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King, Henrietta Chamberlain (1832–1925)

King, Henrietta Chamberlain (1832–1925)

American cattle rancher and philanthropist . Born Henrietta Maria Morse Chamberlain in Boonville, Missouri, on July 21, 1832; died in Santa Gertrudis, Texas, on March 31, 1925; daughter of Hiram Bingham Chamberlain (a preacher) and Maria Chamberlain; attended a female institute in Holly Springs, Mississippi; married Captain Richard King (a steamboat master turned rancher), in December 1854 (died in April 1885); children: five, including Alice King Kleberg .

Henrietta King, the wife of world-famous rancher Richard King, inherited 500,000 acres of Texas land and $500,000 of debt from her husband in 1885. At the time of her own death in 1925, she left an estate of nearly one million acres and almost 95,000 head of cattle. Credited with building one of the largest ranching enterprises in the United States, King also helped foster the use of scientific techniques in cattle breeding, thus producing a safer, more abundant beef supply.

The daughter of a preacher, Henrietta King was born in Boonville, Missouri, in 1832, and was educated at a female institute in Mississippi. When King was 17, her father relocated the family to Brownsville, a remote outpost on the Texas Rio Grande, where he established the first Presbyterian mission and where Henrietta taught school and served as a devout member of her father's church. Characterized as a self-reliant and remote young woman, she did not socialize much until she met and fell in love with Richard King, a former boat captain who had come to Brownsville in 1847 and had established a cattle ranch on the Santa Gertrudis Creek, 40 miles inland from Corpus Christi. After a long and sedate courtship, the two were married by Reverend Chamberlain in early December 1854 and honeymooned at King's Rancho Santa Gertrudis. Henrietta's expectations were somewhat dashed when her first house turned out to be so small that she had to hang her large serving platters on the outside walls.

Richard King's dream was to increase his empire by purchasing all the land along the Gulf of Mexico between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande, 150 miles to the south. While he acquired acreage and cattle, Henrietta became "La Patrona" of the homestead, raising a family (which grew to include five children) and frequently defending the ranch against outlaws and renegades in her husband's absence. In 1863, during the Civil War, the ranch was attacked by the Union army and Henrietta, seven months pregnant, was forced to flee with the children to San Antonio, while her husband joined Captain

James Richardson's company of home guards. Following the war, Richard used the money he had earned supplying the Confederate army with food and services to purchase more land and livestock. Henrietta, possessed of strong Puritan scruples, had some difficulty accepting the trappings of the family's increasing wealth. When her husband presented her with a pair of diamond earrings, she agreed to wear them only after having their brilliance dulled with a coat of enamel.

By 1885, Richard was well on the way to realizing his dream when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in its final stages. Before he died in April of that year, he willed all his land, property, and livestock to Henrietta to be "used and disposed of precisely the same as I myself might do if I were living." Henrietta's first business decision was to hire her husband's lawyer Robert Kleberg to manage the ranch. Kleberg, who would later marry Henrietta's daughter Alice, not only possessed legal skills but also shared Henrietta's deep love of the land, and he ultimately proved worthy of the trust she placed in him. Kleberg made it a point to confer with Henrietta on all major decisions, the first of which was to sell off several thousand acres of Richard's beloved land to pay off the most pressing debts.

As Henrietta grew older and her health started to decline, she began to spend winters at her Victorian mansion in Corpus Christi, where she launched a program of philanthropy to improve the community. She donated funds for a hospital, the Presbyterian church, and the public schools. Although she eventually gave Kleberg her power of attorney, she still remained involved in all the decisions regarding the ranch. Together, they encouraged a rail line through the property by contributing land for the right of way and for a new town called Kingsville, three miles east of the ranch headquarters. Henrietta planned much of the new community herself, donating land and money for churches as well as for a milling company, a cotton gin, and a weekly newspaper. She provided funds for the community's first public school, and also subsidized the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute, which was located near Kingsville and provided for the vocational training of Mexican-American young people. Apparently, the only facility lacking in Kingsville was a saloon. Henrietta, a lifelong supporter of temperance, saw to it that her town remained dry by including a clause forbidding the sale of liquor in every deed she issued.

King was a forward-thinking woman for her time and moved easily into the future. When the automobile replaced the work horses that had been bred on the ranch, she and Kleberg began developing race horses, and bought or bred three Kentucky Derby winners—Bold Venture, Assault, and Middleground. King was also quick to adopt the newest scientific advancements in order to solve many of the problems of ranching. After the drought of 1891, during which they had to ship 12,000 cattle to Indian Territory in order to save them, she authorized purchase of one of the new heavy well-drilling machines. A local driller struck water in 1899, thus protecting the ranch from subsequent droughts. The King ranch became a leader in taking precautions against tick fever and in experimenting in breeding techniques. Crossing Brahmas and shorthorns, they produced the only authentic new breed of cattle to be developed in North America. The Santa Gertrudis breed, as it was known, was resistant to disease, thrived in unfavorable conditions, and yielded a high proportion of usable meat. King Ranch, Inc., later introduced the breed to many other countries.

After paying off her husband's debts, Henrietta continued to expand her landholdings, until she had one million acres. Although the ranch became a huge enterprise, she continued to visit her outlying properties at least twice a year. The King ranchhouse also became a gathering place for visitors and the scene of Henrietta's annual Christmas party for the ranchhands and their families. When the homestead burned to the ground in January 1912, a massive white stucco ranchhouse was built to replace the old wooden structure. (Its fortress-like design would later serve as protection, when border disputes put ranchers in constant danger of attack by marauders.) Henrietta continued to extend her hospitality to all, demanding only that women wear dresses and men wear coats at dinner. Another inflexible rule was that everyone, family and guests alike, eat cereal at breakfast, and to that end she kept some 80 varieties on hand.

In 1916, Kleberg became ill and his sons (her grandsons) Robert, Jr. and Richard took over the running of the ranch under his direction. During her final years, Henrietta deeded the Santa Gertrudis ranch headquarters and the land surrounding it to her daughter Alice, who had lived her entire life on the ranch. Henrietta died on March 31, 1925, at age 92, and was escorted to her final resting place in the Kingsville cemetery by all 200 of the King Ranch vaqueros, dressed in range clothes and mounted on horseback.


Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Crawford, Ann Fears, and Crystal Sasse Ragsdale. Women in Texas. Austin, TX: State House Press, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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