Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire

Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire

by Don Graham

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780471589051
Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
Publication date: 03/15/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 196,990
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.74(d)

About the Author

DON GRAHAM is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine and the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas, Austin. He is also past president of the Texas Institute of Letters and the author of the critically acclaimed biography of Audie Murphy, No Name on the Bullet. Among Graham’s other works are Giant Country: Essays on Texas and Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande: A Texas Anthology.

Read an Excerpt

Kings of Texas

The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire
By Don Graham

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-471-39451-3

Chapter One

Manifest Destiny's Children

The Rincón de Santa Gertrudis, an old Spanish land grant, lies at the heart of King Ranch, for it was here, on these untenanted lands, that Capt. Richard King, in 1853, first laid claim to a dream of ownership that would 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 in the frequent droughts of that land, was 125 miles north of Brownsville on the border and 45 miles southwest of the little gulf seaside town of Corpus Christi. What was true of an adjacent, larger tract (the Santa Gertrudis de la Garza land grant), which King would buy the next year, was true of all this land-in the grandiloquent language of Spanish deeds, it was "unappropriated, waste and unpopulated."

Originally the land had belonged to no one, lying on the floor of the Late Cretaceous seas a mere sixty-five million years ago; in the fullness of time the waters receded, leaving behind deposits of oil and salt domes and subhumid plains of varying soils and grasses and plants, and an ecology that would support human beings. Small Indian groups, designated later by ethnologists as Coahuiltecans, hunted or gathered such food-various roots and tubers, deer, shellfish, pecans along the Nueces (Nut) River-as they could find in the sparse, unforgiving country that the Spanish, when they arrived in the sixteenth century, called El Desierto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead.

Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to spend any length of time in Texas, passed this way during his seven-year sojourn of surviving half-naked among the peoples there to greet him. De Vaca recognized an agrarian future awaiting this country: "All over the land," he wrote, "are vast and handsome pastures, with good grass for cattle; and it strikes me the soil would be very fertile were the country inhabited and improved by reasonable people." Eventually Spain flung its northernmost settlements across the Rio Grande and Spanish land-grant holders reached as far inland as the Santa Gertrudis Creek, but Indians in the area resisted the Spanish as they later resisted Anglo incursions, and the Spanish abandoned these holdings and were content to stay along the border in the towns built in the eighteenth century.

When Anglos began to stream into Texas from the 1820s on, and after the Texas revolution in 1836, settlements remained east and south of the Nueces country. Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas settlement, looked with disfavor upon the region because it did not fit the prototype for cotton plantations. After a trip to Matamoros in the 1820s, he wrote of the land that English speakers were now calling the Wild Horse Desert: "the poorest I ever saw in my life. It is generally nothing but sand, entirely void of lumber, covered with scrubby thorn bushes and prickly pear." As late as 1839, the following notation appeared on maps depicting South Texas: "Of this section of country little is known."

But it was here 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 very tangled history of land titles and taxes paid and unpaid and dispossession and new ownership, a lengthy and knotty process with new laws cantilevered over older ones. One Spanish deed holder on the Rio Grande spoke to the problem of title: "I have traced the [land] 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 and did not. In all, King made over sixty purchases of land in his lifetime, so that by the time of his death in 1885 he owned over a half-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, the aura of legend. "Buy land; and never sell" were words of wisdom uttered, the family maintained, by the sainted Robert E. Lee himself. They became King's motto and stood him well from first to last.

Fifty years ago I could have traveled, as the great chronicler of the King Ranch, Tom Lea, once did, upstream from the mouth of the Rio Grande all the way to Roma, 150 miles to the west, to get the feel of the Rio Grande and the region as it might have been experienced by Captain King. No más.

Today the closest I can get to the river's mouth is a few miles away, on the windblown beach at Boca Chica (Little Mouth). The road from Brownsville to Boca Chica, State Highway 4, gives a glimpse of just how desolate the country still is. Northeast of Brownsville there is almost no development at all, and four or five miles from the coast, there is nothing but salt flats to the east and flat, empty scrub country to the west. The last historical marker signifies the site where Camp Belknap once stood, about a mile west of S. H. 4, on a stretch of "high ground," a long narrow belt of land only slightly elevated above the low-lying plain. General Zachary Taylor established a camp at this spot to receive volunteers who in the summer of 1846 poured into Brazos Santiago a few miles away, on the coast. Many men never left Camp Belknap, dying instead in that pestilential, mosquito-plagued hellhole, the camp averaging two to three burials per day.

S. H. 4 ends a hundred yards from the water. To either side stretch dirty, taupe-colored beaches where the families of the poor gather beside their pickups and four-wheel-drive vehicles to grill chicken and steaks while the kids play in the sand and water, the radios and CD players pumping out the sounds of conjunto music. A few miles to the northeast rise the condos and hotels of South Padre Island, but along the Boca Chica beach there is nothing at all except dirty sand, dead seaweed, the strange purple and green cellophanelike remains of jellyfish, and the quiet slap of waves.

South of where I am standing, a few miles away, is the mouth of the river, only in 2002 there is no river. Where once the Rio Grande entered the Gulf of Mexico, today it does not. A newly created sandbar caused by wave action from the Atlantic Ocean plus the sluggish flow and pooling upstream marks the river's end. Although it is possible to walk across the mouth of the river, it is probably not such a good idea, for this is drug smuggler country and anybody poking around in this isolated place, a true borderland, vague and undefined, is asking for trouble. It is also no longer possible to take a boat from Boca Chica to Brownsville. Today the only boats on the river belong to the Border Patrol.

At the edge of the gulf at Boca Chica, waves lapping at one's feet, looking west away from the gulf, toward Brownsville, thirty miles distant by land, all one can see is the overarching blue sky, the shimmer cast by blazing sunlight, an irregular line of low sand hummocks tufted with sea-blown grass, and beyond, a blurry haze created by the sun's glare and mist from the gulf. From here, one sees Texas as it appeared to those who first came to these shores, from the Spaniard de la Pineda in 1519 to the youthful future founder of King Ranch three centuries later. From this perspective Texas is all possibility, formless and blank. Those with a taste for the picturesque, as many cultivated nineteenth-century newcomers were, would have had to travel far up that river to find anything that would appeal to their sensibilities. Extreme South Texas was extreme in its lack of picturesqueness. There was an end-of-the-world feeling here-there still is-as though America seems to drain away and something else begins. South Texas in the mid-nineteenth century was a place where, from the American point of view, there was nothing else to do except try to find a way to get rich.

In May 1847, when Richard King stepped ashore at Brazos Santiago, the place hummed with activity generated by commerce and its handmaiden, war. But apart from its vital economic function, nobody ever had anything good to say about Brazos Santiago. Major Luther Giddings, who hated the "suffocating atmosphere of that sandy waste at the Brazos," enumerated the panoply of pests like some Darwinian Dante: "snakes, tarantulas, ants, centipedes, lizards, horned toads, scorpions, fleas, spiders,- et id genus omne" [and it is all types]. Lieutenant William S. Henry told a tall tale to capture the deplorable conditions that he observed during the summer of 1846, telling about a man who swallowed a sandbar and saying to his doctor, "Well, then, I am a gone sucker. I've got a sand-bar in my innards, upon which every thing grounds, and I can't get any thing up nor down." A Pennsylvania volunteer named Jacob Oswandel described his impression from aboard ship on January 28, 1847, just four months before Richard King arrived in Texas: "A miserable looking place it is; two or three shanties and a few tents along the beach, and the harbor full of vessels of all descriptions anchored around the beach."

Whatever its shortcomings as a site of pleasurable human habitation, Brazos Santiago was a crucial port of entry where ships unloaded passengers and goods by means of lighters (smaller boats) that trundled cargo, human or otherwise, from ships anchored offshore to Brazos Santiago or Brazos Island. So important economically was Brazos Santiago-the only northern seaport for trade with Mexico-that controlling it was a vital factor in the war that brought men like Richard King to Texas in the first place.

Who was Richard King? He was a pure product of America, an orphaned youth without family, money, or pedigree, with only his wits and determination and pluck to carry him through the world. His childhood had been brief. He was born on July 10, 1824, in New York, of Irish parentage, which meant, unspoken, a great deal. It meant a history, back in Ireland, of hunger, need, oppression, and flight to America. The year he fetched up at the mouth of the river in South Texas, Ireland was being emptied of its hungry, suffering masses. That historical process, the slow leaking of Ireland's people, was now a cascading, frantic, giant exodus forced by the failure of the potato crop-and a dozen other ills. It had been going on since the turn of the century. Nothing is known of Richard King's parents except that like other Irish immigrants, they must have come to New York for a fresh start. But there they perished instead, and their son Richard King, at age five, found himself placed in the care of an aunt and then, at age nine, apprenticed to a jeweler. The young King did not like being an apprentice, sweeping, running errands, taking orders, and in 1835, when he was eleven, like that archetypal American, Benjamin Franklin ("I dislik'd the Trade and had a strong Inclination for the Sea"), the boy bolted from his apprenticeship and took to sea, hiding away on the Desdemona, a ship bound for the Gulf Coast.

At some point in its passage south, down the Atlantic coast, around Florida, and into the tranquil waters of Mobile Bay, the boy was discovered and brought before the captain of the Desdemona. Something in King's look, some spirit, some keenness of intellect or physical promise, led the captain to take an interest in the boy's welfare. He became a "cabin's cub," and under the tutelage of Capt. Hugh Monroe he learned the ins and outs of riverboat navigation. In 1837, at age thirteen, he went to work on Capt. Joe Holland's boat, which operated on the Alabama River from Mobile to Montgomery. From Holland he learned still more, including an eight-month stint at a school in Connecticut-the only formal schooling he ever had-and afterward returned to work on the Alabama River. He became a pilot in 1840, when he was sixteen.

Rivers were crucial to America's future. Before railroads, they offered the key to commercial development. Rivers were the underlying reason for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a river route from the Mississippi all the way to the West Coast; the Northwest Passage was thought to be a waterway. At about the time the Lewis and Clark expedition returned from the west, Robert Fulton was revolutionizing river transportation. The steamboat would be the first big breakthrough of the machine age in travel. So in learning the craft of riverboat piloting, Richard King was riding the wave of the present and the foreseeable future. The mighty Mississippi wasn't the only navigable river in the country.

Richard King added a new page to his growing frontier résumé when he went to Florida in 1841 and received a crash course in American imperialism. The Seminole War (1835-1842) was a bloody exercise in conquering and depopulating a people who had lived in that aboriginal land for centuries.

Not that there wasn't plenty of hatred to go around on both sides. Halleck Tustenguggee, one of the leading Seminole chieftains, hated whites so much that it was said he killed his own sister when she advocated compromising with the enemy. On the American side, the purpose was plain. Col. William J. Worth, who took command of the army in Florida in May 1841, issued orders to "find the enemy, capture, or exterminate." There was nothing new about this policy except its brutal succinctness.

The Americans resorted to savage tactics against the "savages." At one point the army purchased thirty-three Cuban bloodhounds to track down the elusive Seminoles and to wage war against what Governor Robert Reid called "beasts of prey." Reid, incidentally, was considered a gentleman, an intellectual, and a humanitarian. There were military-type battles, to be expected in war, but there were also instances of guerrilla-type tactics. Out of a desire to avenge an embarrassing surprise attack by a band of Seminoles, Lt. Col. William Harney later captured several Seminole men and ordered them hanged in front of their wives and children.

The methods that seemed to work the best were those of duplicity and betrayal. Army officers would invite groups of Seminoles to friendly powwows, then arrest them and ship them west. To many Seminoles, forced emigration was as bad as death. It was in such a manner that Colonel Worth deceived Halleck. Colonel Worth invited him and his warriors to a feast, then ordered them surrounded, bound in chains, and hauled away in wagons to the embarkation point at Tampa. Brokenhearted, Halleck said, "I have been hunted like a wolf, and now I am to be sent away like a dog."

Richard King saw some of these methods firsthand. In 1841 he served on the steamboat Ocochohee under the command of Capt. Henry Penny.


Excerpted from Kings of Texas by Don Graham Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



1. Manifest Destiny’s Children.

2. The Quartermaster’s Depot.

3. The Preacher and The Preacher’s Daughter.

4. Sea of Grass.

5. Grandma’s Cattle.

6. His Majesty King Cotton.

7. Ricardo King, Owner of the Hacienda Gertrudis.

8. A Second Alamo.

9. The Great Cattle King of Texas.

10. Cause No. 1279.

11. Quieted in the Possession of His Lands.

12. The Succession.

13. The Unquiet Past.

14. Chapman v. King Ranch, Inc.



What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"This book is about the King Ranch, but it is about much more than that. A compelling chronicle of war, peace, love, betrayal, birth and death in the region where the Texas-Mexico border blurs in the haze of the Wild Horse Desert, it is also an intriguing detective story with links to the present--and a first-rate read." —H.W. Brands, author THE AGE OF GOLD and the bestselling Pulitzer Prize finalist THE FIRST AMERICAN.

"KINGS OF TEXAS is a fresh and very welcome history of the great King Ranch. It's concise but thorough, crisply written, meticulous and very readable. It should find a wide audience." —Larry McMurtry, author of Sin Killer and the Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove

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Kings of Texas: The 150-Year Saga of an American Ranching Empire 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
GAN More than 1 year ago
Excellent book about a section of Texas I did not know much about. This book caused me to give much respect the Richard King, the entrepreneur!!!! People like him made this country great...taking risks..investing...having a vison...standing strong...fighting to keep what he earned. Without him that section of Texas would not be known except for endless prairie. Don Graham wrote a very interesting book, well researched and written. I love reading about these American heros who made this the greatest country in the world. You will not find stories about people like Richard King in any other country.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
as a native Texan, I've read more fiction than I care to! Graham has done his research and put together one of the best accounts of one empire of Texas and the impact that one extended family has had on the state and the world, not only in agriculture but in the true manner that all Texans relish. An exciting read - not dry, dipicting the stuff that legends are made of that really happened only seen on tv or movies!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago