Kenedy County
March 2014

Steve Wilkening & Kathy Wilkening

KENEDY COUNTY. Kenedy County 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. Sarita, in northern Kenedy County, is the county seat and largest town. Most of Kenedy County is covered with brush and scrubby mesquite, with some huisache, acacia, post oak, and live oak. Tall bunchgrasses, such as the seacoast bluestem, are found along the coast, as well as cordgrasses, saltgrass, and marsh millet. Temperatures range from an average low of 47° F in January to an average high of 96° in July; the average annual temperature is 73°. Rainfall averages twenty-six inches a year, and the average growing season is 319 days. Mineral resources include oil and natural gas.

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. The so-called "skinning wars" of the early 1870s were indicative of mounting ethnic and racial tensions in the area. Because of rising prices for hides and the large number of mavericks, or free-ranging cattle, some ranchers went on skinning raids, killing the animals and taking their hides, a practice that often pitted Mexican and Anglo ranchers against each other. 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 Peñascal, 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, 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 Doña Euliana Tijerina of the La Atravesada grant. To enforce their rule the Kings often called on the Texas Rangersqv, whom locals sometimes referred to as los rinches de la Kineña-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. During the peak years of ranching there were more than 80,000 head of cattle in the county. Althoughthat number subsequently decreased, the county remains an important ranching center. Small amounts of sorghum, hay, and cotton are grown, but livestock and livestock products still account for more than 90 percent of agricultural receipts. In the early 1990s about three-fourths of the land was in farms and ranches, with less than 1 percent under cultivation. Oil was discovered in the county in 1947, and in the early 1990s oil and natural gas accounted for the largest source of nonfarm earnings. Production of crude oil in 1990 was 643,446 barrels; between 1947 and January 1, 1991, a total of 31,800,494 barrels was produced.

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 Kiñenos 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 Kiñenos 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.

Between 1940 and 1960 the population of Kenedy County grew from 700 to 884. Afterward, it steadily declined; in 1990 the county had only 460 residents and was therefore one of the least populous counties in the state. Sarita, the only town of any size, had 185 inhabitants in 1990, when, with a population about 80 percent Hispanic, Kenedy County ranked near the top among all United States counties in percentage of Hispanic residents. From the county's inception in 1921 through 1992 Kenedy County residents have voted Democratic in most presidential elections, the exceptions being the elections of 1940, 1944, 1952, 1956, and 1968. For many years the county was run by a political machine, and the nominees favored by the machine were elected. Though the power of the machine has declined, the old elite still controls most local offices. In the early 1990s the county had one school district with two elementary schools. Two percent of the students were white, and 98 percent were Hispanic. Kenedy County also had two churches with an estimated combined membership of approximately 450; most residents are Catholic. Recreation facilities in the county include Padre Island National Seashore and 125 acres of fresh water. Extensive hunting and fishing opportunities lure numerous visitors.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Lewellyn Allhands, Gringo Builders (Joplin, Missouri, Dallas, Texas, 1931). Evan Anders, Boss Rule in South Texas: The Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982). Lewis Eldon Atherton, The Cattle Kings (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961). Arnoldo De León, The Tejano Community, 1836–1900 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982). Thomas Hester, Digging into South Texas Prehistory: A Guide for Amateur Archaeologists (San Antonio: Corona Press, 1980). Tom Lea, The King Ranch (2 vols., Boston: Little, Brown, 1957). Stephan G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, If You Love Me You Will Do My Will (New York: Norton, 1990). David Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Frank Cushman Pierce, Texas' Last Frontier: A Brief History of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Menasha, Wisconsin: Banta, 1917; rpt., Brownsville: Rio Grande Valley Historical Society, 1962). Florence Johnson Scott, Spanish Land Grants in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1939). Roberto M. Villarreal, The Mexican-American Vaqueros of the Kenedy Ranch: A Social History (M.A. thesis, Texas A&I University, 1972).

Alicia A. Garza Where Counties Citation The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article. Alicia A. Garza, "KENEDY COUNTY," Handbook of Texas Online