Stories of the men and women who make ranching possible in the Wild Horse Desert.
Founded before the Civil War, the King and Kenedy Ranches have become legendary for their size, their wealth, and their endless herds of cattle. A major factor in the longevity of these ranches has always been the loyal workforce of vaqueros (Mexican and Mexican American cowboys) and their families. Some of the vaquero families have worked on the ranches through five or six generations.
In this book, Jane Clements Monday and Betty Bailey Colley bring together the voices of these men and women who make ranching possible in the Wild Horse Desert. From 1989 to 1995, the authors interviewed more than sixty members of vaquero families, ranging in age from 20 to 93. Their words provide a panoramic view of ranch work and life that spans most of the twentieth century.
The vaqueros and their families describe all aspects of life on the ranches, from working cattle and doing many kinds of ranch maintenance to the home chores of raising children, cooking, and cleaning. The elders recall a life of endless manual labor that nonetheless afforded the satisfaction of jobs done with skill and pride. The younger people describe how modernization has affected the ranches and changed the lifeways of the people who work there.
Citation Award, 1998 San Antonio Conservation Society
- Foreword by Stephen J. "Tio" Kleberg
- Introduction by Ana Carolina Castillo Crimm
- 1. Round 'Em Up, Move 'Em Out
- 2. From Longhorns to King Ranch Santa Cruz, Mustangs to Quarter Horses
- 3. Growing Up on the Wild Horse Desert
- 4. The Vaquero Family
- 5. Into the Twenty-first Century
- Appendix A: Individuals Interviewed
- Appendix B: Individuals Referenced
When Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy established their ranches on the lands of the Wild Horse Desert in 1854 and 1860, respectively, their success was predicated not on their visions and dreams alone, for neither was knowledgeable of the livestock industry, but on the partnership which they formed with their Mexican labor force, the Kineños and Kenedeños. The wisdom and skill of their employees, combined with the willingness of both King and Kenedy to give them complete trust and responsibility, created the King and Kenedy Ranches and crowned with success the efforts of both owners and employees. This unity of purpose and melding of efforts by an unusual combination of labor and management are rare among capitalistic ventures and are rarer still in agricultural enterprises such as the Mexican haciendas from which King's and Kenedy's ideas sprang.
Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy were familiar with haciendas. During the years which they spent trading and steamboating on the Rio Grande, they met and dealt with the agents and mayordomos of the Mexican cattlemen south of the river. These agents represented the elite and wealthy owners of cattle ranches, the ranches better known and better understood by their Spanish name of haciendas or latifundios. These Mexican cattlemen owned millions of acres, hundreds of thousands of head of livestock, highly profitable ranching and agricultural operations, and enjoyed tremendous wealth, social prestige, and political power. In order to develop a new profit-making venture, Richard King, the harddriving, Horatio Alger-entrepreneur with little education and no upbringing, and Mifflin Kenedy, the quiet, hard-working, well-educated Quaker, formed a partnership much like those formed by many Eastern entrepreneurs who were then helping to create the new industrial United States. The ranches which resulted were based on a mixture of three cultures—Hispanic, Southern, and Western.
Thus, the King and Kenedy Ranches form a kaleidoscope of cultures. In order to understand the development of the ranches and their evolving relationship with the Kineños and Kenedeños who worked for them, it is necessary to compare the histories of Mexico, the South, and the West. Although the ranches were born from the Mexican hacienda, they grew as Western cattle ranching grew. The patriarchal relationship between King and his Kineños and Kenedy and his Kenedeños derived as much from the Spanish patriarchal latifundio as from the paternalism of the southern plantation, and the Kineños and Kenedeños themselves were then, and are now, the quintessential Western cowboys, the reality behind the myth.
King and Kenedy formed their ranches based on the haciendas and latifundios that they saw across the border. The Mexican haciendas were the first livestock operations in the New World. The term hacienda was initially associated with any large rural estate which supplied the growing urban markets of colonial Mexico with beef, hides, and tallow as well as agricultural produce. Most of them existed in central and southern Mexico. A latifundio was an hacienda of immense size, most often found in the drier climates of Northern Mexico where a cow and calf often required hundreds of acres of grass to survive. A rancho, on the other hand, was usually a smaller rural property worked by the owner himself with the aid of his immediate family, and such ranchos were scattered throughout Mexico. Like the haciendas, the latifundios were economically oriented, profit-motivated capitalistic ventures involved in livestock raising. As an added benefit, the wealth from the production of cattle and sheep provided the landowner with prestige and elite standing. Latifundios, such as that of the Sanchez Navarro family in the northern Mexican States of Chihuahua and Coahuila, could encompass as much as sixteen million acres and be largely self-supporting. Most of their profits derived from extensive annual trail drives of sheep to Mexico City. The Sanchez Navarro agents also sold their diversified products in local, national and international markets, including the ports along the Rio Grande—where they may well have come to know the two Anglo traders. Other latifundios in Northern Mexico were equally large. The Urdiñola family, who became the Marqueses of San Miguel de Aguayo y Santa Olaya in 1682, held a latifundio grant that covered over fourteen million acres. The Vazquez Borregos controlled over a million acres on their latifundio, and the Garza Falcón family on the Sabinas River held a relatively small latifundio of only 457,160 acres. All of these families had enormous wealth, political power, and social prestige among the landed aristocracy of Northern Mexico. When Tom Lea, in his history of the King Ranch, suggests that in Mexico "the sale of meat was a local and small-scale affair," and that King proposed to "import the system, improve it, and make it pay," he was unfamiliar with the profitable hacienda agricultural production and distribution system that had existed in Mexico for three hundred years.
Historically, haciendas and latifundios as economic endeavors developed from the arrival of the first Spanish settlers in the 1500s with their newly introduced livestock. The first cattle were landed by Gregorio de Villalobos along the Pánuco River near Tampico in 1521, six months before Cortéz captured Mexico City. These cattle, a combination of three different strains of Spanish cattle, were to become the famed longhorns which spread into Texas along the coast. The first hacienda was granted to Cortéz, himself, when he was given the title of Marqués and, along with it, the entire Valley of Oaxaca for his services in the conquest of Mexico. Like the many other new haciendas that were granted throughout Mexico during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, from its inception the Marquesado of the Valley of Oaxaca was economically oriented with the emphasis on finding profitable markets and cutting labor costs. Both Hernán and Fernando Cortéz were intent on generating profits by selling beef, hides, and tallow to markets in the rapidly growing city of Antequera (later Oaxaca City) and to distant Mexico City. Cattle and sheep, which the Spanish continued to import, flourished in the new climate where there were no predators and where the grassy valleys provided ample room for rapid growth. Livestock raising, therefore, represented a high-profit-potential/low-risk-venture.
In the Valley of Mexico itself, many of the new hacendados, using Indian and Mestizo labor, profited from the production of cattle on their haciendas, often much to the detriment of the Indian corn fields nearby. Farther north, the rapidly expanding silver mines in Zacatecas and Guanajuato also demanded more livestock production to supply beef to feed the laborers; hides to produce harnesses, hinges, heavy belts, and straps for the mine machinery; and mules and horses to carry the silver to Mexico City. Haciendas, often owned by local merchants or the mine owners themselves, developed in the vicinity of the mines to supply the new market. Throughout Latin America, beginning as early as the 1600s, hacendados improved cattle and sheep breeds and developed new methods of handling and managing the livestock in order to increase profit margins. Landowners also diversified—both in the production of goods and in their use of labor—when markets or natural disasters demanded it. Wheat, a crop not known previously in the New World, was planted by Spanish hacendados to produce bread for the rapidly increasing urban Spanish market. Corn, produced by the native populations in the New World for thousands of years, remained a profitable commodity since it continued in use among the Indians for their native tortillas and tamales, foods that were gradually adopted by the Spanish. Therefore, when Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy chose to invest in cattle ranching, they could draw upon 300 years of history and trial-and-error knowledge.
The Kineños and Kenedeños inherited a long tradition of service, but unlike their Mexican counterparts, their labor relationship with King and Kenedy evolved in a different and distinct direction. In Mexico, labor to work the haciendas and latifundios had always been readily available from the Indians and Mestizos. During the sixteenth century in New Spain, in order to provide the conquistadors with a livelihood, the Spanish created the encomienda system whereby Indian laborers and entire Indian towns were assigned to the Spaniards to provide labor and tribute (a form of taxation), much as the Indians had done under the Aztecs. In 1549, partly in response to protestations by missionary fathers such as Bartolomé de las Casas that Indians were being overworked and mistreated, the Spanish government abolished the labor requirement for Indians. The conquistadors, who were left with a minimal labor force and pinched profits, demanded more workers or, they warned, the King would not get his taxes. In response, the crown created the repartimiento system in which the government hired out Indians to labor on haciendas and assigned officials who ostensibly protected them from mistreatment. By the seventeenth century, however, European diseases had devastated the Indian labor force, and the hacienda owners were scrambling for workers. Tribute from individual Indians and from their villages had also shifted from in-kind contributions to monetary payments, and the government had gotten out of the Indian rental business. Indians in need of cash to pay their tribute sought jobs on the haciendas as wage laborers or sold their own crops in a market dominated by Spanish hacendados.
A system of debt-peonage developed through which the hacienda owner, perhaps seeking to retain tighter control over his laborers, advanced wages to the Indians. According to some scholars, this trapped them in debt and forced them to remain on the hacienda until the debt was paid off, which usually never happened. On the northern estates, such as the latifundio of the Sanchez Navarro family, the company store (tienda de raya) served the same purpose, and anyone trying to flee the debt was caught and returned to the hacienda. Scholars have found that some laborers, like credit-card debtors today, were indeed trapped, while others benefited from the system and learned to use it to their own advantage. Jan Bazant has argued that debt-peonage was often a convenience rather than a detriment. Laborers who lived on the haciendas on a full-time basis, whether indebted to the landlord or not, frequently perceived themselves as a privileged group who were protected by the hacendado from ill-fortune, inclement weather, and poor markets. Small independent farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers who had to subsist on small plots of their own were far more deeply in debt since they had no protective safety-net from market fluctuations and could not store grain to tide them over during times of drought or poor markets. Like the laborers of Jan Bazant's hacienda studies, the Kineños and Kenedeños were privileged and protected laborers, immune to depressions and layoffs, and, although there was a company store, they never faced the evils of debt-peonage.
The Kineños, according to oral tradition and studies carried out by Norma Martinez, originated in the town of Cruillas (or Cruias), Tamaulipas, in Northern Mexico. In 1854 Richard King, who was in need of laborers knowledgeable about cattle ranching, paid for 100 settlers and their livestock to move from Cruillas to his newly acquired ranch on Santa Gertrudis Creek in Texas, where he built them homes and gave them jobs on the ranch. These were not the first Mexicans to move to new homes near the Rio Grande. During the 1740s, the Spanish Empire in Texas faced threats from the expanding English empire, and Spain needed citizens to guard its exposed northeastern frontier. The Viceroy in Mexico City offered José de Escandón a noble title in exchange for bringing colonists to the new settlement of Nuevo Santander. Beginning in 1749, Escandón carried out what the Spanish called an entrada, or entrance, in which he used his own funds to move 6,000 colonists from the center of Mexico to the Rio Grande Valley, to supply them with livestock and tools for their new settlements, to establish towns and churches for them, and to grant each settler a portion of land. By 1755, Escandón had successfully established twenty-three towns and fifteen missions in northeastern Mexico and the settlers were in possession of small land holdings. Not all of the settlers were content with the size of their ranches. Some, such as Blás María de la Garza Falcón, negotiated with Escandón for larger grants and began to expand their holdings to the north side of the Rio Grande which would remain Spanish territory for another seventy years, until 1821. Others who expanded their holdings included Enrique Villareal, who owned most of present day Corpus Christi; José de la Garza, who claimed 59.5 leagues (over 263,000 acres) along the Rio Grande; and José Narciso Cabazos, who held 600,000 acres in what are now Cameron, Willacy, and Kenedy Counties, parts of which would one day be included in the King Ranch. The towns and ranches that Escandón's settlers established included, among others, Laredo, Dolores, Mier, Camargo, Reynosa, and perhaps even Cruillas—towns that Richard King, the steamboat captain and impresario, visited one hundred years later.
Mifflin Kenedy, rather than go to such lengths, simply hired skilled Mexican vaqueros from the Rio Grande area. Why, then, did Richard King go to such lengths to establish a labor force of Mexicans on his ranch? While hacienda owners had long made a practice of keeping whole communities of workers on their ranches, such an expensive practice did not make economic sense to Anglo businessmen or to the growing numbers of Western ranch owners who increased profits by retaining a labor force only during the periods of peak demand, the spring and fall roundups. By the 1870s cowboys throughout the West were laid off during the winter by ranch owners interested in cutting labor costs. On small ranches, where an owner might have only a few cowboys, one or two favored hands might live on the ranch year-round and develop quasi-familial ties to the owner. But on large spreads, cowboys were seasonal workers who were paid off after the fall cattle drive, and they drifted off to make their way as best they could during the cold winter months. King, however, developed a distinct and different relationship with his employees.
Richard King needed his employees and their skills as much or more than they needed him. He had lived in big cities and had worked on steamboats most of his life and understood trade and markets, but King knew little of working longhorn cattle or training horses. Although he bought cattle from his Mexican ranch neighbors and picked up information from them about cattle raising, the only ones who could help him achieve his dream were the families from Cruillas. These Mexican vaqueros taught him to work cattle, trained his horses for him, showed him how to cull and keep the best stock, and helped him build the ranch itself. He handled the marketing and they handled the cattle. Their united efforts made them a family, a King Ranch family who adopted the name Kineños, a name which slowly grew to mean much more than merely one who worked on the ranch. The term was built on generations of loyalty, pride, mutual respect, and admiration. He provided housing and wages, and they taught him the cattle trade. He protected the vaqueros and their families, and they gave their lives to protect his. He celebrated their births and marriages with them as they celebrated his, and when one of the Kineños died, King grieved with them, as they did for him. Unlike the absentee landlords of the haciendas, King worked on the ranch with his vaqueros, relied on their expert knowledge, and gratefully accepted their training. Unlike the paternalistic southern plantation owners, he respected and admired his workers as they respected and admired him. Unlike the Western ranchers, he did not lay them off during the winter in the interest of profits, but kept them on the payroll, year in and year out, generation after generation. It was an unusual labor relationship. Together, they became King Ranch.
Another part of the answer to the successful ranching operation may have been his wife, Henrietta King. Henrietta's father was a Presbyterian minister from Vermont who moved to the Rio Grande border to minister to the Mexican people. His daughter accompanied him, learned Spanish, and, evidently, developed a fondness for the people she met at her father's mission. When she married Richard King, she turned her attentions to the King Ranch cowboys. She became La patrona, a Mexican term which translates variously as patron, defender, saint, protector, master, employer, or boss. She was all of these things to the Kineños as she took over their welfare. As Lea describes it, "she dosed and nursed the sick, supplied the needy and ... used her authority for good as she conceived of good." She also saw to their education and encouraged those who showed promise by offering them opportunities to continue schooling and to rise in the ranks. She often joined in their lives and, during roundups, she and her children joined her husband and his Kineños for meals as they gathered the herds. In is unclear whether La patrona tried to convert her Kineños to Anglo ways or whether she and King protected their Mexican cultural beliefs. She did encourage them to learn English, but the Kineños continued to eat their own food, practice their own religion, enjoy their own customs, sing their own songs, and speak Spanish. Spanish became the working language of the Ranch, and it is evident that even Anglo foremen spoke Spanish or picked it up very quickly if they wanted to be successful. The Anglo owners, in fact, learned to eat Mexican foods such as tamales and tortillas, which the Kineños made for them. All of the King children and grandchildren grew up speaking Spanish.
Upon the death of her husband in 1885, Henrietta King continued to control the operations of the ranch for almost another fifty years through her son-in-law, Robert J. Kleberg, who married Alice, the youngest daughter. Henrietta, the proper, black-gowned, Victorian matriarch, and Kleberg, the quiet, hard-working, properly respectful, German attorney had a close-knit relationship which carried the Ranch and the Kineños through both good and bad times during the following decades.
Mifflin Kenedy developed a similar close relationship with his employees. His wife, Petra Vela de Vidal, although a Mexican herself, did not develop a patrona relationship with the workers but left that to her granddaughter Sarita. Sarita Kenedy took over the care and well-being of the Kenedeños. Like the King children, she grew up speaking Spanish among the vaqueros and their families. She knew them all intimately and cared deeply for them. After the death of her father, it was not her brother who ran the ranch but Sarita herself who carried on the work, in Spanish, with the help of her Kenedeños. She expanded the ranch through the purchase of more lands, and with her husband, Arthur East, continued the tradition of cattle ranching that her father had learned from the Kenedeños. Unhappily, Sarita had no descendants, and today the ranch is under two trusts. The personal relationship to the Kenedeños is gone, although the vaquero families still retain their memories of La patrona and the good times they shared. Today the Kenedeños continue to preserve a sense of community in the town of Sarita and some still work on the ranches.
The personal, patriarchal element in the relationship between the Kings and Klebergs and their vaqueros may have been the determining factor in creating a workforce whose loyalty, dedication, and fidelity was the envy of many western ranchers and corporate entrepreneurs. When Cy Yeary, in charge of hiring for the King Ranch, was asked by a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times what was done to weed out the surplus when a division of the ranch became overstocked with employees, he replied that there was no need. "There's always a few of the boys who decide early in life they want to follow other occupations." In 1953, the ranch maintained 90% Kineño workers and only hired 10% from outside. As Yeary put it, the ranch grew its own employees. Over the generations, the Kineños and Kenedeños developed a feeling that they belonged to the ranch and the ranch belonged to them, and, evidently, the Kings, Klebergs, and Kenedys agreed.
When Richard King rode across the lands of the Llanos Mesteños, he was crossing land which, as we have seen, had a long history of ownership. Why, then, were there no profitable haciendas or latifundios, as there were in Mexico, dotting the great stretches of grasslands from the Rio Grande to the Nueces River? The answer lies in fifty years of almost uninterrupted conflict and warfare. Landowners in Texas, in particular the descendants of the Escandón settlers who had spread onto lands of the Wild Horse desert, had not been able to enjoy their haciendas in peace. The Mexican Revolution for independence from Spain, although dimly heard this far north, had bloody repercussions. In 1810 and 1811, as Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla lighted the fires of revolution in the center of the country, revolutionaries favoring independence revolted in San Antonio, then the capital of Texas. They attacked the ranches and destroyed the possessions of those who opposed independence from Spain. Within the year, royalist forces under General Arredondo arrived in Texas to put down the revolutionaries and exact deadly vengeance for the destructions of the previous year. American filibustering forces under Augustus Magee and Gutiérrez de Lara, who supported independence from Spain, attacked Nacogdoches, La Bahía, and the ranches along the San Antonio and Nueces Rivers. It was not surprising that many of the landowners between the Rio Grande and San Antonio abandoned their ranches under the barrage of bloody attacks and counterattacks from 1811 to 1821 when Mexico at last gained independence. They were again forced off their lands in 1835 and 1836 during the Texas Revolution as marauding Mexican and Texian forces raided the ranches for food and supplies. Safety under the new Republic of Texas was even less likely. With no military—or money to pay for one—the Texas government had no way to protect its citizens, whether Texian or Mexican. Indians, in particular the Comanche, raided the abandoned haciendas and ranches from the Rio Grande to the Guadalupe River. By 1845, Texas had joined the United States. With the advent of the War with Mexico (1847-1848), American troops once again passed through the area on their way to Mexico, sometimes buying, sometimes stealing cattle from the few ranches that were left. By 1853, when Richard King bought his first parcel of land, warfare had moved south of the border, and it was better to move into Texas than out of it. Many Mexican landowners had lived precarious lives for the past forty years in the towns and villas in the Escandón settlements along the Rio Grande and in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Occasionally they would return to their ranches, sometimes for a few years at a time, to harvest and plant or collect a herd of horses or cattle to sell at the local markets. By the time that King began to buy up land, several Mexican families had moved back to their ranches, and he often turned to them for help in times of trouble.
Anglo discrimination was another reason why Mexican rancheros did not return to their ranches. The Mexican ranchers could not understand the racism that they faced in the United States. As landowners, they felt entitled to a place in the society among the upper middle classes, a place to which their wealth entitled them. For three hundred years, landed elite Spaniards and Creoles (Spaniards born in the New World) had looked down on the Indians and Mestizos with European superiority. The lower classes were prevented from riding horses, which were reserved for gente decente (decent people). Even after the Spanish grudgingly allowed the Indians and Mestizos to mount horses in order to do the hard work of livestock handling, there was always a clear and distinct difference between the vaquero and the charro, or gentleman rancher. The charro was a landowner, a person of wealth, a person of prestige, a person who expected respect. When the Mexican ranchers did not receive the respect they expected from Anglos, some sued and won against disrespectful Anglos in court. Others demanded and received apologies from too-arrogant newcomers, while a few retreated onto their ranches or into their own Mexican communities in San Antonio, Victoria, or Corpus Christi.
The Mexican vaquero, as a person without land, had faced discrimination in Mexico and faced it again in the United States. In Mexico vaqueros had an accepted place in society. In the United States they were interlopers who faced discrimination, violence, and racism. Despite the antipathy Anglos showed about working with Mexicans, they admitted, if only grudgingly, that vaqueros were the first cowboys and that they had excellent reputations as ropers and superior bronc busters. In fact, vaqueros made up over half of the cowboy workforce on most Texas and southwestern ranches, although few Anglos would acknowledge their preeminence in the field. Even the 1953 history of the King Ranch in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which goes to great lengths to detail the lives of the Anglo foremen, failed to mention anywhere that the workers on the King ranch were originally Mexicans. They remained the invisible cowboys in spite of attempts by people such as Richard King, Mifflin Kenedy, J. Frank Dobie, and others to correct the American biases against them.
After 1848, Anglos and Mexicans in Texas were in disagreement over the questions of land ownership and legal titles. For Mexicans, land ownership was emotional rather than economic. As Malcolm Ebright has pointed out:
This connection [to land] is on the visceral rather than the legal level. It is this feeling for the land in the heart and in the gut that guarantees that the legal history of land grants in the Southwest is not just something from the dim, dark past. Land grants and the law are as current as today's news and will continue to be so as long as there are people who remember the land, and who remember their ancestors who received title to the land by means of a merced de tierra.
Some Mexicans, emotional over their perceived land losses to Anglos, still continue to question the means and methods by which Anglos gained access to these lands. Although some sales may have taken place under duress, recent studies have indicated that Mexicans were canny negotiators in their dealings with Anglo land purchasers. Mexicans, more often than not, demanded and received the going price of $1 per acre for their land. Neither King nor Kenedy were antagonistic toward the Mexicans, nor did they attempt to cheat or steal the lands. Titles were questionable not because of the ranchers' business practices but because of the age-old difficulty of keeping track of ownership. Land piracy, claim jumping, and outright land theft did exist, however, and Mexicans who sold under market value to other less friendly Anglos may well have faced pressure and racist discrimination. In some cases, selling out was the better economic choice in order to make a quick profit by getting rid of land that they did not use and for which they were being heavily taxed.
The amounts of land involved in the transactions were not small. The Spanish and later the Mexican government had always believed that livestock raising required much larger quantities of land than farming.
Grants to the early Anglo settlers in Texas, from 1821 to 1835, consisted of a league and a labor. The league, for grazing cattle or sheep, contained 4,428.4 acres, while the labor was used for farming and contained 177.1 acres. The total price to the buyer for over 4,600 acres was the cost of the paperwork and surveying, approximately $12. The standard land unit in the United States in 1819 was a 640 acre section at a cost of $1.25 per acre or $800, an amount beyond the reach of most small farmers. Anglos flocked to Texas during the years of Mexican control to gain access to these almost free, incredibly large amounts of land. Mexican impresarios or land agents such as Stephen F. Austin and Martín de León carefully had each piece surveyed, registered the boundaries with the Mexican government, and provided each property owner with an original title and three copies. One copy was retained by the impresario, one copy went to the state files in Saltillo, and the third was sent to land offices in Mexico City. The problem was that not all of those who came to Texas prior to 1836, either Mexican or American, had been under an impresario, and not all had verifiable land titles. For a land purchaser such as Richard King, the importance of a secure title was paramount.
By the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, the United States guaranteed the security of Mexican titles, or so the government said. The U.S. sent commissioners to Texas, New Mexico, and California to try to sort out the jumble of legal titles. Some Mexican landowners, especially those along the Rio Grande, had held their land for three or more generations and many did not have titles. Americans, many of whom had been drifting into Texas for twenty years, some legally and some illegally, did not have titles either. The commissioners, therefore, faced incredible problems. As William Carey Jones reported in 1852 from California, where many of the titles were in question:
Any measure calculated to discredit or cause to be distrusted, the general character of the titles there ... would, I believe also retard the substantial improvement of the country. A title discredited is not destroyed, but everyone is afraid to touch it, or at all events to invest labor and money in improvements that rest on a suspected tenure.
Conditions in Texas were not much better. Commissioners Bourland and Miller were sent to the Rio Grande valley to determine the legality of the titles of local landowners. After months of interviewing, recording depositions from longtime landowners along the Rio Grande, and collecting documentation, the Bourland and Miller Commission lost much of their data and the legal titles of numerous landowners when their ship sank off the Texas coast. Richard King, therefore, had to choose his land purchases carefully, but even then some were inevitably questionable.
All of King's hard work, the loyalty of his Kineños, and his investments paid off when the cattle business boomed after 1870. Three factors influenced the rise of the cattle industry. The first was land: the United States acquired Texas with its hundreds of thousands of cattle in 1845 and the Western states with their millions of acres of grasslands in 1848. After Western lands were stripped of their buffalo herds in the 1870s and the United States cavalry removed the Indians, vast acreages of excellent grazing land became available for profit-oriented cattle ranchers such as King and Kenedy. The second factor was the end of the Civil War in 1865. Northern businessmen, flush with victory, had capital to invest in new industries. King and Kenedy had also profited from the Civil War. They had made a fortune from their steamboating by shipping cotton out of the South, across the Rio Grande, and down to Matamoros where it was sold to British merchants. Now, like the Eastern entrepreneurs, they too sought a profitable return on their money. The final factor was transportation. For cattle ranchers to reach their full profit potential, cattle had to be moved quickly and with the least loss of weight to the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest. There immigrants flowed in from Europe and Asia to furnish labor for the burgeoning factories. All of those people needed Texas beef and King and Kleberg were in the ideal position to supply it.
Railroads were expanding across the country but few had made the cattle connection. Attempts to take cattle to the Eastern markets had been made in 1846 by Edward Piper, who drove cattle to Ohio, and in 1853 by an Illinois merchant who drove a herd from Texas to New York in only a year and a half. In 1867 Joseph McCoy of Illinois, after several disheartening rejections by both communities and railroads, finally convinced Abilene, Kansas, and the officials of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad to provide pens and transportation for cattle from Texas. By 1870, over 300,000 cattle were being shipped out of Abilene and the boom was on.
Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy were unusual among Texas ranchers in their purchases of large amounts of land, although certainly no different than the latifundio owners across the Rio Grande. Men who arrived in Texas with little money to invest were advised to buy cattle rather than land. Others who came with little or no funds were able to start herds of their own by working for other ranchers during roundups and branding a share of the calves for their own herds. Until the end of the Civil War in 1865, most cattle raisers in Texas had ranged their cattle on unoccupied public lands. By 1872, however, barbed wire was invented, and within a dozen years ranchers began to use the new wire to build fences and corrals all over the West. Fences and corrals meant that heavier cattle could be produced by selective breeding, and profits could be doubled or tripled. As profits skyrocketed, big Eastern and European investors bought up vast acreages, enclosed them with barbed wire fences, overstocked the ranges, and shut out the small rancher. Although small ranches (those under 10,000 acres, such as the SR Ranch) continued to exist, the market belonged to the huge ranches such as the Matador, Pitchfork, Swenson, Spur, Slaughter, and XIT, many of which had foreign owners or investors. King and Kenedy had been there first, however, and Richard King, now with over 600,000 acres (later to grow to 1.27 million acres under the tenure of Mrs. King) and a sound knowledge of the cattle industry, thanks to his Kineños, sent his first cattle up the trail on the long annual trail drives northward. Kenedy, overwhelmed by the potential profit, sold his entire ranch for over one million dollars to a Scottish syndicate. He reinvested his money in a second ranch and the Kenedeños continued to work for him, his son John, and his granddaughter, Sarita Kenedy East.
Although Populists and small ranchers complained, "fearing that unscrupulous Capital would destroy man's liberty to compete," King and other ranchers, investors, and entrepreneurs kept the cattle flowing northward. Fattening centers were established in Ohio, where a symbiotic relationship developed between Western cattlemen, Ohio feedlot operators, and Midwestern corn producers. Gail Borden, also a big Texas rancher, attempted to create a meat biscuit so that cattle could be processed in the South and owners would not have to pay for shipping to the North. King himself tried "injecting salt brine into the veins of butchered cattle as a preservative," but somehow the idea of embalmed cattle didn't sell well in the Northeast. Investors demanded better management techniques, a greater emphasis on cost cutting, and even greater returns on their investment.
By 1880, cowboys were beginning to attract the attention of the American public. Men on horseback have always appealed to the earthbound pedestrian, and cowboys were no exception. Horsemen have epitomized grandeur and glory, and statues often portray great heroes on rearing chargers. The term cowboy, however, had originally meant a simple Irish cattle herder, although Scottish highlanders who protected their owner's cattle were portrayed in a more noble fashion, "always ready to perform for their lords every kind of service." During the American Revolution, the term cowboy was used to describe a Tory cattle thief, and in early Texas the cowboys were Anglo marauders who stole cattle from Mexican ranches during and after the Texas Revolution. By the 1880s, however, a dichotomy had developed. On the one hand, city dwellers read of the exploits of heroic Wild West cowboys while on the other hand ranch owners distrusted their cowboy workers as drunken, carousing drifters. Young men flocked to the West dreaming of glorious exploits. Teddy Roosevelt, drawn by the image of knights errant on horseback, spent part of his youth as a cowboy on Western ranches. Over 35,000 young men came West to drive herds to northern markets. They formed a distinct social group that held distinct cultural values. Although they did not always abide by them, their values included faithful service, willingness to risk life and limb, silence at injustice, honesty, stamina, and lack of fear. Cowboying was a young man's job, a challenging, demanding, and exhausting job. It provided exhilarating danger and exciting competition. As Will James commented, "The Cowboy's life can't be learnt in a day or even a year, it's a life you got to be raised at to understand." It was a life which appealed to the youth of America.
On the negative side, however, cowboys were usually those who left the East because they had nothing to lose, and when they came West they found they had nothing to gain. By fencing the ranges and hiring seasonal help, there was less of a need for "labor units," as the corporate owners euphemistically called the cowboys. These laborers became expendable employees on Western ranches where corporate investors were concerned with the bottom line. Because many young men dreamed of being cowboys, ranchers had an overabundance of workers. Such labor surplus kept the wages low. Wages normally ranged from as low as $15-$20 per month in Texas and the South to as high as $40-$50 per month in the North. The highest wages went to full-time employees, while seasonal workers received as much as thirty percent less. Mexican cowboys, although they often had to train the tenderfeet Easterners, were paid one third to one half what Anglo cowboys were paid. Many Anglo ranchers hired vaqueros because they could pay the Mexicans $10-$12 per month instead of the $20-$25 expected by Anglo cowboys. Cowboys were required to furnish their own saddles, bridles, clothing, and bedrolls. When cowboys "paid $85 for a saddle, $20 for a bridle, $15 for spurs, $15 for a lariat and as much as $85 for a sombrero," a monthly paycheck did not go far.
Compounding the problem for cowboys and vaqueros both—except, of course, for those on the King and Kenedy Ranches—was the seasonal nature of the work. Since cattle required little care during the winter, cowboys were laid off after the last roundup or cattle drive in the fall. They spent the winter "riding the chuck line" in hopes of a free meal and a place to stay in exchange for chopping wood or doing other menial chores. Some moved in with relatives, others took advantage of ranches where absentee owners might not know of the generous hospitality they were providing. Since these young, improvident cowboys were often paid off in one lump sum for the five or six months of work, the few hundred dollars vanished in a matter of days into the pockets of gamblers, bar owners, and dance hall girls in the towns at the end of the trail. Cowboying did not look so glamorous after several days without food. A few cowboys tried to unionize to protect themselves by demanding year-round wages. Because the ranch owners could replace them almost immediately and often used violence and strike-breakers against them, because cowboys had difficulty getting together for meetings, and because many a young man believed that cowboying was a way of life and not a job, they failed. With no way to protect themselves or demand higher wages, the chances of a cowboy improving himself were almost nonexistent. It was little wonder that many turned to crime.
The experiences of the Kineños on the King Ranch, and the Kenedeños under Sarita East, however, were very different. During the formative years on both ranches, the vaqueros became the backbone of the ranching operations. By the 1870s they received wages of between $20 and $25 per month, just like the Anglo cowboys, with a bonus of $5 a month on the trail drives, and the salary was paid year-round. The younger boys in the families were also encouraged to earn money by doing odd-jobs around the camps. The Kineños were not the only Mexicans working on the ranches. Menial jobs were not given to the Kineños or Kenedeños but to Mexican labor from across the border. During the years of the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920 and again during the Depression of the 1930s, both the Klebergs and Sarita East hired needy Mexicans in search of jobs to dig out the plague of mesquite trees which had infested the ranches. These Mexicans worked seasonally and many returned to their homes in Mexico, but the Kineños and Kenedeños were the elite of the cowboys. Although it is true that all of the top foremen, except Lauro Cavazos, who made foreman in 1926, were Anglo, the second level of command, the caporales and mayordomos, were almost exclusively Kineños and Kenedeños. In fact, the Mendietta family had three consecutive generations of caporales. The vaqueros became the cow bosses and horse bosses on different divisions of the ranch, taking command, organizing work details, and making decisions. The vaqueros were given responsibility for, and trusted implicitly with, extensive cattle and sheep herds, with the prized Santa Gertrudis cattle, with the best of the cutting and racing horses, with the operation and care of outlying ranchos. As the story of Abios proves, King had the good sense to place his entire year's trail herd, an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars, under the care of his trusted Kineño. The Kineños and Kenedeños worked hard for their pay, but unlike the Anglo cowboys, they were never turned out at the end of the season. They were encouraged to have families, often intermarrying with other Kineños or Kenedeños, creating a closely knit community in which almost everyone was related to everyone else. When the men were away, the women knew they could count on each other and on the patrona for help. In their old age, the men were kept on the payroll and given jobs which still helped the ranch but allowed the older men to take life a little easier. It was with regret that the men left the hard work of the round-ups and cattle drives, one even apologizing for having to die. The men repaid the trust with unmatched loyalty, and King and Kenedy repaid their loyalty with affection and cradle-to-grave protection. No other Western cowboys would have such a life.
The Eastern image of the cowboy was not the Western reality. The Eastern press might view the cowboy as a paragon of virtue, far from the corrupting influence of the big cities, but, unlike Richard King, Western ranch owners usually saw cowboys as lazy, violent, immoral, lowclass, lawless, drunken derelicts. The Cattlemen's Associations of Montana and Wyoming kept blacklists of cowboys who were prone to cause problems, and they updated and passed the lists around to their members frequently. Ranch owners warned each other of particularly difficult cowboys. Even cowboys who wanted to improve their lot had little chance to do so. Early Texas ranchers had allowed cowboys to begin their own small herds by branding one out of every four or five calves for themselves in exchange for their work during the roundup. Northern ranch owners, however, soon learned that a hired hand with his own herd could far too easily brand ranch cattle which had been missed during the roundup or alter the brands on his employer's cattle. Association members agreed not to hire cowboys who had their own herds. Ranch owners and lawmen found that the worst thieves and rustlers were often unemployed cowboys who were familiar with the ranges, knew that the cattle would be unattended during the winter, and needed money to survive.
Cowboys also lacked the opportunity to marry or raise a family. In addition to the problem of the limited number of women in the West, cowboys held seasonal jobs, drifting from ranch to ranch. Unemployed during the winter, they had no means to support a wife and family. Married cowboys could not take their wives with them to the ranches, and their pay was not sufficient to buy their own bit of land. And, finally, when a young cowboy was injured or became too old to work, his only options were to work as a cook or horse wrangler. The life of the cowboy, poor as it might be, was not to last.
By 1885, the decline of the cattle boom was already looming and it only took a small nudge from mother nature to push it over the edge. After the panic of 1873 huge potential profits had brought hundreds of new investors into the market both from the eastern United States and from Europe. The overpopulation of cattle on the grasslands had forced the price of beef down from seven cents per pound in 1882 to two cents per pound in 1886. The costs of transportation and feed far outweighed potential profits. The increased number of cattle also had damaged fertile grasslands, and successful ranching now required more acreage, more fencing, and more outlay of capital. Finally, during 1885, with cattle prices already depressed, a drought destroyed much of the grass, forcing owners to send cattle to market early. That winter, terrible blizzards extended across the country and reached far into Texas, killing off thousands of head of cattle, and, in some cases wiping out whole herds along with the investors who owned them. The disasters of 1885-1886 forced hundreds of ranches into receivership and ended the cattle boom. Its demise marked the end of the era of the cowboy.
From this end was born the myth of the Anglo Nordic cowboy. Pulp novelists, authors, and screenwriters cleansed the cowboy of all evil, all sin, and all Hispanic traces, and created an image of the cowboy who was modest, truthful, brave, democratic, and a proud defender of Anglo Manifest Destiny. He appeared first in the form of Owen Wister's Virginian and was followed by thousands of similar apparitions, mirages which supplied a safety valve for the American culture, a John Wayne West where freedom, equality, and democracy for white Anglo males still existed. The American public never knew that vaqueros such as the Kineños and Kenedeños really were the true cowboys, quiet, hardworking, honest, faithful, law-abiding men with courage, stamina, tremendous skill, and a lack of fear.
The King Ranch, under the widowed Henrietta King and her son-in-law, Kleberg, survived the end of the cattle boom by hardscrabble fighting for every dime. Kenedy, who had reinvested his money in ranching, also faced staggering problems. King, like thousands of other ranchers across the West, had over-stocked his ranges. The cattle had destroyed the grass, the drought killed what was left, and the low-growing, scrub-brush mesquite tree began to spread across the ranch and ruin any hope of grazing. King's death in 1885 left Henrietta and Kleberg with the job of pulling the ranch through the drought and the blizzards. They did so by following the ideas first used on the Mexican haciendas. They diversified into horses, sheep, and agriculture, cotton, in particular. They dug water wells to create irrigation for a cotton crop, and the wells saved them from disaster. The discovery of oil on King Ranch in 1939 solidified the ranch's financial position, and while many of the other large Texas ranches were closing their operations, the Klebergs and Kenedys received new business capital through the successful exploitation of their mineral interests. The Klebergs continued improving their cattle breed, eventually producing the Santa Gertrudis, and branched into horse racing and cutting horses.
As for the Kineños, life on the Ranch was certainly good in comparison to the hardships faced by other cowboys across the United States. Their skill and hard work were acknowledged and rewarded by the Klebergs and Kenedys, although it seems surprising that not a single Kineño has ever been recognized or inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Indeed, the only Mexican in the Cowboy Hall of Fame is an Arizona ranch foreman from Sonora named Ramón Ahumada. On the ranch, the Kineños, unlike the drifting cowhands throughout the West, had their families, homes, medical care, schooling for their children, and steady, year-round jobs and paychecks. They preserved their culture, made Spanish the language of the ranch, and they ate their pan de campo, tortillas, meat, beans, and rice while other cowboys survived on cornbread, bacon and coffee. The descendants of the Kings and Klebergs and the Kineños created a ranch community which has lasted for five generations. The Kenedeños still exist in the small town of Sarita, and they still retain their pride in being Kenedeños but it is left to the Kineños to carry on a tradition of pride, prestige, and honor at being a Kineño, part of King Ranch, and the first of the cowboys.
“This is the first major look at the lives of these ranch workers.... [It] will add greatly to the literature on ranch life in South Texas.”
Bruce S. Cheeseman, Consulting Archivist and Historian, King Ranch, Inc.