The Next Frontier

The state’s (and maybe the world’s) most famous 825,000 acres would seem to be on a collision course with the twenty-first century, when giant spreads are routinely chopped up, there’s no money to be made in cattle, and the younger generation frequently bolts the family business. But the heirs of Captain Richard King are smarter than that. They have skillfully avoided ruin and preserved their history by embracing the future.
King Ranch cowboy Andy Avelar roping a cow in a coastal pasture.
Photograph by Kurt Markus

It is a fine, sunny mid-april morning in South Texas. The weather has been unusually cool and rainy, and the spacious, pool-table-flat wedge of land between the Nueces River and the Mexican border—which the Spanish once called El Desierto de los Muertos—today looks as green as Ireland. I am in a pickup, bouncing through a pasture on the 237,348-acre Norias division of the King Ranch, one of four massive chunks of land that make up the 825,000- acre (1,300-square-mile) spread. The truck belongs to Dave DeLaney, a rangy 51-year-old who runs the ranch’s cattle operation. With roughly 43,500 head, it is the nation’s largest. DeLaney is giving me the grand tour, which will ultimately take the better part of two days.

As a reporter, my presence here is highly unusual, to say the least. The King Ranch has always been a deeply private place, instinctively hostile to outsiders, a group that has included, over the decades, Comanches, border raiders, horse and cattle thieves, Union soldiers, government road builders, and nosy journalists. The fact that I am getting a multiday tour from a full-bird vice president like DeLaney is unheard of in recent times. As far as I can tell only a handful of reporters have ever been allowed full access to the ranch. Harper’s Magazine sent writers in 1892 and 1907; Fortune sent one in 1933; Time in 1947; and Texas Monthly in 1980 (in the fifties, artist and historian Tom Lea was invited to write the ranch’s only authorized history). By the grace of some inscrutable collective sentiment on the part of Captain Richard King’s heirs, I am the most recent member of this small, select company, here to try and make sense of a 154-year-old family business that has somehow managed to haul itself into the twenty-first century without being busted up, sold off, or sacrificed to commercial development. I am not sure why they have agreed to let me in, but the fact is, they have, and I am not arguing about it. I am keeping my eyes open.

What is most striking about the place, not surprisingly, is its tremendous scale—nearly unimaginable for those of us who live in places where real estate is calibrated in fractions of city blocks. The pasture we are in, for example, encompasses 30,000 acres—or 47 square miles. The live oak grove (or motte, as they call it here) we just drove through comprises 60,000 acres. And the land is not only vast. It is also beautiful. Though beauty is not a quality generally associated with South Texas, Norias is one of the loveliest pieces of coastal real estate I’ve

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