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KING RANCH. The 825,000-acre King Ranch, in Nueces, Kenedy, Kleberg, and Willacy counties, had its beginning in 1852, when Richard King and Gideon K. Lewisqqv set up a cattle camp on Santa Gertrudis Creek in South Texas. Formal purchase began in 1853, when they bought a Spanish land grant, Rincón de Santa Gertrudis, of 15,500 acres on Santa Gertrudis Creek in Nueces County. A short time later they purchased the Garza Santa Gertrudis grant of 53,000 acres. During the mid-1850s, as partners, King and Lewis acquired more landholdings around the area of the creek. After Lewis died in April 1855, King managed to acquire Lewis's half interest in the Rincón grant at a public sale through the bidding of his friend Maj. William W. Chapman. Due to pending transfers of legal title, King and Lewis had never actually paid money for the Garza grant. In 1856 King's friend James Walworth of M. Kenedy and Company purchased that grant and entered into a business arrangement with King, paying taxes on the land while King worked it. In June 1859, in his wife's name, King bought half of Walworth's interest in the Garza grant. On December 5, 1860, Mifflin Kenedy, with whom King had been associated in a steamboating business, bought interest in the ranch. At that time all titles were put under the business name R. King and Company, with King and Kenedy each having three-eighths of the shares and Walworth two-eighths. When Walworth died in April 1865 King and Kenedy bought his interest from his widow. King and Kenedy dissolved their partnership in 1868, and King retained Santa Gertrudis; other acreage was added later. That same year he fenced in a tract of his ranch that surrounded the Santa Gertrudis headquarters.

During the early days of the ranch King tried a variety of grazing animals including cattle, horses, sheep, and goats. His first officially recorded brand was the HK, in 1859. Also recorded at that time was the LK. King and Walworth's brand added a V at the top of the LK. The Running W appeared in the 1860s and was registered on February 9, 1869, as the official brand for the King Ranch–a mark that is still used today. When the ranch began, King employed a number of Mexican hands, and it is said that in 1854 he moved the inhabitants of an entire drought-stricken Mexican village to his ranch and employed them. His workers came to be known as kineños, "King's men." King became associated with Robert Justus Klebergqv in a lawsuit and later hired him as legal adviser on the ranch. Upon King's death on April 14, 1885, Mrs. King retained Kleberg as manager of the ranch. He later married Alice King, the youngest daughter. Kleberg's greatest contribution to the management of the ranch and to the Texas cattle industry as a whole was his work in tick eradication (see TEXAS FEVER). Because of his father's fading health, Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr., became ranch manager in 1933. In 1935, after the death of Mrs. King, the ranch came under the control of King Ranch, Incorporated, with Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr., as manager and the King-Kleberg descendants as stockholders.

The foundation stock of the King Ranch was the longhornqv; many head were bought in Mexico. In 1874 King bought several Brahmanqv bulls. In the 1880s shorthorns and Herefordsqqv were brought to the ranch. Brahmans, which were especially adapted to the South Texas climate, were crossbred with the shorthorns to produce the famous Santa Gertrudis cattle, which were officially recognized as a breed in 1940. During the first part of the twentieth century the King Ranch became a diversified enterprise. While continuing to develop its cattle activities, centered around the Santa Gertrudis breed, the ranch derived sizable income from horse breeding and racing, oil and gas production, and timber. In the early 1940s the King Ranch began breeding and racing both quarter horses and English thoroughbreds. In 1947 the ranch had 2,900 quarter horses and eighty-two racehorses. After Assault from the King Ranch raced to win the Triple Crown in 1946 and became for a time racing's all-time money winner, the ranch expanded its horse-breeding operations. It bought a 680-acre bluegrass farm called Idle Hour Stable in Kentucky in 1946. Subsequently, King Ranch horses became regular winners. In 1954 and 1955, for example, High Gun won $486,025, and in 1955 Rejected entered forty races, won ten, placed second in ten, and won a total of $544,000.

Some sections of the ranch are wildlife preserves for deer, quail, ducks, wild turkeys, and antelope. The ranch employed Valgene W. Lehmann as a conservationist in 1945 and placed strict game restrictions on its properties. More than 2,000 miles of fence have been built on its four divisions: Santa Gertrudis, Laureles, Norias, and El Sauz. In 1989 the ranch had 300 water wells. Formerly, most wells had been run by windmills, but in 1980 Hurricane Allen destroyed many of them, and most of the windmills were replaced with electric pumps.

During the 1920s and early 1930s the King Ranch was in serious financial difficulties resulting from poor beef-marketing conditions. Oil was the salvation of the ranch. As early as 1919 the ranch had a lease with Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon Company, U.S.A.), which drilled a few dry holes. The lease expired in 1926, and throughout the 1920s the ranch and Humble negotiated for oil-drilling and mineral-recovery rights on the property. Agreement was not reached until 1933 because Humble's top management was uncertain about the oil potential of this part of Texas. The company geologist Wallace E. Pratt finally convinced Humble to gamble on the largest oil-lease contract negotiated in the United States. Its subsequent leases with neighboring ranches gave Humble nearly two million acres of mineral rights between Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande. The first well on the King Ranch was completed in 1939. Drilling was minor until 1945, when the Borregas oilfield was discovered. After that, several major oil and gas discoveries were made on the ranch, where in 1947 Humble operated 390 producing oil wells. Humble constructed a large refinery in Kingsville to handle its South Texas production. In 1953 the ranch had 650 producing oil and gas wells. In 1980 a subsidiary, King Ranch Oil and Gas, was formed to conduct exploration and production of oil and gas in five states and the Gulf of Mexico. Louisiana and Oklahoma holdings were sold to Presidio Oil in 1988 for more than $40 million. In 1992 King Ranch Oil and Gas was one among several companies to discover natural gas off the coast of Louisiana. By 1994 the King Ranch had received oil and gas royalties amounting to more than $1 billion since World War II. The King Ranch entered the timber industryqv in 1967, when it purchased 50,340 acres of timberland in Harris, Montgomery, Liberty, and San Jacinto counties for a reported price of $17.6 million.

Cattle operations of the King Ranch have become worldwide. King Ranch, Incorporated, bought a 4,300-acre fattening range in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1946. The experiment proved its value because of its proximity to the market and good grass, and an additional purchase increased the Pennsylvania spread to 10,500 acres. In 1947 the ranch in Chester County was expanded to about 17,000 acres. In 1952 the King Ranch bought ranches in Cuba and Australia. The Cuban ranch encompassed more than 38,000 acres but was lost during the Cuban revolution (1959). The Australian ranch was expanded in 1958, with the help of Australian businessmen, into a three-million-acre range in the northwest region. By 1958 the King Ranch also had cattle ranges of 147,000 acres in Brazil (operated in conjunction with Swift and Company) and 22,000 acres in Argentina. All of these ranges, like those of the home ranch itself, were devoted to the development and promotion of Santa Gertrudis cattle.

After Robert Kleberg died in 1974, James Clement became CEO. He retired in 1988, and Darwin Smith took over. He was the first head that was not related to founder Richard King by blood or marriage. In 1989 Roger Jarvis assumed the position of CEO, and corporate headquarters were moved to Houston. During the 1990s the King Ranch had approximately 60,000 head of cattle and had ranching operations in Texas, Arizona, Kentucky, Florida, and Brazil. The ranch's farming operations included the cultivation of grain sorghum, cotton, sugarcane, and wildflowers. The ranch was ranked 175th out of the top 500 businesses in Texas. The King Ranch has long held significant banking and mercantile interests in Kingsville, a town located in the heart of the ranch. The ranch has long supported the agricultural educational programs of Texas A&M University, both at College Station and Kingsville. During the 1980s and 1990s the ranch became more involved in tourism. By the later 1980s visitors could tour the ranch along a twelve-mile driving loop. In the 1990s tourists could also visit the King Ranch Museum in Kingsville, which features historic ranch items and photographs. Also located in Kingsville is the King Ranch Saddle Shop, which offers a variety of leather goods. Several Texas historical markers commemorate the King Ranch and its operations. See also HORSE AND MULE INDUSTRY.


Austin American-Statesman, April 2, 1989. Corpus Christi Caller-Times, July 12, 1953. John Cypher, Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995). Tom Lea, The King Ranch (2 vols., Boston: Little, Brown, 1957). The Texas 500: Hoover's Guide to the Top Texas Companies (Austin: Reference Press, 1994). Texas State Travel Guide (Austin: State Department of Highways and Public Transportation, 1995). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

John Ashton and Edgar P. Sneed


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

John Ashton and Edgar P. Sneed, "KING RANCH," Handbook of Texas Online (, accessed November 20, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.