Kenedy County, on U.S. Highway 77 south of Corpus Christi in the Rio Grande Plain region of South Texas, was named for pioneer rancher Mifflin Kenedy. It is bordered by Kleberg County on the north, the Gulf of Mexico on the east, Willacy County on the south, and Hidalgo and Brooks counties on the west. The center point of the county is 26°55' north latitude and 97°40' west longitude. Sarita, in northern Kenedy County, is the county seat and largest town. Other communities include Armstrong, Turcotte, Norias, and Rudolph. The county comprises 1,389 square miles, with elevations ranging from sea level to 100 feet. The soils are generally sandy with areas of light-colored loamy surfaces over very deep reddish or mottled clayey subsoils. Along the Gulf Coast the soils are sandy and salty, with areas of gray to black, cracking clay. Less than 1 percent of the county is considered prime farmland. Most of Kenedy County is covered with brush and scrubby mesquite, with some huisache, acacia, post oak, and live oak. Tall bunchgrasses, such as the seacoast bluestem, are found along the coast, as well as cordgrasses, saltgrass, and marsh millet. Temperatures range from an average low of 47° F in January to an average high of 96° in July; the average annual temperature is 73°. Rainfall averages twenty-six inches a year, and the average growing season is 319 days. Mineral resources include oil and natural gas.
The area has been the site of human habitation for perhaps 11,000 years. Among the oldest artifacts found in the county are stone implements and human remains dating from the Paleo-Indian period (9200 to 6000 B.C.). During the Archaic period (6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000) the local Indian population seems to have increased, and small bands of hunter-gatherers apparently frequented the area, subsisting on game, wild fruits, seeds, and roots. These early peoples carved tools from wood and stone, wove baskets, and made rabbitskin clothing. The hunting and gathering way of life persisted into the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to the arrival of the Spanish), though during this time the Indians in the area, who belonged to the Coahuiltecan linguistic group, learned to make pottery and hunted with bows and arrows. By the early 1800s the local Coahuiltecans had succumbed to disease, intermarried with the Spanish, or been driven out by the Lipan Apaches.
Though occasional Spanish expeditions crossed the area during the early eighteenth century, the region remained uninhabited by Europeans until the late colonial period. Between the mid-1740s and the early 1750s José de Escandón made several excursions to the lower Rio Grande valley and introduced settlers to the area along the river, but the closest settlement, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Reynosa, was about fifty miles to the southwest in Tamaulipas. About sixteen land grants were made in the Kenedy County area by the Spanish and Mexican governments. The earliest, Agostadero de San Juan de Carricitos, made to José Nicolás Cabazos in February 1792, comprised more than a half million acres, including parts of the future Willacy, Hidalgo, and Kenedy counties. Cabazos established a ranch and stocked it with 900 cattle. Another early grant was San Salvador del Tule, made to Juan José Ballí in November 1797. During the Mexican period the number of ranches in the area grew, but hostile Indians and the political turmoil that followed the Texas Revolution forced many families to abandon their ranches.
American settlement in the region was slow but increased after the Mexican War. New settlers were generally welcomed by the Mexican rancheros, and a number of the newcomers married into prominent local families.Ethnic relations began to change during the second half of the nineteenth century, however, when steadily growing numbers of Anglo-Americans began to settle in South Texas. Increasingly, Mexican landholding families found their titles in jeopardy in the courts or were subjected to violence. The so-called "skinning wars" of the early 1870s were indicative of mounting ethnic and racial tensions in the area. Because of rising prices for hides and the large number of mavericks, or free-ranging cattle, some ranchers went on skinning raids, killing the animals and taking their hides, a practice that often pitted Mexican and Anglo ranchers against each other. Tensions grew in 1875 after a group of Anglos attacked several ranches in the future Kenedy County in retaliation for raids made by Mexican ranchers. Vigilantes and outlaws from Corpus Christ raided the area, killing virtually all of the adult males on four ranches-La Atravesada, El Peñascal, Corral de Piedra, and El Mesquite-and burning the stores and buildings; many of the remaining Mexican rancheros were forced out. One vaquero who witnessed the raids later recalled that "there were many small ranches belonging to Mexicans, but the Americans came in and drove them out....after that they fenced the ranches...[including] some land that wasn't theirs."
Kenedy County, among the last Texas counties formed, was not established until 1921, when Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo counties were reorganized. The stated reason for the county's formation was the considerable distance to the county seats of the other counties. But perhaps more important was the attempt of ranching interests to stave off the growing power of farmers who were beginning to develop the Rio Grande valley. The new county seat was established at Sarita, where John G. Kenedy, son of Mifflin Kenedy, had built his headquarters. Since that time the county has changed little. Although Kenedy County was a ranching area from the advent of the Spanish to the early 1990s, there have never been more than twenty-five ranches in the county, and most of the land still remains in the hands of the Armstrong, King, Kenedy, and Yturria interests. In 1930 there were thirteen ranches in Kenedy County, with an average size of 61,500 acres. By 1945, after several consolidations, there were only seven ranches, averaging 70,130 acres. During the peak years of ranching there were more than 80,000 head of cattle in the county. Althoughthat number subsequently decreased, the county remains an important ranching center. Small amounts of sorghum, hay, and cotton are grown, but livestock and livestock products still account for more than 90 percent of agricultural receipts. In the early 1990s about three-fourths of the land was in farms and ranches, with less than 1 percent under cultivation. Oil was discovered in the county in 1947, and in the early 1990s oil and natural gas accounted for the largest source of nonfarm earnings. Production of crude oil in 1990 was 643,446 barrels; between 1947 and January 1, 1991, a total of 31,800,494 barrels was produced.
The same families that helped Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King to build their empires continue to work on the ranches. In Kenedy County locals are still sometimes identified as Kiñenos and Kenedanos, as workers at the King or Kenedy ranches. These individuals are tied to those ranches by generations of tradition, and as late as the 1990s their lives had changed little. Until very recently most Kiñenos and Kenedanos were uneducated; only 15 percent of the population over twenty-five had received a high school education in the mid-1970s. There was little opportunity for economic advancement, and many county residents stayed on the ranch for their entire lives. Traditionally the children of these individuals, boys especially, were encouraged to train in specific ranching techniques and take over their parents' roles. This system provided a constant labor supply for the ranches and helped to control wages to the benefit of the ranches' owners. This pattern began to change in the later twentieth century, but income and adult education levels in the county remained among the lowest in the state.
Between 1940 and 1960 the population of Kenedy County grew from 700 to 884. Afterward, it steadily declined; in 1990 the county had only 460 residents and was therefore one of the least populous counties in the state. Sarita, the only town of any size, had 185 inhabitants in 1990, when, with a population about 80 percent Hispanic, Kenedy County ranked near the top among all United States counties in percentage of Hispanic residents.
From the county's inception in 1924 (the first year the county participated in a presidential election) through 2004 Kenedy County residents have voted Democratic in most presidential elections, the exceptions being the elections of 1940, 1944, 1952, 1956, 1972, and 1984. For many years the county was run by a political machine, and the nominees favored by the machine were elected. Though the power of the machine has declined, the old elite still controls most local offices. In the early 1990s the county had one school district with two elementary schools. Two percent of the students were White, and 98 percent were Hispanic. Kenedy County also had two churches with an estimated combined membership of approximately 450; most residents were Catholic.
The U.S. census counted 400 people living in Kenedy County in 2014. About 75.2 percent were Hispanic and 20.4 percent were Anglo. Of residents age twenty-five and older, 58 percent had completed high school and 20 percent had college degrees. In the early twenty-first century ranching, oil and gas production, hunting leases and ecotourism were important elements of the local economy. In 2002 the county had 28 ranches covering 474,073 acres, 98 percent of which were devoted pasture. That year ranchers in the area earned $8,982,000; livestock sales accounted for the county’s entire agricultural income. Beef cattle were the chief agricultural product. More than 356,000 barrels of oil, and 66,023,029 thousand cubic feet of gas well gas, were produced in the county in 2004; by the end of that year 39,040,143 barrels of petroleum had been taken from county lands since 1947.
Sarita (population, 246) remains the seat of government; other communities are Norias and Armstrong. Recreational facilities in the county include Padre Island National Seashore and 125 acres of fresh water. Extensive hunting, fishing, and birdwatching opportunities lure numerous visitors.