The Secret History

Did Richard King, in collusion with Robert J. Kleberg, cheat his partner's heirs out of a piece of the King Ranch back in 1883? The Texas Supreme Court will soon decide whether this little-known but serious dispute can go to trial. Has the past come back to haunt the state's most storied spread?

December 2002By Comments

Courtesy of Bettman

The Rincon de Santa Gertrudis, an old Spanish land grant, lies at the heart of the King Ranch, for it was there that, in 1853, Richard King first laid claim to a dream of ownership that would one day make his nascent rancho the envy of the world. The site, on the Santa Gertrudis Creek—which ran prettily in seasons of rain and dried to caked mud during the frequent droughts—was 125 miles north of Brownsville, on the Rio Grande, and 45 miles southwest of the little seaside town of Corpus Christi. What was true of an adjacent, larger tract that King would acquire the next year, the Santa Gertrudis de la Garza land grant, was true of all the land in this area: In the grandiloquent language of its Spanish deed, it was “unappropriated, waste and unpopulated.”

Originally the land had belonged to no one; a mere 65 million years ago it was the ocean floor. In the fullness of time the waters receded, leaving behind deposits of oil and salt domes and subhumid plains with varying soilsand grasses and plants and an ecology that would support human beings. Sometime after the coastline assumed its present contours, around three thousand years ago, small Indian groups, designated later by ethnologists as Coahuiltecans, hunted or gathered such food as they could find—roots and tubers, deer, shellfish, and pecans—along the river the Spanish would name the Nueces (Nuts) when they arrived, in the sixteenth century. They called the sparse, unforgiving country El Desierto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead.

Eventually Spain would fling its settlements north of the Nueces. But the Indians resisted the Spanish, as they would resist American and French incursions, and by the early nineteenth century, the Spanish had abandoned their more distant holdings and were content to stay along the Rio Grande, in the towns built in the previous century under the colonizing efforts of José de Escandón.

When American settlers began to stream into Texas from the 1820's on, their settlements remained north and east of the Nueces. Stephen F. Austin's colonists were interested in cotton, not cattle, or at least not on the scale that cattle would come to dominate the history of South Texas. As late as the 1830's, this notation appeared on maps depicting South Texas: "Of this area, nothing is known."

But it was in this inhospitable wasteland of grass and sweltering heat that Richard King assembled his empire piece by piece. To do so, he hired the best legal talent available. The successive transfer of ownership from Spanish to Mexican to Anglo meant a tangled history of land titles, taxes paid and unpaid, and dispossession and new ownership, with new laws cantilevered over older ones. As abstractors dealing with old Spanish land grants were fond of saying: "I have traced the title back to the King of Spain, who got it by right of discovery and conquest, and since he ruled by Divine Right, that takes it back to God Almighty himself, and that is as far as I can go."

King did not have to go that far. In all, he made more than sixty purchases of land in his lifetime. By the time of his death, in 1885, he owned more than half a million acres and was the richest man in Texas, the archetypal cattle baron whose fame would increase with the passage of time. What in the beginning had seemed a fool's errand into a wilderness acquired instead the patina of myth. "Buy land; and never sell" were words of wisdom uttered, the Kings would always maintain, by the sainted Robert E. Lee himself, a family friend. They became King's motto, and it stood him well.

By the 1950's, a full century after the first glimmerings of greatness at Santa Gertrudis, the King Ranch reigned first among its kind in the world. It possessed its own new breed of cattle, the Santa Gertrudis; it was the home of world-class quarter horses; its Thoroughbreds challenged the hegemony of Kentucky and the East Coast in the realm of horse racing (in 1946 a King Ranch Thoroughbred named Assault won the coveted Triple Crown); its coffers were overflowing with profits from thousands of oil wells on its lands; and it was about to go global in a big way, acquiring land and starting up cattle operations in Cuba (which would be appropriated by Fidel Castro in 1959), South America, and Australia. At its peak the King Ranch laid claim to some 15 million acres of grass, and its brand, the Running W, was known around the world.

Such power, such wealth gave the King Ranch a sense of entitlement. It set itself apart, like a feudal kingdom, or so many outsiders felt. "It is a pleasant fiction that the King Ranch is a part of the U.S.," observed a Fortune writer in 1933. And in Debrett's Texas Peerage (1983), Hugh Best wrote, "Getting into King Ranch is like getting into China before they lifted the curtain." There were times when the ranch acted like a separate country. In the thirties, when the state wanted to build a highway linking Corpus Christi and Brownsville, the King Ranch, the Armstrong Ranch, and other large ranches in the area resisted its being built through their lands. They wanted it constructed down the length of Padre Island instead, where they did not own land. Although the King Ranch lost its battle with the state, journalists, fairly or not, began calling it the Walled Kingdom. The name stuck.

As a general rule, the keepers of the Walled Kingdom viewed with suspicion any overtures by writers or historians interested in telling the King Ranch story or exploring its history. The few exceptions were writers of magazine features that could be counted on to perpetuate the mythology, such as a 1947 story in Time—which put Bob Kleberg, a descendant of King's and the ranch's president at the time, on the cover, marking the only time a real rancher, rather than a politician posing as one, has achieved that status.

In 1951 the Walled Kingdom made a notable exception to its policy of telling writers to drop dead. The Klebergs decided to commission a history of the ranch as part of its centennial celebration. J. Frank Dobie, Texas' most famous author at the time, wanted the job, but the Klebergs turned him down in favor of Tom Lea, a well-known painter and novelist from El Paso. They liked Lea's realistic drawings of cattle, and they thought he was the man for the job. They gave him and a researcher, journalist Holland McCombs, full access to the vault in the Main House, where papers and photographs documenting the ranch's history were kept. Dobie would have wrestled a rattlesnake bare-handed to get into that vault, but it was never to be. In 1957 Lea delivered a two-volume set to general acclaim and the admiring appreciation of the King Ranch overlords.

Lea's The King Ranch became the official history of the ranch. The story was sufficiently colorful that Texans could feel a frisson of glory simply by virtue of living in the same state. Mythically, all of us were on the King Ranch.

The ranch's grip on the collective imagination of Texans remained strong, though by the mid-eighties its foreign holdings had been greatly reduced and its swaggering image seemed to belong to the past—both in large part a result of the death in 1974 of Bob Kleberg, who had operated at whirlwind velocity during his long tenure as the president of King Ranch, Incorporated. But the King Ranch was still a mighty impressive concern—bigger than Rhode Island, as every Texas schoolchild knows.

In the late eighties the ranch's management grew interested in preserving its storied history and to that end hired an archivist to preside over the massive volume of records, letters, documents, photographs, and historical detritus stretching back nearly a century and a half. The old treasures were moved from the vault in the Main House to a former icehouse in downtown Kingsville that had been converted into a combination museum, space for special events, and real archives, complete with acetate boxes and folders and temperature controls to combat silverfish and humidity, those implacable foes of document preservation. It was named the Henrietta Memorial Center, in honor of Richard King's granddaughter Henrietta Kleberg Larkin Armstrong.

The archives hummed along under the guidance of Bruce Cheeseman, a professional archivist from New Jersey with an M.A. in history from Texas A&M University. Scholars and writers interested in the history of South Texas were granted access, but celebrity hawks like Robin Leach, who wanted to do a Rich and Famous story, were not. The King Ranch archives was interested only in serious history.

And it was about to get a dose of serious history indeed, echoes from a distant past that would rattle the very windows of the Henrietta Memorial Center. Unbeknownst to the King Ranch's overseers and its archivist, there was trouble brewing. A series of seemingly unrelated events of no interest to anyone outside the circle of another family, long forgotten, would set in motion a scholarly search into the past. By uncovering a neglected thread in the rich tapestry of the ranch's history, it would change Cheeseman's life and threaten the traditional authority and sovereignty of the King Ranch legacy.

The long-forgotten family was that of Major William Warren Chapman and his wife, Helen Blair Chapman. Major Chapman had died in 1859, his widow in 1881. What claim had they on the living? The answer lay in a trove of old letters that their heirs had preserved. Although it's probable that none of the descendants ever read the letters in their entirety, if at all, they kept turning up, first in the keeping of one branch of the family, then another. Finally they were placed in the hands of someone who would read them, Edward Caleb Coker, a great-great-grandson of the Chapmans'. Ed Coker, an urbane Southerner in his fifties with a law degree from Duke University, came into possession of the family letters back in 1986, when three boxes weighing a total of 165 pounds arrived at his home in Jacksonville, Florida, sent by an uncle who lived in California.

They were a "grand mess," Coker says. Randomly, he reached into one of the boxes and pulled out a letter. Dated June 1851, it had been written by Helen Chapman from Puebla, in central Mexico. Coker didn't know much about Helen Chapman, except that a portrait of her husband had hung in his mother's house when he was a child growing up in Clemson, South Carolina.

The letter from Mexico turned out to hold special interest for Coker. A couple of years earlier, in 1984, he had taken his eldest daughter on a vacation to Mexico City, where they had stayed at the Hotel Majestic, an old colonial establishment in the heart of the city with a rooftop restaurant that afforded a grand view of the Zócalo below. As he read the letter describing Helen's last night in Mexico City, he was drawn into her world. She spoke of attending a concert at the National Palace and of meeting the president of Mexico. Tired, she returned to her hotel and went up on the roof to take one last look at the city. Coker felt a thrill of recognition when he realized that it was the same hotel where he and his daughter had stayed more than a century later.

As Coker continued to read through the letters, his interest increased and he became aware that the ones written from Matamoros-Brownsville between 1848 and 1852 contained the most compelling information, the most interesting portraits of people, and the richest details about the lives of Major Chapman and his wife, all sketched in vivid prose.

Major Chapman was a graduate of West Point, a veteran of the Second Seminole War in Florida, and a staff officer who had served in the Mexican War under both General Zachary Taylor and General John Wool. Brevetted for bravery at the Battle of Buena Vista, after the war he was appointed collector of revenue for Matamoros and quartermaster of Fort Brown and the nearby ports at Brazos Santiago and Point Isabel (now Port Isabel). Helen Chapman was a well-educated, observant, and forward-thinking woman who sent back long missives to her mother in Westfield, Massachusetts.

The Chapmans seemed to know everybody who came through Brownsville: Robert E. Lee, who was stationed in Texas at various times in the 1850's; Charles Stillman, the prime mover and shaker in early Brownsville; and many other local luminaries, such as Reverend Hiram Chamberlain and his family, including the eldest daughter, Henrietta, who would marry Richard King in 1854 and preside over the ranch upon King's death, in 1885. Major Chapman also knew Richard King though, oddly, Helen did not.

In time, Coker approached the University of Texas Press to see if it had any interest in gathering the letters into a book. It sent him to Don Carleton, the director of UT-Austin's Barker Texas History Center (now the Center for American History), who became an enthusiastic supporter of the project. By late 1989, Coker had completed a draft ready to be sent out for peer review, a standard practice whereby academic presses seek the expertise of scholars to evaluate a prospective manuscript. Peer review can kill a book, or it can make one better.

The peer reviewer was also enthusiastic about the project, stating that the Chapman letters "provide a marvelous view of nineteenth-century Texas and army life." The reviewer had one main complaint, however: The book seemed to end too abruptly, with the 1852 departure of the Chapmans from Brownsville to their new posting in Corpus Christi. What was the rest of the story? The reviewer suggested that "a brief 4-5 page epilogue, discussing the Chapmans' later experiences and the reasons for emphasizing only the Brownsville years, would be in order."

So Coker set to work again. "The fact of the matter is that I don't know [what happened to the Chapmans], just like I did not know about the Brownsville years until I read the letters," he wrote in a letter to Carleton.

Coker's first epilogue, dated December 29, 1989, added a brief overview of the Chapmans' lives after leaving Brownsville and, later, Texas, including a few sentences about a lawsuit brought against the King Ranch by Helen Chapman in 1879. As Coker dug deeper, he expanded the Chapman-King material in two subsequent revisions of the epilogue. The more he learned about the lives of his ancestors following their departure from Brownsville, the more he came to believe that he had discovered a case of fraud perpetrated against Major Chapman's widow and her descendants. Coker's historical inquiries took him back to the early days of Richard King's venture on the Santa Gertrudis grant.

King liked to partner up, and during his first year at Santa Gertrudis, on November 14, 1853, he formalized his equal partnership in the Rincón with a charming frontier hero and veteran of both the Mier Expedition and the Mexican War named Gideon K. "Legs" Lewis. Lewis had a way with the women, until an irate husband shot him to death in 1855, leaving King in need of a new partner. He turned to his old friend from Brownsville, Major Chapman, who was then stationed in nearby Corpus Christi.

On April 25, 1856, Chapman entered into a partnership with King, receiving from King and his wife, Henrietta, a warranty deed for half of their interest in the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis property, for which, according to his Record Book of Rancho Expenses, he paid King $100. Later that year, on August 1, Chapman, acting on King's behalf, purchased at auction Gideon Lewis' one-half undivided interest in the Rincón. Chapman's share of this purchase left him owning a half-interest in the Rincón de Santa Gertrudis grant, which totaled about fifteen thousand acres.

Shortly after Chapman's second transaction with King, in the summer of 1856, something happened that would forever cloud the circumstances of their business relationship. Nobody is quite sure what it was except that, suddenly faced with the prospect of being reassigned from Corpus Christi to far-distant California, Major Chapman left Texas for postings on the East Coast. The major's hurried farewell to his ranching operation is a story told long after the fact and dependent upon the memories of one man, James Bryden—who had been Chapman's representative on the land and was later a King Ranch herd boss—and two very interested parties, Richard and Henrietta King.

The story is told in the lawsuit brought by Helen Chapman, who sued the King Ranch because she had never received any profits from her Santa Gertrudis holdings nor had Richard King responded to her requests to meet with him. In a sworn written statement in response to written interrogatories, James Bryden said that Major Chapman had come to the rancho that summer and asked him if James J. Richardson, a gunman and Mexican War veteran who worked as a foreman for Richard King, was at home. Bryden said that Chapman told him he wished to see Richardson "on business of importance to Capt King—explaining at the same time the nature of the business he felt so anxious about." Bryden said he fetched Richardson, whereupon Chapman said to Richardson, "I have not the means to justify me in retaining a half interest and request the Capt to release me from my obligation therein—say also that I will write him shortly on this subject." This version of events is presented as fact in Tom Lea's The King Ranch.

In her sworn statement of March 22, 1881, Helen Chapman offered a completely different view of her husband's state of mind and financial circumstances during that period. She said that after they left Texas, her husband had never lost interest in the ranch and that he had continued to receive quarterly reports from his agent, Bryden. She said her husband spoke often of returning to Texas when he left the Army.

The Kings, of course, offered another version of what had happened. They maintained that they had never received any money from Chapman and that there had been a letter from him confirming the conversation with Richardson but that it had been lost.

Helen Chapman did not live to see the resolution of her lawsuit. In April 1883, two years after her death, the district court judge for Nueces County signed a consent judgment reflecting a settlement of the suit. It stated that the Chapman estate owned only the quarter-interest in the Rincón purchased by Major Chapman in April 1856. Helen Chapman had a copy of that deed. As she had said in her interrogatory answers, which proved to be crucial: "The deed given by Richard and Henrietta King was kept with other deeds and titles to real estate, and my husband never gave me any reason to suppose that the transaction had been cancelled."

The architect of this consent judgment was a young attorney named Robert J. Kleberg, who contended that the deed for the Lewis half of the Rincón could not be found (although five years later it would turn up in the possession of a King Ranch lawyer). In 1881, following Helen Chapman's death, Kleberg began handling her case in Texas on behalf of her estate. In 1883 he wrote the estate's co-executor in South Carolina, telling him that he, Kleberg, had had no choice but to accept the settlement agreement because the court's term was about to end and it would be another two years before the next term. So, presented with a fait accompli, the South Carolina co-executor accepted the $5,811.75 payment specified by the consent judgment—and that, in the view of the Kings, was the end of it.

And it was—until Coker came along and looked at the facts in a new light. He zeroed in on the role played by Kleberg. What riveted Coker's attention was the fact, reported by Tom Lea, that in 1881 Richard King had placed Kleberg on a personal retainer of $5,000 a year. So from then until the final resolution in 1883 of Cause No. 1279, Helen Chapman v. Richard King, Kleberg was simultaneously representing the interests of his out-of-state client, the Chapman estate, and the interests of his in-state client, Richard King. This, one might say, is the J.R. moment in the history of the King Ranch.

In any event, things certainly worked out beautifully for Kleberg. Richard King chose him as the man who would manage the rancho after he was gone, and the year after King's death, Kleberg married the old captain's favorite daughter, Alice Gertrudis King. Thus it would be the Kleberg line that would preside over the King Ranch for over a century to come.

The News from Brownsville: Helen Chapman's Letters From the Texas Military Frontier, 1848-1852, edited by Caleb Coker, was published by the Texas State Historical Association (in conjunction with the University of Texas) in the summer of 1992. Curiously, although it received excellent reviews, both in the daily press and in academic quarterlies, only one newspaper at the time, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, took note of the explosive implications of the story told in its epilogue and footnotes. Ron George, a staff writer for the paper, interviewed both Ed Coker and Bruce Cheeseman for an article on the book that appeared on August 23, 1992; the most damaging stuff appeared in a sidebar that accompanied the article, headlined "King and Kleberg Fought Widow for Her Half Share of King Ranch." Coker was quoted as saying, "Richard King made his ex-partner's widow litigate to the death rather than pay her a penny. And by modern standards, Kleberg should have been disbarred."

After further research and the discovery of other documents brought to his attention by family members—including Major Chapman's account books showing payments to King for purchases of land—Coker approached a number of South Texas law firms seeking legal counsel for a lawsuit against mighty King Ranch, Incorporated. At first there were no takers. The attorneys thought the case was too old. Everything had happened so long ago. And there was the defendant, one of the most famous and powerful entities in the state. King Ranch, Inc., could put together a stable of top-flight attorneys in a heartbeat. The case appeared unwinnable.

Then Coker visited the Edwards Law Firm, whose sumptuous offices occupy two floors of the Frost Bank Center in downtown Corpus Christi. Bill Edwards and his associates agreed to take the case. They felt that it had intriguing, far-reaching implications regarding land rights in South Texas. They also thought they could win it.

William Warren Chapman, III, et al., Appellants, v. King Ranch, Inc., et al., Appellees, was filed in the Twenty-eighth District Court in Corpus Christi on April 20, 1995. The suit charged that the 1883 settlement was a conspiracy between Richard King, Robert J. Kleberg, and others that resulted in the Chapman heirs' being deprived of their rights to the Rincón and any profits from it.

The new lawsuit spelled the end of Bruce Cheeseman's tenure as King Ranch archivist. Acting in his capacity as keeper of the records, Cheeseman had sent Coker documents that would buttress his research into the relationship between the Chapmans and Richard King. And in that interview with the press back in 1992, Cheeseman had made a remark that would prove damaging to him and King Ranch, Inc. For these reasons and others, King Ranch, Inc., restricted access to the archives and took away Cheeseman's sole authority over who could gain admission. Cheeseman resigned in July 1996 but remained in a consultancy role until December 1997. His assignment: litigation research, which included looking into Major Chapman's life to find evidence against him that might be useful to the King Ranch's lawyers. Today the archives of the Walled Kingdom are, for all intents and purposes, closed. My own requests to visit the Henrietta Memorial Center, for example, were always turned down.

The legal process set in motion by Coker and his lawyers ground slowly; three years would pass before a decision was handed down by the court. On January 5 and January 13, 1998, the court released a summary judgment against the Chapman plaintiffs and in favor of King Ranch, Inc. Though obviously disappointed, Coker was not deterred. He still thought he had a strong case and hired Corpus Christi lawyer Craig Smith to appeal the decision. The King Ranch had won the first round, but it wasn't over yet.

Three years later, things went Coker's way. On January 11, 2001, the Thirteenth District Court of Appeals of Texas, in Corpus Christi, reversed the lower court's decision, paving the way for a trial in the matter of Chapman v. King Ranch. Justice Federico G. Hinojosa wrote the favorable ruling, with Justice Melchor Chavez concurring. They based their decision on two bodies of evidence. The first, "Kleberg's Representation," listed three items of evidence having to do with Kleberg's dual representation of Chapman and King. Ironically, one of these items was a statement by the King Ranch's own archivist, Bruce Cheeseman. In the 1992 article about Helen Chapman's lawsuit in the Corpus Christi paper, he was quoted as saying, "Clearly, Kleberg was looking after the interest of his in-state client versus the interests of his out-of-state client." The second body of evidence supporting the court's decision listed seven items under the heading "Richard King's Fraud." Hinojosa and Chavez's ruling concluded: "The foregoing evidence reasonably puts into question Richard King's claim to the entirety of the land in the Lewis deed, Robert Kleberg's alleged inability to prove Helen Chapman's land title [to the Lewis parcel], and Kleberg's legal loyalty to his clients. Therefore, we conclude appellants have produced more than a scintilla of probative evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact of extrinsic fraud."

In a dissenting opinion, Judge J. Bonner Dorsey found no basis to recover on Richard King's supposed fraud in "that ancient litigation." He argued that any challenges to the 1883 case should have been made earlier and felt that the grounds for reviewing it were too "narrow." Summing up his view of the case, he wrote: "The settlement of any lawsuit involves many difficult considerations and decisions, especially given the period in which this litigation occurred. At the time of the consent judgment both William and Helen Chapman were dead, as were other alleged witnesses. The Chapman heirs were in South Carolina and were investigating via long distance. The [1883] judgment gave the Chapman estate certain lands that King had apparently had the use of for years, and approved a sale of the land to King. The Chapmans did not take nothing by their 1879 lawsuit."

Coker was elated. As he told the San Antonio Express-News, "We want recognition of the Chapman role in the development of South Texas and our rightful share of the property interest." The King Ranch's attorneys wasted no time in appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of Texas, but yet another wrinkle in the modern case has delayed any decision by the high court. When Coker was seeking new legal counsel to handle the appeal after the adverse 1998 ruling, one of the lawyers he talked to was Russell McMains, of Corpus Christi, a specialist in appeals. But because he considered McMains' fee too high, he went elsewhere. So Coker was surprised and outraged when, in August 2001, he saw the name of Russell McMains on a list of the small army of lawyers the King Ranch had working on the appeal. At his 1998 meeting with McMains, Coker says, he laid out the entire theory of his case. To Coker it was déjá vu with a vengeance: What had happened in the nineteenth century was happening again; nothing had changed. But McMains denies that Coker told him anything of substance in the meeting, and so that too has become a matter of dispute. In September 2001 Coker and his attorneys moved to disqualify all of the defendant's attorneys who had received information from McMains. A hearing held the following November and December rejected Coker's request. Now the entire matter rests in the hands of the Texas Supreme Court.

Ed Coker is still waiting, still hopeful. He says that what he wants is "simple justice." A jury trial is the only way to achieve that goal, he believes, but the powers that be at King Ranch, Inc., obviously would prefer that the case not go to trial. They would prefer that history remain as quiet and undisturbed as it was before Coker started poking around in the past, before he summoned forth the ghosts of the major and his wife to once more stake their claim to the most fabled ranch in Texas history.

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