was 29 years old, and looking to settle down.

He had become acquainted his future wife, Henrietta, who was engaged to another man. He needed to make an impression on her, and the ranch was the thing to do it. The other reason for the purchase, was the fact that he was a friend of Robert E. Lee, and Lee had told him to purchase land and then never sell it.

After the purchase of the initial property, he entered into a partnership with Gideon Lewis, who was a member of the Texas rangers, and he also owned a couple of ranch properties in the area. He sold Mr Lewis an undivided half interest in his ranch, for an undivided half interest in the two Lewis properties.

Then in 1854 the two men purchased another Spanish land grant of 53,000 acres for $1,800 dollars. This became the original ranch on Santa Gertrudis creek and was where Richard King started his cattle business.

On December 10th, 1854, Richard and his bride Henrietta were married and then they spent their honeymoon on the ranch.

At the time the ranch had few buildings, so the King family kept a home in Brownsville, Texas. They lived at this house until Richard built the first family home on the ranch in 1858.

Then In 1855 Gideon Lewis was killed by the husband of a woman he was having an affair with. After the death of Mr. Lewis there was another man who became Mr. King's partner. He purchased the Lewis interest in the ranch. This gentleman died in 1859.

On December 5th, 1860, Mifflin Kennedy Mr King's steamboat partner and lifelong friend, bought an interest in the ranch. There was also another partner by the name of Walworth. At that time all land titles were put in the name of R. King and company.

Mr. King owned three eights of the company, Mr. Kennedy also owned three eights and finally Mr. Walworth owned two eights of the company. When Walworth died in April 1865, Mr King and Mr Kennedy bought his share of the ranch from his widow.

Then in 1868 Mr. King and Mr. Kennedy dissolved their ranch partnership and Mr. King retained total ownership of the ranch. Finally in 1874 Mr, King and Mr. Kennedy dissolved their partnership in the steamboat business.

We now need to go back and look at the organization of the ranch when the operations partner was Mr. King. When Mr. King first organized the ranch, he went to Mexico and boughta large number of cattle. He purchased so many cattle and horses from this one village, that it left the village without enough animals to make any kind of living. Because of this he moved the whole village back to the ranch and employed them as workers. At that time a Mexican longhorn cow sold for six dollars.

When the civil war started, Mr. King was a loyal southerner and a friend to Robert E. Lee. During the war he ran cotton across his ranch and from there to Mexican ports, because of the blockade of Brownsville Texas by union ships. He moved the cotton bales across the ranch in wagons and then to the Mexican ports and waiting British ships. He also rounded up cattle for shipment to England. At the close of the civil war the ranch was 146,000 acres.

At the close of the civil war the Texas rangers were disbanded because of reconstruction. Because of this it was easy to rustle cattle, move them down to Mexico and sell them there.

In spite of the rustling problem Mr. King was able to round up 48,000 head of cattle in 1869 to take to market. This was out of an estimated total herd of 84,000 head of cattle on the ranch.

At the ranch a cow was worth $11.00. This means that the roundup brought in at least $528,000.00 dollars. By 1872 Mr. King had estimated his loss to rustling at about 34,000 cattle. This then left him with about 10,000 cattle on the ranch.

By 1870 there were 300,000 cattle yearly that were making their way from Texas ranches to the railroads in Kansas. At the ranch the cattle were worth $11.00 a head, however at the railroad in Kansas the same cow was worth $20.00 dollars and transported to the union stockyards in Chicago the same cattle were worth $31.50 per head.

This made for a powerful incentive to drive the cattle to the railheads in Kansas. However because of Texas fever this was opposed by the farmers in Kansas. Texas fever killed their local cattle, which weren't immune to the tick that caused it.

Then In 1871 there were 700,000 cattle that were driven to the railheads in Kansas. This caused a glut which drove down the price. Because of the Texas fever and the lower prices, the big cattle drives gradually faded away and also rail heads became available closer to the Texas ranches.

You have to understand that one of these cattle drives took over three months. While on a cattle drive the ranch hands that were on the cattle drive couldn't be on the ranch to protect the cattle that were left. Rustlers would slip in from Mexico and steal some of the cattle and take them back to Mexico for sale. Then in 1874 the Texas rangers were reformed, and this helped some with the rustling.

In 1883 Mr. Kings son died of pneumonia, and Mr. King wanted to sell the ranch. However Henrietta reminded him of the words of his friend Robert E. Lee that he should never sell the land.

Then two years later, Richard himself died of stomach cancer in 1885. He left Henrietta who was 43 with 500,000 acres of land and $500,000 dollars in debt. We will now examine what happened after the death of Mr. King.

Henrietta King


The ranch after the death of Richard king

After the death of Mr. King in 1885, Henrietta King hired Robert Kleberg to be the active manager at the ranch. Previous to this Mr. Kleberg had been Mr. Kings legal adviser. Later Robert also married Alice King who was Henrietta's youngest daughter, and became part of the king family. This was what started the Kleberg dynasty at the king ranch.

Then in 1895 Henrietta also gave Robert her power of attorney and increased his responsibilities at the ranch. At that time the ranch consisted of 650,000 acres.

They continued to pay down the debt of the ranch and increase its size. Under Mr. Kleberg the total ranch was increased to 1.17 million acres.. Henrietta's grandsons then began to develop the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle.

Then in the 1890's they learned to dip the cattle in large tanks, to kill the ticks that caused the Texas fever. when In 1912 the main house burned to the ground Mrs. King had it replaced with a larger, fireproof house. This is the one that is referred to as the big house.

The ranch at this time consisted of parts of six counties in Texas. They were the most of Kleberg county and much of Kennedy county. It also included parts of brooks, Jim Wells, Nueces and Willacy counties.

The ranch at that time was broken up into four large divisions. There was the Santa Gertrudis division, which was where the original ranch was. There were also the Laureles, the Encino and the Norias divisions. Only two of the four divisions border each other and then for only a short distance.

Mrs. King passed away in 1925, at the ripe old age of 93. she left an estate of $5.4 million dollars and a total ranch of 997,444 acres.

She left three fourths of the ranch to her daughter Alice. By 1929 the taxes of $859,000.00 dollars had been paid up in installments, but the trustees had to borrow money, so by the market crash of 1929 Mrs King's estate was in debt three million dollars.

Robert Kleberg jr


The ranch after the death of Henrietta King

After the death of Mrs King, the total ranch came under the control of King ranch inc., with Robert Kleberg jr. as manager and the King Kleberg descendants as stockholders. Robert junior who was 22 at the time took over as manager from his father, because of his father's failing health.

In 1933 the company leased out oil rights on the ranch to Humble oil company for $127,824.00, then in exchange for the royalty of one eighth barrel for every barrel pumped from the property. Humble oil also loaned the ranch enough money to pay the debts of the estate and took out a first mortgage on the land to secure the loan.

By 1939, Humble had struck oil on the ranch property. At the time I don't believe anyone realized the massive impact that this oil deal would have on the ranch. In the meantime, the ranch was a going concern, with a net profit of almost $228,000, as early as 1926.

In the early 1940s, the king ranch began both breeding and racing quarter horses and English thoroughbreds.. By 1947 the ranch had 2900 quarter horses and 82 racehorses. Then in 1946 the ranch bought a 680 acre bluegrass farm for the racehorses in Kentucky. The ranch finally resold this farm in 1998.

In 1946 the ranch started buying land outside Unionville, Pennsylvania for a fattening farm for its Santa Gertrudis cattle. The fattened cattle were then shipped to slaughter houses in some eastern cities. This ranch farm was eventually expanded to where it encompassed 12,500 acres.

Each spring they would ship 5,000 young cattle to the farm from the Texas ranch to fatten them up for marketing. On the available grasses each head of cattle could put on up to two pounds each day. They would be shipped in at about 650 pounds, and by the time they left they would weigh up to 1000 pounds.

They were then transported to slaughter houses in some eastern cities. The farm did this from 1947 to 1974. There were two major reasons that they closed down this operation. The first was the closure of some slaughterhouses in eastern cities and the second was a shift in transport from railroads to large trucks.

This caused a significant increase in transportation costs in an industry that could have small margins. At about the same time there was a significant drop in cattle prices. The bundling of these three things caused them to shut down the fattening farm in 1974 and switch it to a breeding farm, until it was finally sold to the Brandywine conservancy in 1984.


The modern state of the King ranch

So that you are able to understand the size and scope of the business that they were dealing with on the modern King ranch, let me give you a few statistics. The ranch has a total of four divisions, and one of them the Norias division has 238,000 acres. The Santa Gertrudis division is sixty miles north of the Norias division.

The whole ranch has two thousand miles of fencing to keep in good repair. They had a total of 2730 oil wells on the whole ranch. They needed 350 windmills on the ranch, to keep an adquate amount of water flowing to the whole ranch. It took a crew of 20 men asfull time workers to maintain these windmills, and keep the water flowing.

At the present time the ranch has about 32,000 head of cattle. This is small compared to what they used to have. Richard King had 84,000 head of cattle on the ranch right after the civil war.

This kind of speaks to the present day demand for beef in this country. Between 1980 and 1998 the demand for beef in this country dropped by 52%.

The modern King ranch has a total of 825,000 acres in south Texas. This is quite a bit smaller, than the 1.17 million acres, under Robert Kleberg sr. The ranch was also offically designated as a historic landmark in 1961.

Out of the total ranch property about 435,000 acres are stocked with wildlife, and then leased out to parties for hunting. These leases bring in a total of about three million dollars yearly.

They also have 30,000 acres in south Texas, that is being used for growing cotton. If you figure an average of 740 pounds of cotton per acre, this means the ranch gets over 22 million pounds of cotton yearly. Today the ranch is one of the largest cotton producers in the United States. It also has its own state of the art cotton ginning operation at the Laureles division of the ranch.

King ranch farms also has another 30,000 acres that is devoted to raising Milo. Milo is a grain sorghum plant that is used as a key component of livestock feed. The Milo that is raised is processed at the ranch's own feed mill on the Santa Gertrudis division. It is then fed to cattle on the ranch's own feedlot.

Both of these farming operations were started in 1974 shortly before the death of Robert Kleberg jr. Bob hated farms, so they held their breath for a while worrying that he might shut them down. The cotton farm proved a success at least. Between the years 1999 and 2005, the ranch got 8.3 million in farm subsidies for raising cotton.

In the early 1970s, the ranch controlled 11.5 million acres of land around the world. The money came in from oil royalties was used to gain control of a lot of this land. The major idea was to use the land to grow cattle to feed the poor of the world and improve their lot.

After the death of Robert Kleberg jr. in 1974, the ranch started selling off properties around the world. These properties were mostly sold off during the 1970s and 1980s. By the year 2000 the ranch had gotten rid of almost all its foreign ranches.

When Robert Kleberg Jr. died in 1974, Jim Clements was appointed to take his place. With this appointment one of the major shareholders wanted to pull out, and after some discussion he was offered seventy million dollars for his stock. This made all of King ranch inc. worth six hundred million dollars.

They went to the Texas Commerce bank of Houston to borrow the money to buy back the stock. Instead of borrowing just the seventy million though they borrowed an even one hundred million dollars. The extra thirty million dollars they used for drilling operations with Shell, Chevron and other companies.

The bank debt was then transferred into long term loans with two different insurance companies. The collateral for the loans was some of the ranch's oil royalties and a mortgage on the ranch itself. For the first time since 1933 the ranch was actually mortgaged.

The King ranch then bought properties in Florida that included the following operations. First King ranch is a 78% owner of consolidated citrus lp, the largest orange juice producer in the United States. This operation consists of more than a dozen separate grove locations in the southern half of Florida. The total acreage for the groves was about forty thousand acres of citrus trees. King ranch purchased the orange groves from Coca-Cola company and formed the before mentioned company.

The ranch also has about 12,500 acres of sugar cane in southern Florida. From this sugarcane there is about 120,000 pounds of sugar produced annually. They also make about 3.5 million gallons of molasses annually from this sugar cane.

King ranch sod operations in Florida is one of the top ten sod producers in Florida. It has three sod farms that total about 3,700 acres in southern Florida.

With the help of scientists in the early 1990s, the ranch developed a leaner more fertile breed of cattle, that they named the Santa Cruz breed of cattle. This new breed of cattle solved some of the problems that they were having with the Santa Gertrudis breed of cattle.

In 2006, King ranch also purchased the Young pecan company. This company is one of the worlds largest shellers of pecans. Then in October, 2010 King ranch bought the assets and operations of Southwest nut company. When southwest and Young are combined, King ranch will be the largest processor of pecans in the world. Also in 2010 Robert Underbrink was elected CEO of the company.


The King ranch has changed its emphasis quite a bit over the last 160 years, especially in the last thirty five years. It started out as a large cattle ranch and within 15 years had over eighty thousand cattle. The ranch ran purely as a cattle ranch for about the next seventy five years.

Then in the 1930s Humble oil co. discovered oil on the ranch. In the early 1940s they went heavy into horse breeding and in 1946 had a triple crown winner in Assault. Again in 1950 they won the Kentucky derby and the Belmont stakes with a horse named Middleground.

Then in the 1970s they started farming cotton and Milo. In the 1990s they bought out the Coca Cola co. orange groves. Again in 2006 and in 2010 they bought pecan processors. This is using the profits of the company in a very good way.

They have been very lucky to have good management over the history of the King ranch, and this shows in the diversity of their present operations. Richard King was a great entrepreneur, and then was socceeded by a long line of good managers.