Pathbreaking Pioneers & Patronas

HerStory: Women's History Month 2023
Espíritu Santo land grant, Cameron County, Texas, General Land Office, 1913.

Map showing the Espiritu Santo land grant. [Texas] General Land Office. Map of Cameron County, 1913; Tulsa, Oklahoma. Courtesy of UNT's Portal to Texas History. 

María Gertrudis de la Garza Falcón

María Gertrudis de la Garza Falcón (1734–1789) was born in Cerralvo, Nuevo León, Mexico. Her father Capt. Blas María de la Garza Falcón was an explorer and colonizer of the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas and Mexico and served as provincial governor of Coahuila. After María father was made captain of Camargo, the family relocated to the new colony in 1750.

In 1754, María Gertrudis married José Salvador de la Garza and the couple had three children. Three years later Doña Gertrudis' husband was awarded +5,700 acres in what became Starr County, Texas. Seeking additional lands for grazing their goats, sheep, and cattle, the family moved further south into present-day Cameron County and established the ranches of Espíritu Santo and El Tanque (later known as El Rancho Viejo). José applied for (1772) and was commissioned (1779) an additional +250,000 acres. The tract was named Potrero del Espíritu Santo, or Pasture of the Holy Ghost (also known as the Espíritu Santo grant). Doña Gertrudis and her children inherited the land, ranchos, and animal herds upon her husband's death (c. 1781-1782). Her name would later be used for the King Ranch's famed Santa Gertrudis cattle, known for their resilience in the harsh conditions of South Texas.

The de la Garza heirs retained ownership of the land intact until 1848 when a portion of the land was sold. One portion was acquired for the townsite of Brownsville by Charles Stillman and the Brownsville Town Company, but the terms of sale were contested by the Garza heirs in 1849. Although the de la Garza descendants won their legal suit in 1852, Stillman eventually acquired the property for the town. This was a representative episode in the historic struggle among Hispanic and ethnic Mexican people to retain control of their ancestral land after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which incited people like Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, the great-grandson of Doña Gertrudis, to armed conflict in the Cortina Wars.

Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia chronicled the genealogy of the family in her book, Captain Blas María de la Garza Falcón : colonizer of South Texas. San Felipe Press, 1984.

La Feria land tract belonging to Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Ballí (1777).

Land Grant for La Feria Ranch, in Cameron County, to Rosa Maria, 1777. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

Rosa María Hinojosa de Ballí

Rosa María Hinojosa de Ballí (1752–1803), or La Patrona, amassed a ranching empire. She was born to an aristocratic Spanish family in Tamaulipas, the family reloacted in 1767 to Reynosa where her father served as mayor.

She married Capt. José María Ballí, and they had three sons, most notably Father José Nicolás Ballí the missionary developer of Padre Island. Her husband and father jointly applied for a large Spanish land grant, but both men died before it was approved in 1790. Rosa inherited the La Feria land grant, which included her husband's portion of ~55,000 acres as well as some of her father's land. Yet, she also inherited the estate's debit.

Doña Rosa and her brother Vicente worked together to improve and expand their holdings, which eventually included land in present day Cameron and Hidalgo counties and the cities of La Feria and Harlingen. Later her eldest son Nicholas would acquire Padre Island. By 1798 she owned 642,755 acres, and when she died in 1803, Doña Rosa controlled over 1M acres—nearly one-third of the RGV with land in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy, Starr, and Kenedy counties. She kept detailed records of accounts, and her will cited 40 herds of mares, 200 mules, 2001 sheep, 40 steers, 3 yoke of oxen, a 10-room house, and two carriages as well as countless personal and religious items. She also owned at least one enslaved girl, Maria Dolores, who was 15 years old.

A devout Catholic, Doña Rosa was godmother to many, built a family chapel, and donated land for three Mexican parishes. As La Patrona, she was sought by ranchers for her advice and by her community for her benevolence.

Engraving of Petra Vela de Vidal Kenedy

Engraving of Petra Vela de Vidal Kenedy. Courtesy of UTSA Libraries Special Collections.

Petra Vela de Vidal Kenedy

Petra Vela de Vidal Kenedy (1823–1885) was born in Mier, Mexico to the Spanish provincial governor. In 1830, she and her sisters were kidnapped by Comanches. Petra was ransomed and one of her sisters escaped, but the fate of the third is unknown.

She later married Mexican Col. Luis Vidal, with whom she had six children. When Vidal died Doña Petra inherited his fortune. In 1854, she married steamboat captain Mifflin Kenedy in Brownsville, and the couple had five children and adopted a sixth.

Kenedy's steamboat business and cotton trade was successful, and the combined Vidal-Kenedy family continued to amass wealth, including a sheep ranch in Hidalgo County near El Sal del Rey. Kenedy eventually partnered with Capt. Richard King in the 1860s to expand operations and the two profited from the Civil War.

After the war, the Kenedy family relocated from Brownsville to Laureles Ranch (172,000 acres), south of Corpus Christi, where they employed 150 workers and housed 20 families. When Doña Petra's health began to decline the ranch was sold, she and Mifflin settled permanently in Corpus Christi where she died in 1885 after a long battle with cancer.

During her lifetime, Doña Petra gave generously to the poor and to churches in Brownsville and Corpus Christi. Her son John Gregory Kenedy, or Don Gregorio, continued this tradition, setting up charitable trusts that continue to benefit the Catholic Diocese of Corpus Christi, the Christus Spohn Health System, and various Catholic charities.

Livestock brand for Doña Petra Vela

Documentation of the cattle brand and ear mark registered by Doña Petra Vela for Palomas Ranch on 9/26/1871. Hidalgo County Marks & Brands, Volume A, page 164 


Cabinet card portrait of Salomé Ballí Young McAllen. Courtesy of McAllen Ranch.

Salomé Ballí Young McAllen

Salomé Ballí Dominguez Young McAllen (1830–1898) was born in Matamoros and inherited the Santa Anita Ranch, one of the original Spanish Land Grants established in 1797.

In 1848, she married John J. Young, a Scotsman and Matamoros merchant, who was 28 years her senior, and in 1854, Salomé gave birth to their son John Joseph Young II. The couple bought the remaining portions of the Gómez grant, as well as additional land long the Rio Grande. And, by 1857 the ranch livestock holdings recorded over 5,000 head of cattle, and even larger number of sheep.

When her husband John died in 1859, his estate was split between Salomé and their son effectively making her one of the wealthiest Texans of her time. She reportedly owned $100,000 in real estate and $25,000 in personal property.

Salomé enlisted the help of her husband's business associate, John McAllen, to manage the family holdings. The two married in 1861 and had a son of their own, James Ballí McAllen, the following year. Their combined holdings grew as Salomé and James bought back the remaining portions the entire Santa Anita land grant.

Her sons, John and James continued to operate and expand the ranch along with her husband James McAllen. During the Civil War, the family profited by providing supplies to both Confederate and Union troops.

When Salomé died in 1898, her two sons divided the land between themselves. John Young II took the eastern Santa Anita portion, and James Ballí McAllen took the western San Juanito portion, which he ran with his father as the McAllen Ranch.

Livestock brand for Salomé McAllen

Documentation of the cattle brand registered by Salomé McAllen on 9/14/1866. (The brand appears to be "JY" perhaps for John Young.) Hidalgo County Marks and Brands, Volume C, page 96.

Henrietta King wearing [a mourning] pin with the picture of [Richard King].

Photograph of Henrietta King wearing a mourning broach of her husband Richard M. King. Courtesy of South Texas Archives, Texas A&M University, Kingsville.

Henrietta M. M. King

Henrietta Maria Morse (Chamberlain) King (1832–1925) was a trailblazing rancher, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. She was born in Boonville, MO, to missionary parents and her mother died when Henrietta was only 3 years old. At 16, she attended Female Institute of Holly Springs (MS) for two years before settling with her father in Brownsville, TX, where she briefly taught school at the Rio Grande Female Institute.

While in Brownsville she met and married (1854) Richard M. King, a hard-drinking river boat pilot. They made their home at Santa Gertrudis Ranch and raised five children. Richard King became a war profiteer during the Civil War, operating an official Confederte Army receiving station for cotton that was ferried to Mexico and beyond. A pregnant Henrietta held own operations at the ranch when her husband fled the advancing Union Army.

After the war, the Kings continued to grow their ranch and upon Richards's death (1885), Henrietta King assumed full ownership of ~500,000 acres of ranchland between Corpus Christi and Brownsville as well as nearly $500,000 in debts. She worked tirelessly with her son-in-law Robert Kleberg to discharge the debt and further grow the ranch operations. Upon her death, the ranch had more than doubled in size to nearly 1.2M acres.

The King-Kleberg partnership resulted in a breeding program of world class horses and the development of the disease and drought resistant Santa Gertrudis cattle. Henrietta granted land for the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway and she furnished townsites for Kingsville and Raymondville and donated the land for Texas A&M University in Kingsville. Henrietta invested money in local businesses and donated land for churches, libraries, and schools but spent the most of her time on the ranch among los kineños, or the King Ranch's workers and their families. Her daughter, Addie, went on to follow in her footsteps as a philanthropist and entrepreneur.

>>Listen to Stories from Texas, "The Queen of the King Ranch."

Henrietta M. King sitting with her grandchildren - Henrietta Kleberg and Richard M. Kleberg, Sr.

Henrietta M. King sitting with her grandchildren - Henrietta Kleberg and Richard M. Kleberg, Sr. Photograph courtesy of South Texas Archives, Texas A&M University, Kingsville.

Henrietta Kleberg and Alice King Kleberg.

Henrietta Kleberg and Alice King Kleberg. Photograph courtesy of South Texas Archives. Texas A&M University, Kingsville.

Alice Kleberg

Alice Gertrudis (King) Kleberg (1862–1944), called "Addie", was the daughter of Richard M. and Henrietta (Chamberlain) King. She along with her four siblings grew up at Rancho Santa Gertrudis (King Ranch). Addie and her sister, Ella, attended a Presbyterian girls’ school, Henderson Female Institute, in Danville, KY and later Mrs. Cuthbert’s Young Ladies’ Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

When Addie returned home to the ranch in 1881, she met Robert Justus Kleberg, a lawyer who was hired to be one of her father Richard's legal advisors. After Richard King died in 1885, Robert Kleberg and Henrietta King assumed management of ranch operations.

Alice King and Robert Kleberg married in 1886, and the couple had five children. Like her mother, Alice worked on the ranch and raised her children their. She was active in her community and raised funds to open the Spohn Hospital in 1905. After the hospital was destroyed by a hurricane (1919), Addie led the effort to rebuild and reopen in 1923.

In 1934, Addie consolidated the ranch property into a corporation, citing her own children as stockholders. During this period the family leased oil and gas rights to Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil) further diversifying their income at the ranch.

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Pathbreaking Pioneers & Patronas