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The Portal to Texas History

Primary Source Adventures


While this PSA provides an everyman view of ranching in Texas, it is important to note that the oral histories do have the potential disadvantages of personal bias and they were conducted long after the events in question. Human memory is fallible and subject to reinterpretation as time passes. With that caveat in mind, the oral histories provide an excellent view of life on Texas ranches.

    Students will utilizes three oral histories as its primary written sources. The King Ranch, the Running ‘W,’ and the XIT Ranch are indelibly linked with Texas myth and history. Fred H. Ferguson and Sidney Freeborn provide a few anecdotes about cowboy or Texas ranch life. Louis E. Turlatte, Jr. was born and raised a cowboy on the Kennedy Ranch, and his account provides a detailed description of ranch life. He recounts the day-to-day life and inner workings of the ranch. Supplementing these written accounts are various photos of the King, XIT, and other ranches.

    Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

    The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures.



by Vale Fitzpatrick

Ask the “person on the street” what they think of when they hear the name Texas, and some common answers will probably be: cowboys, longhorns, oil, Texas Rangers, football, the Alamo, ranching, Indian fights. Ranching, specifically cattle ranching, is an iconic part of Texas history.

The King Ranch extends into eight Texas countries, and stretches along the Gulf coast in south-eastern Texas. In 1850, after the close of Mexican-American war Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy formed a partnership called Kenedy and Company, to buy steamboats and operate them. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s their steamboat enterprise flourished, at their prime they owned and operated twenty-six steamboats. The success of this business venture provided the funds King used to found his ranch. However, in 1852 King, accompanied by his friend Robert E. Lee, rode throughout the Rio Grande area to scout the territory for development. King purchased 53,000 acres, in an area called the Santa Gertrudis Creek, and made it the headquarters for the future King Ranch. King encountered a problem endemic to South Texas; convoluted and unclear land ownership. The land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande had been part of Spain, Mexico, Texas, United States, the Confederate States of America, and finally the United States again. As each nation issued its own land contracts the result was a legal nightmare. Untangling who owned the land, which was often unsurveyed or badly surveyed, was further complicated since in the 1850s and early 1860s none of the ranches were fenced. Thanks to their multinational nature many of the claims conflicted with each other, compounding this problem was the fact that many of these contracts were in differing languages and poorly constructed from a legal standpoint. King often had to buy the same tracts of land twice to solve ownership issues. The vague nature of many land grants meant the King Ranch was vulnerable to costly legal challenges for decades. On 5 December 1860 King entered into an arrangement with Mifflin Kenedy wherein he acquired half interest in the ranch forming R. King and Company. By 1868 King and Kenedy dissolved their partnership creating separate Ranches.

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In 1868 King began fencing in the land surrounding his headquarters at Santa Gertrudis. By the 1870s the cattle industry had become a success and big business. However it faced constant problems such as Texas Tick Fever and screw worms caused considerable problems for selling cattle from South Texas. Robert J. Kleberg, King’s Lawyer who married his daughter in 1886, designed the first cattle dipping vats to battle the tick. Additionally, Mr. Kleberg built a facility that was, for a time, the largest cattle rail shipping operation in the world.

The small town of Cruillas in Tamulipas was the foundation of Los Kineños (King’s People). The town was suffering from a severe drought and sold King all their cattle. King realized he had deprived the people of Cruillas of their long term livelihood and he was in need of skilled hard-working stockmen and cowboys. King return to the village and offered them employment, food, and shelter if they would move to his ranch and work for them. The villagers agreed and became known as Los Kineños, they and their descendents would create a large portion of the unique tapestry of the King ranch culture. To this day the Kineños remain an integral and unique part of the ranch.

Today the King Ranch covers approximately 900,000 acres, extending into eight counties, including Nueces, Kenedy, Kleberg, and Willacy. The weather makes its location ideal for large scale cattle raising, as the temperature rarely stays below freezing long, even in the depth of winter. In practical terms this means that cattle can roam free and graze all winter. However, before wells were constructed this was an inhospitable place for livestock. To supply its vast water needs over five hundred windmills and artesian wells were created to furnish water for 85,000 head of cattle and around 3,000 horses. The foundation of King’s cattle herd was the longhorn; in 1874 King expanded his breeding stock with the acquisition of several Brahman, which thrived in the south Texas climate. Always attempting to breed superior cattle, in the 1880s shorthorn and Hereford cattle were purchased. The shorthorn in particular would serve as the basis for many breeds, “The shorthorn has perhaps done more toward the improvement of Texas cattle than any other breed.”1 Santa Gertudis cattle were developed by the King Ranch by crossing Brahman with Shorthorn Cattle, and the resulting breed functioned well in hot, humid, and unfavorable environments. They exhibit a high degree of heat and tick resistance and exceptional material traits. In 1940 the Santa Gertrudis was recognized as the first Beef developed in the United States. Concurrent with the development of the Santa Gertrudis, the King Ranch began breeding race horses, quarter horses and English thoroughbreds.

During the 1920s and 30s the financially troubled King Ranch was saved by oil. Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon-Mobile) negotiated a mineral rights contract, and in 1939 drilling began. In 1941 and 1942, they discovered extensions of Stratton Field and West Stratton Field. In 1945 the first wildcat well revealed the Borregas oilfield, and since then four other major oil locations have been discovered on the King Ranch. In 1980 a subsidiary, King Ranch Oil and Gas, conducted exploration and production of mineral resources in five states and the Gulf of Mexico. It was sold to Standard Oil in 1988 for $40 million. By the twenty first century the King Ranch became highly diversified; conducting operations in oil and gas production, timber, horse breeding and racing, and cattle.

The XIT Ranch, was the largest ranch in Texas and the United States, and traced its beginnings back to 1882. However its beginning actually dates back to 1879 when the Sixteenth Texas Legislature put up for sale three million acres of land to finance a new state capitol building. This illustrates just how Texas benefitted from retaining its public lands when it joined the United States. After the old capital building was lost to fire on 9 November 1881, the construction of a new capital became an urgent priority. 3,025,000 acres were used to pay the contractor, Mathias Schnell of Rock Island, Illinois. Schnell promptly transferred the land to a group of business man known as the Chicago Syndicate, who stated they wanted to temporarily use the land for ranching before selling it to farmers. The Syndicate raised over five million dollars from British investors and hired B.H. Campbell as general manager for the ranch, and his first task was to acquire cattle. By 1885, the first herd of 2,500 cattle was established and two years later the ranch had more than 150,000 cattle. By the 1890s the ranch employed 150 cowboys in a domain that spanned ten counties: Dallam, Hartley, Oldham, Deaf Smith, Parmer, Castro, Bailey, Lamb, Cochran, and Hockley counties. As the XIT Ranch covered parts of ten counties, popular myth states that the XIT brand means ten in Texas. However the brand was created by Abner P. Blocker, who drove the first herd of cattle to the ranch. He sketched out the mark in the dirt when Campbell asked for a brand that could not be easily altered.2 By 1886 ranch hands had fenced 781 miles. By 1900 1,500 miles of the ranch were fenced, and an additional 355 windmills and 100 dams had been built on the XIT Ranch to provide water for their massive cattle herds.

The attraction of such huge herds of longhorns resulted in numerous instances of fence cutting and cattle rustling. The XIT hands, along with hired guns, formed posses to patrol and strike back at rustlers. A constant problem for ranch hands were wolves which took a toll on the herds, so much so that the Ranch offered a bounty on wolfs. Many cowboys made extra money killing wolves. During the 1880s the Syndicate experimented with small scale agriculture, and the foremen at each division headquarters were required to record weather and rainfall, as research to determine the viability of agriculture on XIT lands.

In 1887 they exhibited two acres of their produce at the state fair.3 During 1888 advertisements were touting the Texas Panhandle as the place to settle because of rich productive soil, seasonable summers and balmy winters.4 By the late 1890s the British investors wanted out, precipitating the Syndicate to slowly but surely break up and sell XIT land. Initially large tracts of land were sold to Ranchers such as George W. Littlefield who in 1901 purchased 235,858 acres and W.E. Halsell who bought 184,155 acres. After significant sales to ranching interests the Syndicate refocused their sales campaign on small farmers. In 1905 various land development companies such as the Syndicate ran offices of land. The last XIT cattle were sold in 1912 and land sales were transferred to Capital Reservation Land. The last remnant of XIT land was sold in 1963.

1James Cox. Historical and Biographical record of the cattle industry and the cattle of Texas and adjacent territory 2 Volumes. New introduction by J. Frank Dobie. (NY: Antiquarian Press, Ltd., 1959), 200.

2 Campbell, 301.

3J. Evetts Haley. The XIT Ranch of Texas. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1953), 208.

4The Tascosa Pioneer, 28 January 1888.