The King of American Ranches

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on May 29, 2005

Squinting beneath a cream-colored, wide-brimmed hat, Robert Silguero leans over the rough wooden rail and prods a rust-colored calf from one pen into another. Nervous and wide-eyed, the animal scrambles into a mechanized chute, where Robert’s cousin, David Gerragauch, firmly brands a three-digit number on its hide.

Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Silguero, 40, works and lives at the only place he’s ever really called home—the sprawling 825,000-acre King Ranch near Kingsville, Texas (pop. 25,575).

“I left for a year, but I came back,” says the stocky, broad-shouldered Silguero. “I missed it. This ranch is a part of me.”

The legendary King Ranch—where the name alone evokes a sense of grandeur—is recognized as the birthplace of the American ranching industry. It was there, in this harsh brush country along the mesquite-shrouded banks of Santa Gertrudis Creek, that Richard King in 1853 first launched the Western cattle business by corralling wild longhorns that roamed the Texas flatlands and herding them north to markets that hungered for beef.

Sprung from one man’s foresight more than 150 years ago, the King Ranch has not only survived but evolved into a major agribusiness corporation that today has interests in cattle and feedlot operations, farming, citrus groves, recreational hunting, ecotourism and retail sales.

The ranch’s contributions to the industry are numerous. It produced the first American beef breed of cattle, the Santa Gertrudis, in 1940, and more recently, the Santa Cruz, in 1994. The first cattle dipping vats were designed and used on the ranch in 1891 to fight the deadly tick fever. The ranch produced some of the all-time top running and performance horses, including Mr. San Peppy, the youngest horse ever to be inducted into the National Cutting Horse Association’s Hall of Fame in 1974.

And years ahead of their time, ranch managers in 1912 implemented a hunting code and in 1945 hired their first wildlife biologist.

“This place is as much about wildlife and land stewardship as it is about the cattle,” says David DeLaney, the ranch’s assistant general manager. “There’s a long-term commitment here not only to sustainable agriculture and wildlife management, but also to the people who live here as well. The bonds there are strong.”

Those bonds took root when Richard King, a successful steamboat captain who knew little about cattle, traveled into Mexico in 1854 in search of vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) to run the 15,500-acre ranch he’d bought the year before. He came upon the drought-stricken village of Las Cruillas, where he invited townspeople to follow him back to Texas. In exchange, King promised homes and jobs.

Today, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation Kineños (King’s men)—like Silguero and Eloy Quintanilla—continue the vaquero tradition of their ancestors. They live with their families in homes provided by the ranch, and their children attend nearby Santa Gertrudis School, the same one they went to as kids.

“I take care of this place like it’s my own,” says Quintanilla, 47, an assistant area manager whose duties include tending part of the ranch’s 1,500 miles of fence.

Cowboys still tend to the ranch’s 50,000 cattle on horseback, but they also use pickup trucks to pull feed wagons, electric branding irons to mark animals, computers to compile stock records and helicopters to herd cattle.

Mickey Hellickson, the ranch’s chief wildlife biologist, uses helicopters, too, to survey white-tailed deer. The annual counts determine how many will be harvested during fall hunting seasons, a major income source for the ranch. “Our overall goal is to ensure that wildlife populations on the ranch are always thriving,” Hellickson says.

Today, more than 200 descendants of Richard King and Robert Kleberg Sr., who married King’s daughter Alice, maintain interest in King Ranch Inc., headquartered in Houston, and three serve on its board of directors.

In honor of the ranch’s 150th anniversary, family members, management and shareholders in 2003 established the King Ranch Institute of Ranch Management, a unique master’s degree program at Texas A&M University in Kingsville.

“We want to turn out people who can keep ranches economically viable,” General Manager Paul Genho says. “It’s all about managing a big system—cattle, wildlife, habitat, water and people.”

Genho adds: “Captain King was an astute businessman, but he was also a naturalist. If you want to be here 100 years from now, you have to have both.”

For more information, call (361) 592-8055 or log on to