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When Richard King rode the 165 dusty miles from Brownsville to Corpus Christi in 1852, he knew absolutely nothing about cattle or ranching. But he recognized a pot at the end of the rainbow when he saw it. 

COVER: Cowhands wrangle a handful of longhorn cattle on the King Ranch in 1952, nearly seven decades after the death of Richard King, the penniless immigrant who built the famous 1,400-square-mile ranch that spans parts of six counties. PHOTO by HARVEY PATTESON & SON PHOTOGRAPHERS VIA TEXAS STATE LIBRARIES AND ARCHIVES COMMISSION

This Week in Texas History: A column

An Irish immigrant, who escaped a tenement hell to create an empire as big as Texas, took his last breath on Apr. 14, 1885.

The Kings were destitute refugees from the Emerald Isle trapped in the dead-end poverty of the New York slums. Eleven year old Richard was apprenticed to a jeweler in 1835, but the moment his keeper turned his back the headstrong boy ran away.

The youngster roamed the Atlantic seaboard before finally settling in Florida, where he grew up on the rivers. Displaying a natural talent for the helm, he became a skilled steamboat pilot while still in his teens.

At 19 King met a riverboat captain named Mifflin Kenedy, a quiet Quaker seven years his senior who took his religion very seriously. King was the opposite — a hard-drinking veteran of the docks with a quick temper and fists to match. Yet, despite their differences, the friendship would last nearly half a century.

Two years later from the southern tip of the brand-new state of Texas, Kenedy sent word of the unlimited opportunities. An economic boom of epic proportions was in full swing on both sides of the border following the Mexican-American War. That was all King needed to hear, and he dropped what he was doing to join his pal at Boca Del Rio on the Gulf Coast not far from Brownsville.

For three years, they hauled freight up and down the Rio Grande before forming M. Kenedy & Co. with money put up by Charles Stillman, one of the wealthiest men in Texas. With the two captains in charge of the day-to-day operation, the thriving enterprise soon had a monopoly on everything that moved on the river.

When Richard King rode the 165 dusty miles from Brownsville to Corpus Christi in 1852, he was already a prosperous businessman with a rock-solid future. The merchant prince knew absolutely nothing about cattle or ranching, but he recognized a pot at the end of the rainbow when he saw it.

South Texas in the mid-nineteenth century was a virtually vacant wasteland the Mexicans called El Deseirto de los Muertos, the Desert of the Dead. Outlaws and Indians had ruled the desolate domain for decades discouraging permanent settlement by all but the most determined homesteaders and small ranchers.

Landowners were anxious to sell, and titles were dirt cheap. King made his initial purchase in the summer of 1853 buying 15,500 acres for less than two cents apiece.

King’s original partner in his ranching venture was Legs Lewis, a Texas Ranger and colorful frontier character. Lewis organized a round-the-clock defense and did such an impressive job that desperadoes as well as Comanches gave the fortified spread a wide berth.

In 1854 the pair bought the first tract on Santa Gertrudis Creek, cornerstone of the giant King Ranch. But the next year the captain lost his right-hand man.

Shortly after Lewis announced his congressional candidacy, a Corpus Christi doctor threatened to knock the wheels off his political bandwagon. The physician accused the notorious womanizer of stealing his wife and claimed to have letters in the cattleman’s own handwriting to substantiate the charge. When Legs called upon the unhappy husband to retrieve the incriminating love notes, he was met at the door by a fatal shotgun blast.

While stationed at Brownsville in the late 1850’s, Lt. Robert E. Lee and Capt. King became close friends. The rancher never forgot the sage advice of the future commander of the Confederacy to “buy land and never sell,” and as a result his holdings steadily swelled.

In good times and bad, King always came out on top. During the Civil War, M. Kenedy and Co. made a huge fortune in contraband cotton. King was not opposed to fighting for his staunchly southern beliefs and for a mysterious 18 months allegedly fought with a guerrilla band behind Union lines.

After the defeat of Dixie, King obtained a presidential pardon with surprising ease. Turning his interest in the steamship company into a passive but still highly lucrative investment, he devoted his full attention to expanding the Santa Gertrudis.

Neither King nor Kenedy, who also had branched out into ranching, believed in the open range. When Kenedy fenced 131,000 acres of his Laureles Ranch in 1868, it was the largest enclosed area west of the Mississippi. King followed his example, and each strung the controversial barbed wire after its introduction in 1874.

In the 1870’s, Richard King took center stage as the biggest cattle raiser in the country. He ultimately owned 614,000 acres, a stupendous 1,400 square miles. At the time of his passing 129 years ago, the King Ranch boasted 40,000 head of cattle, 7,000 horses and 12,000 sheep. Not bad for a little Irish ragamuffin from the tenements of New York.

On his deathbed at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, the old riverboat captain left this final directive for his lawyer: “Not to let a foot of dear old Santa Gertrudis get away.” How happy King would be to know that his namesake spread is even bigger now than the day he died.

Syndicated columnist BARTEE HAILE has written about Texas history for the San Marcos Mercury since 2011. Haile welcomes your comments or questions by mail at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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