Among the cattlemen who first rounded up the wild Spanish cattle from the open range of Texas, branded them, and built a fortune out of hard work and shrewd business sense were some of the great names of western history. Charles Goodnight was a Texas Ranger before ranching in the Panhandle and opening a new trail to supply beef to army forts and Indian reservations in New Mexico. Shanghai Pierce rounded up and shipped tens of thousands of longhorns, gathered an immense fortune, and made an effort to look and live like the poorest of his vaqueros. (He was reputed to have died with a firm grasp on the first dollar he ever made.) Though he carried huge sums of money about the banditinfested prairie, Shanghai Pierce never carried a weapon on the theory that the most bloodthirsty robber would not kill an unarmed man. Shaky as the theory seems, it worked, for he died an old man of natural causes.
The most famous and most successful of the great cattle barons of Texas was not a cowboy, not even a westerner, but a steamboat pilot from the East. Richard King was born in New York City. Little is known of his parents. He may have been the child of Irish immigrants, for his speech had an Irish turn of phrase. When he was eleven years old, he ran away from a jeweler's workshop where he was an apprentice and stowed away on a ship bound for Mobile, Alabama. Discovered early in the voyage, he talked his way into a job as cabin boy. The ship's captain taught him to read and write and to do the arithmetic necessary for navigation. By the time he was nineteen, he had a pilot's license to navigate steamboats on the rivers along the Florida Panhandle coast of the Gulf of Mexico. There he met a Quaker named Mifflin Kenedy, an older and better educated steamboat pilot. Captain Kenedy signed up with the U. S. Army Engineers to supply by steamboat the troops of General Zachary Taylor camped on the Rio Grande and preparing for a war with Mexico. He took Richard King with him as pilot of the steamboat Corvette.
During the Mexican War, Captain King moved troops and supplies up and down the river from the mouth as far upstream as Camargo, on the Mexican side. When the war ended in November, 1847, he had not suffered an accident, an unheard-of record on that treacherous river. He and Captain Kenedy and a succession of business partners had a monopoly on steamboating on the Rio Grande. During the next twenty-four years they operated twenty-six boats.
In April, 1852, Captain King rode overland across the strip between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande to attend the state fair at Corpus Christi. Camping on Santa Gertrudis Creek, he was struck by the abundance of good fresh water in a sea of grass swarming with unbranded wild cattle.
The only drawback was that bandits, rustlers, and hostile Indians had spotted the same opportunity and were not above mixing a few branded cattle in with the unbranded mavericks they rounded up. In that chaotic day, a brand meant nothing unless the rancher had some tough and heavily armed vaqueros to protect it.
Captain King showed the kind of business sense that was to make him the undisputed first among the Texas cattle barons. For two cents an acre, he bought 15,500 acres of the grassland about forty-five miles southwest of Corpus Christi, but only after going into partnership with Gideon K. "Legs" Lewis, who very conveniently was captain of a company of Texas Rangers. While Captain Lewis's hard-boiled Rangers patrolled the countryside, sweeping it clear of rustlers, Captain King built dams on small creeks to make ponds that could water a thousand head of cattle at a time.
From the beginning, though he never learned to speak good Spanish, Captain King depended heavily on Mexican vaqueros for his work force. When the Ranger company disbanded, he used his Mexican connections as a spy network to report any strangers that might threaten his herds. He built a blockhouse and set up a loaded cannon. As foremen for his Mexican riders, he hired vaqueros with reputations as tough hombres, and let the word leak out that his ranch was an armed camp and his cowboys ready for any kind of fight. As a consequence, he didn't have any trouble, for bandits wisely hit weaker settlements.
When a drouth hit the area, instead of cutting down his herds as other ranchers were doing, he bought thousands of new cattle at low prices, risking the savings of a lifetime of steamboating on the chance the drouth would soon end. He bought the entire herd of one Mexican village. Because there was no reason for the village to exist without its cattle, he moved the whole population to the fortified strong point at Santa Gertrudis and signed them on as ranch hands. He won his bet on the weather when heavy rains came.
His partner Lewis was killed in a private quarrel, but Captain King thought he was strong enough to go it alone, with the help of the U. S. Army border guard, of course. He had not counted on the stupidity of the general commanding the U. S. Army on that frontier.
Just as Mexico declared a six-mile-wide belt along the Rio Grande free of customs inspection, creating a vacuum of authority sure to suck in every smuggler, rustler, and cutthroat in Mexico and Texas, General David E. Twiggs withdrew all army troops. "There is not, nor ever has been, any danger of the Mexicans crossing on our side of the river to plunder or disturb its inhabitants," said the supremely mistaken general.
However, bandits ran wild in the Nueces Strip between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, skinning cattle, raiding ranches, looting, and killing. Among them, the undisputed leader was Juan Nepomuceno Cortinas, a red-haired and fair-skinned Mexican given to the wearing of military dress. He had been born in Texas to a rich family.
Despite his high-born background he never learned to read and write, but he was a crack shot and a recklessly courageous leader of his own people. Defending his own ranch, he wiped out a band of hostile Indians, probably the very last of the once-powerful tribe of Karankawas.
On July 13, 1859, he was sharing coffee with some of his cronies at a cafe in Brownsville, Texas. The town marshall arrived to arrest a drunken Mexican who had once been Juan's servant. The city marshall slapped his Mexican prisoner about and Cortinas asked him to be more polite. The marshall made the grave mistake of underrating the red-haired Mexican and abused him verbally. Cortinas shot him through the shoulder, loaded the drunken ex-servant behind him on his horse, and dashed out of town.
News of his defense of a simple Mexican spread like a prairie fire. Recruits poured into his rancho (on the Texas side of the river) offering to join forces against the gringos. On September 28, 1859, Cortinas and a hundred men captured Brownsville, killed five men, freed prisoners from the city jail, and threw the region as far as King's ranch into an uproar.
Brownsville merchants sent a punitive force against the Cortinas ranch. The patrol was made up of sixty Mexican-Americans, twenty gringos, and a company of Mexican Army infantry lent by authorities across the border in an extraordinary gesture of friendship. Cortinas bushwhacked the column and drove them back in disorder, capturing the two cannon they had brought along.
After his victory at the ranch, Cortinas rampaged about the countryside, sowing anarchy and terror. A company of Texas Rangers under Captain W. G. Tobin arrived to police the country, but they appear to have been a band of lawless toughs led by an incompetent. They added nothing to the generally glorious history of the Texas Rangers. On the first Ranger march against the bandit chieftain, Cortinas trounced them soundly, killing three Rangers. He gained tremendous prestige among Mexicans for whipping not just Texans, but actual Texas Rangers.
Upstate the governor called back to service a famed Ranger veteran, John Ford, known as Rip Ford. He started with only eight men but on his sweep southward picked up a full company of heavily-armed recruits. His reputation as a hard-fighting Ranger during the Mexican War put heart into the ranchers and townfolk of the Nueces Strip when they heard he was on the way.
The U. S. Army also belatedly decided it had business after all in the Nueces country. One hundred regulars under Major Samuel Heintzelman at Fort Brown replaced the Mexican soldiers so graciously lent by the Republic to prevent the sack of Brownsville. Beefed up by Tobin's Rangers, the regulars attacked Cortinas at a crude fort in the brush and drove him off. He did not act like a defeated leader, however, for he ravaged the countryside up the Rio Grande, pillaging Rio Grande City, Texas, on Christmas Day, 1859.
Unknown to Cortinas, a real Ranger leader had arrived on the scene. Ford's company had arrived too late for Major Heintzelman's first battle, but the two joined forces to bring on another and more decisive battle upstream. Marching ahead, the Rangers encountered the bandit army first and clashed with Cortinas near Laredo. Though heavily outnumbered, the Rangers shattered a bandit charge and drove the force across the river into Mexico before the army reinforcements could arrive on the scene.
Encouraged by the battle, the captain of one of the steamboats owned by Captain King (and his several partners) ventured a trip on the river to carry $60,000 in gold from Rio Grande City to Brownsville. Cortinas openly built a fort at a sharp bend in the river and manned it with a bandit force to capture the steamboat when it slowed for the bend.
The steamboat captain had taken aboard the two cannon captured from Cortinas at Laredo, and Captain Ford crossed a large band of Rangers into Mexico. When the battle opened, a storm of grapeshot from the cannon forced the bandits to huddle out of sight behind their fort while the Rangers circled around the fort and took them from the rear. The bandits fled, Cortinas the last to leave the field after emptying his pistol at the Rangers. Captain King's steamboat was saved and the company resumed full service on the river.
Two years later during the Civil War, Cortinas tried to resume his banditry, but he ran into a band of irregular cavalry, much like a Ranger company, made up of Chicanos and led by a gallant soldier named Captain Santos Benavides. The Mexican-American cavalrymen soundly thrashed Cortinas and chased him across the river for the duration of the war.
The outbreak of war in 1861 virtually killed the cattle market. Rip Ford at the head of a scratched-together Texas force seized all the Union strong points on the Rio Grande, however, and thus opened a new trade for Captain King. The port of Bagdad just across the Rio Grande in Mexico became a major Confederate outlet for trade with the world after the Union navy blockaded all the ports within the southern states. Captain King's Santa Gertrudis ranch became the main warehouse for transport of cotton from the farmlands farther north and east to the buyers from British and French cotton mills across the river in Mexico.
Confederate leaders in far-off Richmond never got through their heads the tremendous importance of their lands west of the Mississippi River. They stripped the Rio Grande of its defenses to beef up their forces farther north, so that the mouth of the Rio Grande fell easily to a Union invasion force. The fleeing Confederates passed through the King ranch. The only effective Confederate force left in the Nueces Strip was the Chicano cavalry company of Captain Benavides, who took over the transport of cotton across the river far upstream from the Union force. The cotton went by road down the Mexican bank to Bagdad. Unable to operate against Benavides in the desert upriver, the Union general decided to choke off the cotton trade by attacking the King ranch. He sent sixty soldiers against Santa Gertrudis. Captain King got word immediately through his Chicano spy network and left the ranch in charge of his foreman Francisco Alvarado.
At dawn, Union soldiers fired into the ranch house. Alvarado went to the porch to shout. "Don't fire on this house. There is a family here." He fell dead with a bullet through the heart. The troops plundered the ranch before leaving. It happened to be Christmas Eve.
As often happens, Ford had been so brilliant a soldier in the field that he was promoted to a desk job where his combat talents were wasted. After the fall of Brownsville to the Union army, however, the governor of Texas called him back into field service. He drove the Union forces back to a bare toehold at the mouth of the river, recaptured Captain King's steamboats, set up a chain of relay stations between Brownsville and Santa Gertrudis, and reopened a brisk cotton trade. Though the Confederacy collapsed in April, 1865, and the struggle was officially over, Ford had not received the word and on May 13, 1865, he routed a Union force in the last battle of the war.
Captain King fled to Matamoros in Mexico, just across the river from Brownsville. At a meeting with victorious Union officials, he agreed to return to Texas and help restore normal government and commerce. Captain King had profited handsomely from the cotton trade during the war. He foresaw the death of steamboating as railroads expanded and turned his attention almost entirely to ranching. He profited from the ownerless cattle delivered to him without cost by the big blizzard during the winter of 1863-1864. This terrible storm had driven immense numbers of cattle from the north, across the unfenced range, to pile up on the Gulf of Mexico coast.
Even before the invention of barbed wire, Captain King began closing in his lands with fences, a shocking expense to old-fashioned ranchers who preferred to let their cattle run free to graze any land they chose till roundup time. Those cattle running free, most of them unbranded because the cowboys had been off to war, again created an irresistible temptation to bandits. When Cortinas returned this time, he was a brigadier general in the Mexican army. He organized banditry as a kind of Mexican mafia, stocked four of his ranches with stolen Texas cattle, and shipped thousands more from Bagdad to Havana to feed the Spanish army.
The King ranch lost approximately fifty-four thousand head despite the fences and armed patrols. Captain King rode with a double-barrelled shotgun loaded with buckshot (he never trusted a six-shooter) and he mounted two cannon at the ranch. He bought thirty rifles and hired gunmen to strengthen his vaquero force.
Almost as dangerous as the bandit hordes were vigilante companies who hanged Mexicans at random with no evidence of guilt and took revenge on gringo enemies under the guise of enforcing the law. Ranchers fled the Nueces Strip, and it was fast reverting to desert.
In June, 1875, a Ranger company under Captain Leander McNelly arrived at the King ranch with the sole mission of cleaning out the bandits. Captain King replaced their horses with fresh mounts and promised them all-out support. Almost immediately, Captain McNelly wiped out a bandit gang and recovered a stolen herd just outside Brownsville. His Rangers campaigned along the Rio Grande and finally crossed the river in pursuit of a stolen herd. In a comic opera war with a bandit force that claimed to be part of the Mexican National Guard - which indeed they may have been since Cortinas the bandit chief was also an army officer - Captain McNelly forced the Mexicans to return some of the stolen cattle. Among them were thirty-five wearing the King Ranch brand.
When Porfirio Diaz seized power in Mexico, he kicked Cortinas upstairs to an honorary position in Mexico City, which was really a form of house arrest. On his side of the river, the Mexican dictator established the Rurales, patrols of mounted Federal police much like the Texas Rangers. Because of ruthless executions of bandits by Rurales and Rangers, and with Cortinas off the scene, the region returned to comparative peace.
An example of the new tasks facing the Nueces country: Captain King hired several of McNelly's Rangers as cowhands to help round up the tens of thousands of cattle and move them 1,100 miles north to the railroad at Abilene, Kansas. With his profits, Captain King steadily acquired more land. At his death in 1885 his ranch covered almost 1,000 square miles and was 91 percent as large as the entire state of Rhode Island. No other American cattle baron ever ruled over so vast a region. And so wisely had the steamboat captain planned ahead that his cattle kingdom exists intact today.
This national landmark got its start in 1853 when Capt. Richard King purchased a 15,500-acre Mexican land grant known as the Rincon de Santa Gertrudis for $300. Paying less than two cents an acre for one of the rare well-watered tracts in the Desert of the Dead was typical of the shrewd riverboat captain, who ranked as the wealthiest man in Texas at the time of his death in 1885. His heirs showed similar acumen, expanding their holdings, paying down debts, and forging long-term relationships with companies such as Humble Oil and its successor, Exxon-Mobil. Worth noting: King Ranch produced the first registered American quarter horse, two breeds of cattle, and a Triple Crown winner, Assault.
Following the death of Richard King's widow, a substantial number of heirs joined together to maintain the King Ranch legacy. Alice Gertrudis Kleberg East, however, eventually cashed in her interests and received two ranches of her own: the San Antonio Viejo and the Santa Fe. They now belong to her descendants.
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