William Frank Buckley, lawyer and oil entrepreneur, was born in Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas, on July 12, 1881, the fourth of eight children of John and Mary Ann (Langford) Buckley, of Irish ancestry. In the fall of 1882 the family moved to San Diego, Duval County, where John Buckley engaged in merchandising, politics, and sheep raising; he also served several elective terms as Duval County sheriff.
Growing up in a Spanish-speaking community, William Buckley became proficient in the language and a close friend of Spanish-speaking peoples, a quality he retained all of his life. One of his early influences was the widely educated parish priest, Father John Pierre Bard, of the Church of San Francisco de Paula in San Diego. After finishing school in San Diego, Buckley taught at a country school near Benavides, where all but a few of the students used the Spanish language. According to records at the University of Texas at Austin, he enrolled there in 1899 and was a student at the university until 1905, when his picture appeared with the law class of 1905. Because of his command of the language he received advanced credit in Spanish in his first years there and was an assistant to a professor in the Romance-languages department. During this time he was also, along with his sister, Priscilla, a Spanish translator in the General Land Office. With others he initiated the Austin chapter of the Delta Tau Delta national college fraternity and later became one of its most liberal financial supporters. He was a devout Catholic and, along with others, purchased property near the university for the Newman Club. When his father died in 1904 he was the oldest surviving son, and he undertook the care of his mother, whom he moved to Austin, along with his two brothers and two sisters, to a small house on the corner of Lavaca and Nineteenth streets; Buckley later built a large house there (now the site of Cambridge Tower), where his mother lived until her death in 1930. He received a B.S. degree in 1904 and an LL.B. degree in 1905, was quizmaster in the School of Law, and was a member of the John C. Townes Law Society. In 1905 he was elected editor of the University of Texas yearbook, The Cactus (1906). Buckley received his license to practice law in Texas on June 8, 1906, and he was elected a member of the Texas Bar Association (see STATE BAR OF TEXAS) in 1909.
He went to Mexico City in 1908 and passed law examinations there, and he and his brother Claude, also a lawyer, acted as counsel for many of the most important American and European oil companies doing business in Mexico. In 1911 they established their own law office with another brother, Edmund, in Tampico, Tamaulipas. By 1914 William F. Buckley had turned his law practice over to his brothers so that he might engage in real estate and the leasing of oil lands. He acquired, improved, and sold land around the city of Tampico, and he founded the Pantepec Oil Company of Mexico. The Mexican Revolution was at its height in 1912, 1913, and 1914, and after the invasion and takeover of Veracruz by the United States Marines in April 1914, President Woodrow Wilson offered the post of civil governor to Buckley, who indignantly refused the appointment because he was not in sympathy with Wilson's Mexico policy. Later that year Buckley served as counsel for the Mexican government at the ABC Conference at Niagara Falls, where Argentina, Brazil, and Chile acted as mediators between the United States and Mexico. In December 1919 he testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Relations as an expert witness on conditions in Mexico. Knowing the language, the people, and the nature of revolutionary activities there, Buckley believed that internal Mexican policies such as those approved of by American "specialists" would destroy American investments in Mexico. In 1920 he assisted in the foundation of the American Association of Mexico, with offices in Washington and New York, which lobbied for the interests of United States businessmen in Mexico. Because of Buckley's opposition to the government of Gen. Álvaro Obregón and his support of the antigovernment revolution of Manuel Peláez, Buckley was expelled from Mexico in 1921. In January 1922 he gave a full report of his expulsion to the secretary of state of the United States and urged that his country not recognize the Obregón government until certain agreements had been reached between the two countries.
In 1924 Buckley was invited back to Mexico by President Plutarco Calles and returned for a visit, but in that year he transferred his Pantepec Oil Company to Venezuela. There, in a largely undeveloped oil region, he fully committed himself to oil exploration. As one of the first to use the "farm-out" system, Buckley made agreements with some of the largest oil companies, whereby the companies would take over the cost of exploring, drilling, and developing and would in turn share the profits from oil and gas produced on his concessions. He made his first major deal, with Standard Oil, in the 1930s when a large oilfield was found on Pantepec's Venezuelan concessions. Other major producers followed. During his entire career Buckley was primarily interested in unexplored territory, and in 1946 he began a diversification of his oil holdings with the forming of separate companies. Operations assumed an international scale with the leasing of land in Canada, Florida, Ecuador, Australia, the Philippines, Israel, and Guatemala.
In 1922 Buckley gave to the University of Texas his extensive files covering the tumultuous years of Mexican history from the time of his stay in that country. Included in the gift were thirty-five scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and 300 folders containing copies of Buckley's confidential reports, annotated letters, statements, interviews, and other papers. In 1925, over the opposition of the university's librarian, Ernest W. Winkler, the entire collection was sent to Washington, D.C., for use by the State Department's Mixed Claims Commission (United States and Mexico). It was finally returned at the request of the University of Texas in 1929. The papers are housed in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.
Buckley was married to Aloise Steiner of New Orleans in 1917. A widely read man and always concerned with learning, he closely supervised the trilingual education of their ten children during the years the family lived in Paris, London, and the United States. In the 1920s he purchased the family estate, Great Elm, in Sharon, Connecticut, and later, for a winter home, the estate Kamschatka in Camden, South Carolina. Several of William and Aloise Buckley's children became national figures: James Buckley was elected to the United States Senate, and William F. Buckley, Jr., became a nationally known writer, editor, and speaker for the conservative view in politics. Fergus Reid Buckley, another son, is a journalist and novelist. Priscilla Buckley pursued a career in journalism and was managing editor of the National Review for decades. Patricia Buckley was a free-lance book editor in 1986. Members of the family also continued in active operation of the Buckley oil business.
After a stroke on board the S.S. United States, between Paris and New York in late September 1958, William F. Buckley was given the last rites of the Catholic Church; he died in Lenox Hill Hospital in New York on October 5, 1958, and was buried in the Quaker Cemetery near his winter home in Camden, South Carolina.