Ruling adds appeal to King Ranch fete

This year represents the 150th anniversary of the legendary King Ranch. In a couple of weeks there will be celebratory horse and cattle sales and a good old Texas barbecue to commemorate the important milestone. The ranch’s Web site heralds the upcoming events and offers a colorful, descriptive history of the giant spread and its founders. But it doesn’t say anything about an Aug. 28 decision by the Texas Supreme Court that undoubtedly brings as much joy to the ranch as anything on the sesquicentennial schedule.

The case — at least the core of it — is essentially 120 years old, and it threatened property at the heart of the King Ranch empire.

The Texas high court reversed a 2001 decision by a three-judge panel from the 13th District Court of Appeals in San Antonio that would have allowed the heirs of William Warren Chapman to pursue a lawsuit against the ranch. The lawsuit argued that Chapman family members were wrongly denied a claim to more than 7,000 acres of King Ranch property.

It is a convoluted case that involves gunslingers, cattle barons, lost documents and alleged misdeeds by attorneys and their clients.

The property at issue is the 15,000- acre Rincon de Santa Gertrudis. The Rincon, court documents show, includes portions of the King Ranch, the city of Kingsville and the Kingsville Naval Air Station.

The Chapman family contends it should own about half of that property.

The family says it was deprived of that property because “their forebears’ lawyer conspired with Captain Richard King to deprive the Chapman heirs of rightful title to the property.”

That lawyer was Robert J. Kleberg, who was also on the payroll of the King Ranch at the time, and whose name became as synonymous with the ranch as King’s own.

Don Graham, a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and the J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at the University of Texas at Austin, included much of the Chapman saga in his recent book Kings of Texas.

He also described the legal wranglings in a December cover story for Texas Monthly. “I believed, early on, that the Chapman family had a case against King Ranch that should be heard in court, and I still believe that,” he told the magazine. “The role of Robert J. Kleberg in representing the interests of the Chapman estate and King Ranch simultaneously seems to me to be worth some final legal resolution.”

“Richard King and William Chapman, along with every witness with personal knowledge of the events at issue, have long since expired,” the court concluded. “The paper trail of evidence, though surprisingly detailed, cannot turn speculation about King’s motives into evidence of his fraud.”

The court went on to say that as far as it was concerned, the 1883 judgment settled the dispute.

Of course, he was realistic about the Chapman family’s chances.

“I think it is difficult to battle an institution like the King Ranch, but that is what the law is for,” he told Texas Monthly. “King Ranch has done many great things. But they are not above the law ...”

Chapman and King were business partners in the 1800s. When Chapman died, his widow sued King for her share of profits from her husband’s half-interest in 15,500 acres of land.

In 1883, on the advice of Kleberg, she settled with the ranch. She sold her interest in the ranch for $5,800.

Chapman heirs wanted that settlement disallowed, and the 13th Court of Appeals agreed that the family could sue the ranch to that end.

The Texas Supreme Court disagreed.

“The court ruled that you can’t get a do-over after 120 years,” said King Ranch attorney John Thomas of Houston’s Hicks Thomas & Lilienstern. “This is an important case, not only to the owners of King Ranch but for any individual or company that has secured a Texas judgment or land title based on a court judgment.”