Richard King (1825-1885) became a legend of U.S. business when he created the largest cattle ranch in the United States during the 1850s. At its height the ranch extended over 1.25 million acres in South Texas, close to the Gulf of Mexico. King and his wife Henrietta founded the famous King Ranch with a purchase of 75,000 acres of land. They started with one small rugged house, which they constantly protected from thieves, cattle rustlers, hostile Native Americans, and a variety of trespassers. At his death in 1885 King's wife inherited the ranch and added thousands of acres to its region. Later heirs to the King Ranch continued to expand it until it became larger than the state of Rhode Island early in the twentieth century.
Richard King was born in 1825, from humble circumstances in Orange County, New York. At the age of eight his parents sent him to be apprenticed to a jeweler. The jeweler's harsh treatment caused King to run away, and he boarded a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama, where he signed on to become a cabin boy on a steamboat. During his time as a cabin boy he obtained eight months of formal education, the total extent of his schooling.
In 1847, at age twenty-two, King was drawn to the state of Texas. In Texas, King served as a pilot on a government steamship on the Rio Grande River. He later bought his own small steamer and engaged in trade on the Rio Grande. In 1850 a friend joined the venture, and they purchased 22 vessels. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) he traded with Mexico, exchanging cotton for supplies that would be given to the Confederate army. King spent 20 years as a steamboat captain in Texas. During that time he began plans for a great ranch in a region of Texas between the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers.
In 1852 King purchased a 75,000-acre tract of land southwest of Corpus Christi, Texas, formerly known as the Santa Gertrudis Ranch. King bought the land at a cheap price because it was situated in a perilous region of Texas. The area had once been a part of Mexico and many Mexicans still maintained it was rightfully theirs. The same area was also claimed by Native Americans, who said the land historically belonged to them. A lengthy struggle ensued over ownership, but no clear legal claim was established. Into this controversy stepped Richard and Henrietta King.
The Kings were tough and determined to survive. They did not let the controversy over the land dissuade them from the purchase. Once their ownership was established the Kings set up residence, ready to fight off trespassers. Richard King erected rendering houses on his ranch before the northern markets were open for Texas beef. He used animal fat to make candle tallow and sent the tallow and animal hides to market by ship. Cowboys later drove thousands of his cattle over the long trail from Texas to Kansas, where they were put aboard trains to be shipped East.
By 1876 King greatly increased the size of his ranch through land purchases. The number of cattle raised on the ranch also grew. At the same time he constructed his own railroad, which he used to ship cattle from his ranch to Laredo, Texas. From Laredo his train joined the main train routes to the east and north. His holdings at that point numbered 100,000 Texas Longhorn cattle, 20,000 sheep, and 10,000 horses.
King died in 1885 on his half-million acre ranch. The King family was then cross-breeding Brahman cattle with English shorthorns. They produced a new and popular breed of cattle called Santa Gertrudis, which was able to mature to full size while eating less range grass.
King's wife survived him and remained on the ranch. Henrietta King founded the Texas town of Kingsville on the King estate. She also built houses, schools, and churches. She gave a tract of land for the establishment of the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute. The Kings' five children continued to manage the ranch successfully.
By the middle of the twentieth century the King Ranch supplied much of the food and cowhide in the United States. It became a regional hub in Texas, where it transformed wild prairie into a populous and prosperous farming region.
- King Ranch: 100 Years of Ranching. Corpus Christi: Caller-Times, 1953.
- Cypher, John. Bob Kleberg and the King Ranch: A Worldwide Sea of Grass. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.
- Lea, Tom, Holland McCombs, and Francis L. Fugati. The King Ranch. Boston: Little Brown, 1957.
- Melouf, Dian Leatherberry. Cattle Kings of Texas. Hillsboro, OR: Beyond Words Pub., 1991.
- Monday, Jane C. and Betty B. Colley. Voices from the Wild Horse Desert: The Vaquero Families of the King and Kenedy Ranches. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.