A Brief History of Kenedy County, Texas

From Holden:

In order to more fully understand the Kenedy County Sheriff’s decision not to investigate the shooting of a 78-year-old man on the Armstrong Ranch it might be a good idea to undertand the historical context in which this decision was made.

Let’s turn to the Kenedy County entry in the Handbook of Texas the definitive source for Texas history.

Kenedy County (S-17), on U.S. Highway 77 south of Corpus Christi in the Rio Grande Plain region of South Texas, was named for pioneer rancher Mifflin Kenedy.


American settlement in the region was slow but increased after the Mexican War. New settlers were generally welcomed by the Mexican rancheros, and a number of the newcomers married into prominent local families. Ethnic relations began to change during the second half of the nineteenth century, however, when steadily growing numbers of Anglo-Americans began to settle in South Texas. Increasingly, Mexican landholding families found their titles in jeopardy in the courts or were subjected to violence.


Tensions grew in 1875 after a group of Anglos attacked several ranches in the future Kenedy County in retaliation for raids made by Mexican ranchers. Vigilantes and outlaws from Corpus Christ raided the area, killing virtually all of the adult males on four ranches-La Atravesada, El Peascal, Corral de Piedra, and El Mesquite-and burning the stores and buildings; many of the remaining Mexican rancheros were forced out. One vaquero who witnessed the raids later recalled that “there were many small ranches belonging to Mexicans, but the Americans came in and drove them out….after that they fenced the ranches…[including] some land that wasn’t theirs.”

The largest of the ranches was the King Ranch,qv founded in 1847 by Mifflin Kenedy and his partner Richard King, who acquired their vast holdings by both legal and questionable means. In the early 1880s, for example, Kenedy reportedly fenced in a lake that by tradition belonged to Doa Euliana Tijerina of the La Atravesada grant. To enforce their rule the Kings often called on the Texas Rangers*, whom locals sometimes referred to as los rinches de la Kinea-the King Ranch Texas Rangers. Commenting on such practices, an anonymous newspaper article in 1878 averred that it was not unusual for King’s neighbors “to mysteriously disappear whilst his territory extends over entire counties.”

Kenedy County, among the last Texas counties formed, was not established until 1921, when Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo counties were reorganized. The stated reason for the county’s formation was the considerable distance to the county seats of the other counties. But perhaps more important was the attempt of ranching interests to stave off the growing power of farmers who were beginning to develop the Rio Grande valley. The new county seat was established at Sarita, where John G. Kenedy, son of the founder of the King Ranch, had built his headquarters. Since that time the county has changed little. Although Kenedy County was a ranching area from the advent of the Spanish to the early 1990s, there have never been more than twenty-five ranches in the county, and most of the land still remains in the hands of the Armstrong, King, Kenedy, and Yturria interests. In 1930 there were thirteen ranches in Kenedy County, with an average size of 61,500 acres. By 1945, after several consolidations, there were only seven ranches, averaging 70,130 acres.


The same families that helped Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King to build their empires continue to work on the ranches. In Kenedy County locals are still sometimes identified as Kienos and Kenedanos, as workers at the King or Kenedy ranches. These individuals are tied to those ranches by generations of tradition, and as late as the 1990s their lives had changed little. Until very recently most Kienos and Kenedanos were uneducated; only 15 percent of the population over twenty-five had received a high school education in the mid-1970s. There was little opportunity for economic advancement, and many county residents stayed on the ranch for their entire lives. Traditionally the children of these individuals, boys especially, were encouraged to train in specific ranching techniques and take over their parents’ roles. This system provided a constant labor supply for the ranches and helped to control wages to the benefit of the ranches’ owners. This pattern began to change in the later twentieth century, but income and adult education levels in the county remained among the lowest in the state.

That’s rich Republican lobbyist Katharine Armstrong’s America for you.

*UPDATE: Rich Republican lobbyist Katharine Armstrong is a decendant of Texas Ranger John Barclay Armstrong.