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?
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

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