Facebook > Email > More Pinterest Print Twitter Play

Ranch Undressing

Writer-at-large Don Graham discusses this month's cover story "The Secret History," and his forthcoming book on the King Ranch, King of Texas.

By December 2002Comments

texasmonthly.com: You have been working on a book about the King Ranch. Is this story an offshoot of your book? If so, how did it come about to be a feature in the magazine?

Don Graham: The Editor of Texas Monthly, Evan Smith, was interested in using something from my book on King Ranch but felt that whatever was used would have to be recast, because excerpts often don’t work and magazine articles need to be shaped as separate pieces. So I set to work on one angle of my book, squeezing it into 5,000 words.

texasmonthly.com: Obviously, this type of story involves a lot of research. When did you first learn about the lawsuit and where did you go from there?

DG: You’re right; King Ranch is a massive subject, and I was under the pressure of deadlines from the publisher from day one. It’s funny, but I can’t actually recall the first time I learned of the lawsuit. Early on, I read Edward Caleb Coker’s book, The News from Brownsville, and found utterly fascinating the letters describing life on the Border during the Mexican War, and at some point somebody mentioned to me—probably somebody at UT’s Center for American History—that there was a lawsuit currently underway. So that was exciting, as it gave me a way of connecting the past with the present.

texasmonthly.com: Were people from the King Ranch cooperative? If so, how? If not, why not?

DG: King Ranch, Inc. maintains an Archive at the Henrietta Memorial Center in Kingsville. It is said to house invaluable documents and papers, but I wouldn’t know, because KR, Inc. would not grant me permission to visit the Archives. They mentioned “litigation pending” as one of the reasons for turning down my requests. It’s a kind of catch-22 situation down there. They won’t let you in to see the documents; then they criticize you for not consulting the archives. Or at least that is what has happened in the past. I don’t know what will happen this time.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to working on this story?

DG: The most difficult aspect of this story was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. The texts from the mid-19th century were extremely helpful but there were always gaps and things not explained. Richard King himself was a man of action and there are few documents in which we hear his own voice. So much of history consists of gaps, of not knowing what someone was thinking, or even, sometimes, not knowing what they were doing in the spaces of time for which there is no information.

texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?

DG: It’s hard to say what the most interesting thing I learned was. I learned a lot of interesting things. All the details about the 1879 court case were very interesting. How Edward Caleb Coker came to read the letters in the first place, was very interesting. The establishment of the Archives under the direction of Bruce Cheeseman was, to me, fascinating. The depositions of Coker, Cheeseman, and Tom Lea were fascinating. And all the history of South Texas—all of that greatly interested me.

texasmonthly.com: Did you find working on this story more difficult than usual because a lot of the action took place so long ago? Why or why not?

DG: In a way, the present legal fight is as complicated and as difficult to understand as events back in the 19th century. Working on certain aspects of the 19th century was easier than dealing with very recent events, because of the quality, for example, of memoirs and writings by Texas Rangers, who told the story of McNelly’s Rangers in the 1875-76 campaign against Mexican bandits in a most compelling way. It all depends on the quality of the documents.

texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, do you think Chapman family has a valid case against the King Ranch? Why or why not?

DG: I believed, early on, that the Chapman family had a case against King Ranch that should be heard in court, and I still believe that. The role of Robert J. Kleberg in representing the interests of the Chapman estate and King Ranch-simultaneously seems to me to be worth some final legal resolution.

texasmonthly.com: In your opinion, how hard is it to battle an institution like the King Ranch?

DG: I think it is difficult to battle an institution like the King Ranch, but that is what the law is for. King Ranch has done many great things. But they are not above the law. And of course, in a trial, they might well win.

texasmonthly.com: Why do you think so many people are interested in the King Ranch?

DG: The King Ranch’s appeal reaches the heart of Texas mythology: a gigantic ranch, dynastic rule for over a century and a half, tons of colorful frontier history, power, and drama. Then there’s the casserole: King Ranch Chicken Casserole is a favorite wherever chicken casseroles are served.

texasmonthly.com: If the Chapmans win, do you think the myth of the King Ranch will be changed in any way? If so, how? If not, why not?

DG: If the Chapmans win, King Ranch will be the same, just 7,500 acres smaller. Who knows? The myth might even be enhanced. I speculate in the book that if the Chapmans had received land instead of money, back in 1883, there might have been a town called Chapmanville. Maybe there will be one if they win the case.

texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?

DG: I would like to add that a bird tour of King Ranch is one of the best ways to experience the beauty and majesty of the land. King Ranch has done a great service by preserving animal and bird life on the ranch.

Related Content