For 40 years Henrietta King was sole owner of the largest ranch in North America, presiding with both moral authority and business acumen.
Henrietta was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who moved his family from Tennessee to Brownsville. They were living on a houseboat when it was nearly rammed by steamboat captain Richard King. King let loose a volley of cuss words until 17-year-old Henrietta stepped on deck to reprimand him. From this encounter sprang a four-year courtship between the seasoned frontiersman and prim Victorian lass. In December 1854, Reverend Chamberlain officiated at his daughter’s marriage to Richard King.
King brought his bride to inhabit his newly claimed tract on Wild Horse Prairie. Their first home was a mud-and-stick jacal so small that they hung their cooking pots outside the door. Wild Horse Prairie in that era was dangerous and disputed territory. On one occasion Henrietta looked up from bread-making to see an Indian brandish his tomahawk above her sleeping baby. She hastily handed him some bread, and he left.
During the Civil War, King was involved in smuggling Confederate cotton to Mexico. Told that Union troops were marching to arrest him, King fled forthwith, enjoining a Mexican man to protect his family. Soldiers shot the guard dead on the porch, then proceeded to ransack the dwelling before Henrietta’s eyes. Soon thereafter she gathered the children and took shelter in San Patricio, where she gave birth to a son.
When Richard King died in 1885, Henrietta, age 53, took the helm of the ranch. For the rest of her life, she wore widow’s black. As before, she made arrangements for health care and education of the Mexican ranch hands. She adopted many Mexican folkways and spoke Spanish on the range. True to her Presbyterian heritage, she forbade drinking, swearing, and card-playing among the Kineños.
With son-in-law Robert Kleberg as manager, the ranch expanded its holdings to more than one million acres and developed a new breed of cattle that could withstand Texas heat. Henrietta eventually moved to Corpus Christi, where she donated to churches, schools, and railroads. At her funeral, 200 ranch hands rode round her coffin in salute.
I doubt if it falls to the lot of any a bride to have so happy a honeymoon. On horseback, we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired, my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me, and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquite tree.