Wednesday, December 30, 2015

King turns from hustling cotton to trailing longhorns

by Murphy Givens

After the end of the Civil War, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy took action to reorganize their steamboat operations on the Rio Grande and their ranching enterprise on the Santa Gertrudis.

On the Rio Grande, they ordered four new steamboats. The third partner, Charles Stillman, withdrew and moved to New York, where he would became one of the world's richest men. King showed less interest in the steamboat business and more interest in converting grass into meat. "His heart was in ranching," Tom Lea wrote, "not in steamboating."

Two years after the war, King and Kenedy agreed to divide their ranch holdings, taking share and share alike, and part ways in the cattle business. An inventory was made and agreement signed on May 31, 1868, on the division. Kenedy purchased the Laureles tract from Charles Stillman's brother, Cornelius, while King became the sole proprietor of the Santa Gertrudis. But the two men remained close friends and allies.

Troubled times followed the war. Rustlers, hide thieves, and bandits worked the ranges, traveled the roads, and terrorized remote ranch houses. It was a lawless time. King Ranch kept lookouts atop a 75-foot watchtower on alert day and night. But away from the ranch house, on the vast ranch, there was no protection. Between 1866 and 1869, King reported the loss of 34,000 head of cattle.

South Texas ranchers, in the troubled times, appealed to Washington for protection. What they got in response was a congressional commission, the Robb Commission, to investigate and report on conditions on the border.

Richard King appeared before the commission, meeting in Brownsville, on Aug. 26, 1872. He testified about an incident three weeks before when he was leaving his ranch in a coach to appear before the commission. His coach was ambushed at San Fernando Creek, some 25 to 30 shots were fired, and a traveling companion, Franz Specht, was killed. King told the commissioners he believed the dozen or so attackers were bandits from Mexico.

The Robb Commission issued a long report about the violent conditions, but Washington did nothing else to solve the problem. Not until Texas turned loose Leander McNelly and his company of Texas Rangers to clean up the border country were peace and order restored.

While cattlemen were trying to cope with bandit alarms, they were sending huge herds of cattle up the trail to Kansas and from there by railroad to the beef markets of St. Louis and Chicago. A clipping from a Corpus Christi paper reported that, "James Bryden starts off with the first drove of cattle for the Kansas market, his herd consisting of 4,120 head from Nueces County." Bryden was a trail boss for King Ranch.

Tom Lea in "The King Ranch" described one trail drive in 1875. John Fitch, a ranch foreman, was in overall charge. In February and early March, the hands gathered 4,737 head, which were divided into four herds and road-branded for the trail. In July, the cattle were sold at Denison, thereby avoiding the necessity of trailing them another 400 miles to Abilene, Kansas. King's proceeds from this one sale, Lea wrote, amounted to $61,886. And this was only one of many such drives.

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