The 825,000-acre King Ranch covers nearly 1,300 square miles, an area larger than the entire state of Rhode Island, on four separate Divisions of land known as Santa Gertrudis, Laureles, Norias, and Encino. These four Divisions are located in six South Texas counties: Brooks, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, and Willacy. The Ranch had its beginning in 1852, when Richard King and Gideon K. Lewis 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 Mexican land grant, Santa Gertrudis de la Garza 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 acquired Lewis's half interest in the Rincón grant at a public sale. On December 5, 1860, Mifflin Kenedy, with whom King had been associated in a steam boating business, bought an interest in the Ranch. At that time all titles were put under the business name R. King and Company. King and Kenedy dissolved their partnership in 1868, and King retained Santa Gertrudis. That same year King fenced in a tract of his ranch that surrounded the Santa Gertrudis headquarters. During the rest of his life, King would purchase sixty additional pieces of land and amass vast land holdings throughout South Texas.
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. The now-famous Running W appeared in the 1860s and was registered on February 9, 1869, as the official brand for King Ranch—a mark that is still used today. To aid in the running of the Ranch, King brought approximately 100 men, women, and children he encountered on a cattle buying trip in Mexico to help tend his herds. From the beginning, these people have been known as los Kineños, or “King’s men.”
Shortly after Captain King’s death on April 14, 1885, his wife, Henrietta, retained the Ranch’s legal adviser and her future son-in-law, Robert Justus Kleberg, Sr., [II], as manager. Kleberg married the Kings’ youngest daughter, Alice, the next year. One of the greatest contributions 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. [III], became Ranch manager in 1918. Under the terms of Henrietta Chamberlain King’s will, the Ranch was incorporated with the Kleberg descendants as its stockholders.
The foundation stock of King Ranch was the Longhorn; many head were bought in Mexico. In 1872 King bought several Brahman bulls. In the 1880s Shorthorns and Herefords 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, officially recognized as a breed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1940. During the first part of the twentieth century, King Ranch became a diversified enterprise. While continuing to develop its cattle activities, centered on the Santa Gertrudis breed, the Ranch began to both breed and race quarter horses and thoroughbreds and began oil and gas production. The pinnacle of the Ranch’s thoroughbred operation was Assault winning the Triple Crown in 1946. Four years later, in 1950, Middleground won both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. The Ranch also expanded its cattle operation for a time to include property in four U.S. states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Mississippi) and seven foreign countries (Cuba, Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Spain, and Morocco).
During the early twentieth century, King Ranch developed many environmental stewardship practices and a strong commitment to wildlife conservation and habitat maintenance. Some sections of the Ranch became wildlife preserves for deer, quail, ducks, wild turkeys, and Nilgai antelope. The Ranch employed Valgene W. Lehmann as a conservationist in 1945 and placed strict game restrictions on its properties.
As early as 1919 the Ranch had a lease with Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil), 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. An 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 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. King Ranch also entered the timber industry and real estate business in 1967, when it purchased 50,340 acres of timberland in Harris, Montgomery, Liberty, and San Jacinto counties. That became a joint venture between Exxon’s Friendswood subsidiary and King Ranch, which ultimately became the Kingwood Development.
Cattle operations of 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 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 approximately eight million acres of land. By 1958 King Ranch also had cattle ranges of 147,000 acres in Brazil 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, Jr., died in 1974, James H. Clement became CEO and later retired in 1988. Darwin Smith took over and was the first head who was not related to founder Richard King by blood or marriage. This began the transition to a professionally managed, but family-owned enterprise with the headquarters now in Houston. Jack Hunt became CEO in 1996 and returned the focus of the enterprise to agriculture and specifically managing large parcels of agricultural based properties. Upon his retirement in 2009, he was succeeded by today’s CEO, Robert J. Underbrink. King Ranch has long held significant retail interests in Kingsville, a town surrounded by King Ranch lands. The Ranch has long supported the educational programs of the University of Texas at Austin with an Endowed Professorship in McCombs Graduate School of Business and agricultural programs at Texas A&M University, both at College Station and Kingsville. Two very important parts of this effort are the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Institute and the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management providing research and leadership training in the wildlife and cattle ranching sectors.
While becoming a vast enterprise of agribusiness and land resource assets, King Ranch has also become a popular tourist destination. Visitors arrive at King Ranch each year to enjoy the agricultural, wildlife, and historical tours through this cornerstone of American culture. With its fascinating history and ongoing success, King Ranch has made the transition from a frontier ranch to a modern corporation. Its situation is unique: it is one of the largest privately held corporations in the United States—and its Home Ranches are designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Today’s King Ranch has diversified and grown into a major agribusiness corporation, with interests in cattle ranching and feedlot operations, farming (cotton, grain, sugar cane, sweet corn, and turf grass), citrus groves, pecan processing and sales, commodity marketing and processing, and recreational hunting. Its retail operations include luggage, leather goods and home furnishings, farm equipment, commercial printing, and ecotourism. In addition, since 2001 Ford Motor Company has been producing the highly successful F Series King Ranch edition pickup. King Ranch brand recognition continues to expand internationally through its licensing agreement with Ford. See also HORSE AND MULE INDUSTRY.