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Born a minister’s daughter in Missouri in 1832, Henrietta Chamberlain went east to a boarding school and expected to follow the family pattern and marry a minister. Instead she married a boat captain and speculator with little education and a tendency to swear loudly. The man was Richard King.
When King died in 1883, Henrietta inherited about a half million acres of land and half a million dollars in debts, but under her stewardship the King Ranch became perhaps the most famous ranch in the world.
But first, the romance. Henrietta’s father moved to Brownsville in 1849. They lived on a houseboat docked in the space Captain Richard King thought reserved for his ship. Family lore says he cursed at the boat in his spot when he tried to dock. Henrietta scolded him for indecent language, and he fell instantly in love.
They saw each other infrequently. Richard was delivering supplies along the Rio Grande or exploring the South Texas brush country where he bought land. Once, he purchased almost all of the cattle and horses available in the Mexican town of Cruillas, leaving the townspeople no way of earning a living, so most of the town moved with him in one big procession remembered as La Entrada. The people became Los Kineños, the “King men”; their descendants still live on the ranch.
When in he was in Brownsville, Richard saw Henrietta as often as he could. Henrietta was engaged to another man, but she broke off the engagement, and Richard proposed to her. They married December 10, 1854, and went to his Santa Gertrudis Ranch for their honeymoon.
The ranch had few buildings, and Henrietta learned to live without even the small comforts of a border city. Los Kineños called her La Patrona because she took care of them and their children, although she was strict with them. She allowed no cursing or drinking. The Kings kept a house in Brownsville, and their first children were born there, but Henrietta had come to love the ranch. She always hurried back to it as soon as she could. In 1858, Richard built the first permanent home on the ranch.
Richard King was a loyal Southerner. During the Civil War, when Union ships blockaded Brownsville, he carried cotton across the ranch in wagons to British ships waiting in Mexican ports. He also rounded up cattle to ship to England. When Union soldiers attacked the ranch, he was away gathering cattle. After the attack, Henrietta took the children to San Patricio and then San Antonio, uncertain of the whereabouts of her husband, who had joined the Confederate Army. When they were reunited, Richard gave Henrietta a pair of diamond earrings that she wore for the rest of her life.
The ranch prospered in the years of cattle drives, but when the Kings lost their son, Robert E. Lee King, to pneumonia in 1883, Richard wanted to sell the land. Henrietta reminded him of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s words to him, “Never sell.”
In 1885, when Richard died of stomach cancer, Henrietta asked Robert Kleberg, a lawyer married to her daughter Alice, to run the ranch. They began to pay off debts and buy more land. Her grandsons developed Santa Gertrudis cattle, a cross of Brahman and shorthorn breeds that thrived in South Texas, dipped cattle into vats to prevent ticks, and proved that artesian wells could bring water to South Texas.
In 1912, the main house at the Santa Gertrudis Ranch burned. Henrietta built a new, larger, fireproof house, the “Big House.” During the 1916 uprisings in Mexico, bandidos stole livestock and killed King Ranch cowboys. The ranch was raided 26 times, but she refused to leave.
Henrietta King died in 1925. More than 200 Kineños attended her funeral on horseback, each man cantering around the open grave once, hat at his side as a salute. Henrietta King left her family—and Texas—a remarkable legacy that lives on in her philanthropy and is celebrated at the Henrietta Memorial Center (named for her granddaughter) in Kingsville. Today the ranch encompasses 825,000 acres.
For information on tours of the King Ranch, go to http://www.king-ranch.com.
Judy Alter is director of TCU Press.