To celebrate Women's History Month, I want to share one of my personal heroines. She was spunky and intelligent and not afraid to stand her ground. She made a huge contribution to those who knew her, those who came after her, and to the state of Texas.
Henrietta Maria Morse Chamberlain, the only child of Maria (Morse) and Hiram Chamberlain, was born July 21, 1832, in Boonville, Missouri. In 1835, her mother died. Her father’s Presbyterian missionary work in Missouri and Tennessee forced her to become self-reliant and introspective.
At about age fourteen, she attended the Female Institute of Holly Springs, Mississippi, for two years. (Don’t you love the name of the school?) Although she is said to have chafed at the restrictions there, she believed every girl should be educated. She took refuge in the library where she studied classics, world politics, history, and philosophy. She wanted to teach. Henrietta was guided by her father’s life instructions that she "could master her own destiny and that a girl didn’t have to be a clinging vine".
|Henrietta Maria King|
By February 23, 1850, she was in Brownsville, Texas, when her father organized the first Presbyterian mission in South Texas. She was scrubbing the deck of the Whiteville to ready it to house the Presbyterian minister’s family.
Captain Richard King’s steamboat chugged up and he bellowed at her to “cast off that line and let loose that stinking rat trap”.
She refused to back down and yelled, “And you, sir, are not a welcome visitor either. The Whiteville is a great sight cleaner than the Colonel Cross.” That was true, for on board the Captain’s boat were barrels of molasses with hordes of flies buzzing around them.
|One of the captain's steamboats, the Bessie|
The captain soon came to church to meet Henrietta. In 1854, she taught briefly at the Rio Grande Female Institute before her marriage to Richard King on December 10, 1854. He was ten years older than she and he called her Etta. She called him Captain.
|Captain Richard King|
They left Brownsville in a coach with armed guards to establish their home on the Santa Gertrudis Ranch. Their original three-room dwelling was a mud and stick jacal. Reportedly, he promised her he’d build her a mansion some day.
She is reported to have answered, “I don’t need a mansion, just a larger pantry.” When she realized how much riding she would do, she remade one of her skirts into a split skirt so she could ride astride. In her memoirs, she wrote that, “I doubt if it falls to the lot of any bride to have so happy a honeymoon. On horseback we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me and then I would take my siesta under the shade of the mesquite tree.”
Many historians believe the largely unread captain relied on Etta in much of the ranch’s business. She took on the task of providing housing and education for the families of the vaqueros the ranch employed. She learned Spanish so she could teach the children.
|Postcard of the King ranch headquarters, Santa Gertrudis|
During the Civil War, the ranch was an official receiving station for cotton that was ferried first to Mexican ports and then on to England. Henrietta King was no pushover. When Richard King left the ranch to escape capture by Union forces in 1863, Henrietta remained—pregnant with one of their five children. After the house was plundered, she moved the family to San Antonio until they could safely return home. According to a 2011 Texas Monthly article, “the outlaws and renegades who infested the area preferred to approach the house when Captain King was at home rather than when his wife was there alone.”
When her husband died in 1885, his will said, “Etta gets it all.” Henrietta assumed full ownership of his estate, consisting chiefly of 500,000 acres of ranchland between Corpus Christi and Brownsville and, unfortunately, $500,000 in debts. Under her skillful personal supervision and with the assistance of her son-in-law Robert Kleberg, the King Ranch was freed of debt and increased in size. By 1895, the 650,000 acre ranch was engaged in experiments with cattle and horse breeding, in range grasses, and in dry and irrigated farming. The Santa Gertrudis cattle developed there were a boon to the Texas cattle industry because of their resistance to disease and heat.
|Henrietta Maria Chamberlain King|
Henrietta was also interested in the settlement of the region between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. About 1903, she offered 75,000 acres of right-of-way to men who planned to construct the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway. A year later she furnished townsites for Kingsville and Raymondsville on the rail line. She founded the Kleberg Town and Improvement Company and the Kingsville Lumber Company to sell land and materials to settlers in Kingsville. As the town grew, she invested in the Kingsville Ice and Milling Company, Kingsville Publishing Company, Kingsville Power Company, Gulf Coast Gin Company and Kingsville Cotton Oil Mill Company.
She constructed the First Presbyterian Church building in Kingsville and also donated land for Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic churches. She constructed a high school and presented it to the town. Among her many charities were donations of land for the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute and for the Spohn Sanitarium, for which her daughter Alice King Kleberg helped raise funds. In her last years, she provided land for and encouragement for the establishment of the South Texas State Teachers College (now Texas A&M University-Kingsville).
|Alice and Robert Kleberg|
About 1895, she gave her son-in-law her power of attorney and increased his ranch responsibilities. The ranch continued to grow, reaching a size of 1,173,000 acres by 1925. Today, the King Ranch owns 911,123 acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The ranch is home to 35,000 cattle and over 200 Quarter Horses. The ranch company also own farm land in Florida. The ranch is owned by approximately sixty descendants of Henrietta and Captain Richard King. What a legacy to leave!
|Henrietta King, La Reina|
Henrietta King died on March 31, 1925, on the King Ranch and is buried in Kingsville. At her funeral an honor guard of 200 vaqueros—Los Kineños, or the King’s men—riding quarter horses branded with the ranch’s Running W, flanked the hearse. Some of these men had ridden two days across the vast ranch to get there on time. Each cantered a circle around her open grave and tipped his hat in reverence to a great lady, La Reina, Queen of the King Ranch.
Stories from Texas: Some of Them Are True, by W. F. Strong, Berkley Place Books, 2018.
Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout the Lone Star State, by Carmen Goldthwaite, History Press, 2013
Texas State Historical Associate Online Handbook of Texas, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/ by Edgar P. Sneed.
Photos: Google Commons