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Henrietta Chamberlain King (1767-1845)
President and Patriot

Hiram Chamberlain was the first minister to establish a Protestant Church along the Texas Rio Grande River. Behind him was a distinguished career of schooling: Middlebury College, Princeton Theological Seminary, Andover Theological Seminary, He was originally from Vermont. Remembrance Chamberlain, one of the early Presbyterian ministers in Georgia, was one of the Vermont Chamberlains; Jeremiah Chamberlain was one of the first ministers in Mississippi. The Chamberlains were a missionizing lot.

Hiram had a daughter, Henrietta, a young lady considered of intellectual attainments as well as high moral tone. In the Texas of the1850's, a frontier area, she was culture itself. As one would expect on the Western frontier she was a school marm. She sang in the choir of First Church, which her father organized in Brownsville, Texas. She went to prayer meetings and said what she believed with a toss of her head, and if provoked, a flashing eye.

Perhaps it was only natural for a broad shouldered, hot-tempered, fine cussing Irishman to fall in love with her. She reciprocated this love entirely. Captain Richard King was owner, pilot, and captain of a steamship on the Rio Grande. He had been apprenticed to a jeweler in New York, run away at an early age, and was used to getting what he wanted.

One of the things he wanted was Miss Chamberlain. They first met when she was eighteen. She put him off four years until she felt older and they could gain her father's approval. Hiram finally gave in, even though compared to Hiram, Richard King was unschooled and unpolished. Hiram said he found in him "sterling" qualities.

Captain King and Henrietta were married December 10, 1854. It was a wedding typical of the time. It was held after the evening worship. After the service, the two came forward for the wedding. Her father married them. For their honeymoon, they took a four-day stagecoach trip to her husband's ranch. He was in ranching, as well as shipping.

Henrietta wrote of her honeymoon at their Texas ranch, "I doubt if it falls to the lot of any a bride to have had so happy a honeymoon...we roamed the broad prairies. When I grew tired my husband would spread a Mexican blanket for me...under the shade of a mesquite tree."

The rancho was in splendid isolation. It included huts, a blockhouse, and a stockade with two cannons. It was made for a missionary's daughter. She was a schoolteacher, social worker, nurse, and hostess, responsible for the quality of life as she saw it, among some very rough men. The Mexican-American ranch hands called her La Madama and swept their hats to her as she went about.

Her reputation in the area as a lady not to be trifled with was soon made. It was said that bandits and outlaws common to the area preferred to try their luck with Captain King rather than her. She was a righteous woman and as such very formidable.

There were children of course, three girls and then boys. Etta King had pioneer experiences to test her strength. On one occasion, her baby was sleeping in the ranch kitchen where she was baking bread. An Indian jumped in and began brandishing his tomahawk above the baby. His gestures indicated if he did not get bread, he would kill the baby. She presented him with all the bread she had and he left.

On another occasion, she and Richard were camping out on a wilderness trail. She was busy with the baby. When she looked up she saw a man holding a knife over Richard. "Behind you," she yelled, and Captain King whipped around quickly enough to slam the man to earth. An old trail driver said of Captain King after his death, "He was a rough man, but he was a good man," It was the marriage of a real frontier man with a real lady.

After a period of residence solely at the Rancho del Santa Gertrudis, they began part time residence in town. They moved into a cottage in Brownsville. In the front yard of the cottage were orange trees.

The state of the frontier in the early part of Mrs. King's life may be seen in the Texas Presbyterian, a religious magazine. In 1877, this magazine complained that ladies had to lift up their long dresses in leaving the church because of tobacco juice the men spat on the floor.

Fort Brown, a military outpost, was part of the social life of the town. Through it the Kings made a family friend they were to particularly cherish, Col. Robert E. Lee who was stationed there on his second tour of duty in Texas. Lee called on Mrs. King and wrote home to Virginia that her table was loaded with things "tempting to the eye." He rode out with Captain King. He visited the rancho several times. At the ranch, he was served Western food on a tin plate.

Lee was an engineer, as well as a planter and military man. He surveyed the land and the situation and gave Captain King some advice. The advice reinforced what Richard King thought. Lee said, "Buy land and never sell." And that was what the Captain did. He was putting together the largest ranch in the West. At his death in 1885, he left more than five hundred thousand acres. It took a week to ride around the ranch.

At the time of the Confederate War Captain King naturally supported the South, not only as an agent for Confederate business but also with his steamboats on the Rio Grande. Even the aged Reverend Chamberlain took a commission as a Confederate chaplain. It was then understandable during the awful struggle Yankee raiders came to get their man.

Shortly before Christmas in 1863, a friend came to warn Captain King at the ranch that the Yankees were coming. He could not take his family with him in a prairie flight. The children were small and his wife was pregnant. If he were found at home their lives would be endangered, so he saddled his horse and took out on a flight across the prairies.

When the Union soldiers finally clattered up to the house, a brave Mexican ranch hand, Francisco Alvarado, opened the front door to talk to them. The Yankees shot him dead in the door. Then they dismounted, took the body into the parlor, and saw they had not shot Captain King. In a rage of frustration, they searched, smashed, robbed, and destroyed for the sake of vandalism. Henrietta King, seven months pregnant, watched. Two months later she was delivered of the baby boy she was carrying and named him Robert E. Lee King.

In later years when things had settled, King was pardoned and life resumed normally. Then the two of them took young Lee King to Virginia to see his namesake, General Lee. R. E. Lee was then president of Washington College in Lexington. Later Washington and Lee University. When they took the small boy for General Lee to see, the General said the boy was fine, but he didn't think much of the color he was dressed in. Mrs. King had forgotten and dressed the boy in blue.

After the War, Captain King kept on buying. His large holdings, his ability to curse, his hot temper, his drive, his penchant for fist fights, his respect for his moral and high toned wife, all made him a Western legend in his time. His trust in Henrietta was implicit. Her devotion to him was equally so.

Mrs. King had to do most of the disciplining in the family. The Captain was fond of his children, perhaps too fond. He had a tendency to spoil the children. Mrs. King had Presbyterian views on character. She considered self-indulgence a sin. She considered self-denial a virtue. In this, she saw eye to eye with Robert E. Lee, the family friend. When a mother came to General Lee and asked what she should teach her child to make him great, he said, "Teach him to deny himself."

The two boys, Richard, Jr. and Lee, attended Centre College, an old fashioned Presbyterian school in Kentucky. Richard,Jr., who died in 1925, became an old fashioned gentleman of the moral school. A newspaper said of him at his death, "no other man in South Texas...held the regard of his fellow man more than Mr. King." Lee King, who was promising, died at nineteen of pneumonia.

In 1885, Richard King was suffering with stomach cancer. Part of his last instructions were to a business agent. "Tell him to keep on buying," he said. In this, he had seen eye to eye with Robert E. Lee. When he died in April of that year, it was found he left his entire ranch to his "beloved wife."

Captain King was buried in San Antonio. He had by that time become a Texas legend. He was the pioneer who had formed the most famous ranch in Texas. As the minister of First Church, the Rev. J.W. Neil, finished the funeral, spectators were aware they had seen the end of an era in Texas history.

When King died, Henrietta went into deep mourning. She wished his spirit to continue to be present. The gowns she wore were always in mourning colors. She placed a broach with his picture on it on her high-necked dresses. His portraits were placed prominently in the house. She even had his engraving on the letterhead of the business stationary. She was determined his wishes would always be an influence. That his wishes would continue to dominate.

The years of her long widowhood were eventful. Her brother, William Chamberlain, was bitten by a coyote that had rabies in 1888. The local physician was aware of the most up-to-date medical experiments in France. The patient was rushed in a desperate trip by horse, railroad, and trans-Atlantic steamer to Paris to be treated by Pasteur. William was one of the early patients to be treated and saved by Pasteur from rabies.

In 1912, the ranch house burned down. Mrs. King appeared out of the smoke, calmly carrying a medicine bag. She ordered a man trying to save a piano to leave the house. She said, "We can build a new home. We can't replace a life." In 1916, there was a threatened bandit raid. The house was made into a fort. Henrietta, an old lady, inspected the fortifications, said it was ready, but the bandits never came.

She kept on buying land, as she felt the Captain would have wanted her to do. She had to sell some land at his death to clear up the estate debts, but she soon recouped and made up for this temporary suspension of the Captain's rule. In fact, she more than made up for it. She bought steadily and in 1906 concluded a business deal, with the help of her son-in-law, Robert Kleberg, that brought the King ranch up to a million acres.

In popular mythology it became the "Widow's ranch." Kipling had written a poem on Queen Victoria, "Walk wide o' the widow at Windsor-for half of creation she owns." Mrs. King did not own half of creation, but a million acres was an impressive part for Texas. The King ranch was to be "larger than the state of Connecticut.

She, too, became an almost mythical figure of Texas history, the reclusive and pious widow mourning the past's great pioneer. If she were reclusive, it was that she enjoyed the ranch. It was only for the sake of her grandchildren's education that she moved to Corpus Christi in 1893. There she built an ornate Victorian period mansion.

She moved her church membership to First Church, Corpus Christi. To say that she was active in it would be to say too little. She was a pillar. She attended faithfully. She used her house for its benefits and meetings. She read her church magazines regularly. She gave. She had a Presbyterian and New England conscience in the rigors of the Texas heat. There was spiritual steel in her. She demanded and gave, along with her conscientious son-in-law, Robert Kleberg, absolute integrity in business.

Among her most notable gifts was land for the establishment by the Presbyterians of Texas of the Texas-Mexican Industrial Institute, a school to teach a vocation to Mexican boys. * It was a type of charity that hopefully freed the recipient from the need of charity. It fitted well with her views.

She gave a new building to First Church, Corpus Christi. When a railroad enabled the Kings to develop a new town called Kingsville, she brought in a Presbyterian minister to hold the first services in the King lumberyard until the new building she gave was completed. She made the offer of a location also to the Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists and Catholics.

It was and is in church life mainly the elect women similar to Mrs. King who have attended the Sunday Schools and prayer meetings or held them if necessary, played the pianos, served the church suppers, given the money for church causes, helped organize the new churches, read the church magazines, listened to the sermons, and afterwards fed the preacher at their houses on the best tablecloth.

As many people of the Victorian era, Mrs. King had her views. These were held strongly. They were abstinence, which was odd because the usual Presbyterian position was temperance, no card playing and beginning each day with cereal. An intake of fibre in the daily diet is now seen as healthy, a fact not appreciated then.

She held these views very strongly, so much, so that it was often necessary for guests to sneak a cocktail in their rooms before dinner, and her grandchildren had to hide the "flinch" cards when they saw her coming. When she presided over the long breakfast table of the ranch, the guests, often plutocrats and nobility, were given no choice as to cereal, but asked, "which cereal do you prefer?" She did this in a very firm manner, as if with children, and those at the table ate it very properly under her watchful eye, regardless of rank.

She was also quite unexpected at times. When her husband gave her some diamond earrings, she wanted to wear them, but she was also conscious of their possible ostentation. In costume, she was a believer in severity and restraint. So, she had them covered in black and wore them. It was puritan restraint, Texas style. Good taste triumphed as she saw it, and her dress was that of restrained elegance. It was also a gesture of some social implications that the wife of the arrived biggest rancher in Texas wore diamonds covered in black so as not to be considered gaudy and ostentatious.

She helped her community. Keen on education, she donated land and money to erect a public school in Kingsville. When she gave the school building, her note was insightful: "As I have...had expert house builders for this work, so I would urge...employing expert character builders for the work within."

She was able to spend her final years at the ranch she loved. Tom Lea in
The King Ranch described some of the beauty of living there"...like watching an autumn sun come up to make a prairie of high grass into an outreaching, shining golden cloud...".

At the ranch, she held family prayers every Wednesday night. She usually sat on the porch in a rocking chair and read the church magazines and newspapers. When she looked out, it was to the shining prairies.

Inevitably the end had come. She looked to her demise with a confident hope of immortality. She died March 31, 1925, aged ninety-two years.

The hymn, "Rock of Ages," a favorite in the old West and her favored one, was played at the funeral. The coffin was taken to a hearse that began a slow move from the ranch to Kingsville and the cemetery she named for her father. Two hundred cowboys of the King Ranch dressed in the clothes they wore to work the range rode on their horses in front of the crawling hearse. They were taking the last of the pioneers home.

At the grave service, the cowboys mourned side by side with the famous. After the final prayer in a gesture completely unplanned, they mounted their horses and made a single file. They put their big hats down straight in a side salute, cantered their horses dashingly, and rode in a circle around the grave. Then they moved on silently to the range and the herds that needed them.

It was a spontaneous tribute by the cowboys to a pioneer woman who came to the wild Texas frontier of the 1850's literally with a Bible in her hand.




N.B.
If the Church tried to aid the Spanish-speaking, it tried to do something for the Indians. Among the Indian missionaries was Dr. Alfred Wright who followed the Indians to Oklahoma during the unfair removal of many Indians from Georgia, Mississippi and parts of the South in the "Trail of Tears."

An historian of the Indians has left an account of the organization of the Wheelock Church, Millerton, Oklahoma. It was Sunday, December 9, 1832. The minister preached in Choctaw.

"The underbrush had been cleared away.... a wooden box for a pulpit. It was a novel sight to see the Indians coming out of their overgrown wilderness to attend the service,  the men with their long black hair and colored blankets and the women wearing dresses of tanned deer hide and moccasins.... Wright's sermon heard with much attention.... thirty of the old members and seven new ones were received into the New Wheelock Church."

Mrs. Charles Hotchkin, whose husband was also a missionary to the Chickasaw, made corn bread on Monday mornings that her husband would take on missionary rounds. He would have nothing else to eat for sometimes up to two weeks in the West. The last words of Rev. W. J. Lloyd, a missionary in the West were, "The surroundings are so great, and so few to do the work."

 


 

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