Lecture by Nancy Cook

Preserving Home and Revising History: Legacies of the King Ranch of Texas

by Nancy Cook, Associate Professor, University of Montana

Founded in 1853, the King Ranch, with 825,000 acres, or 1289 square miles, remains one of the largest ranches in the United States. Dozens of novels, histories, coffee-table photo essays, memoirs, and animal husbandry texts take the King Ranch as their subject, offering complex and conflicting portraits of this exemplary expression of white power through more than 150 years of U.S. and borderlands history. My presentation places the varied discourses about the King Ranch into conversation, as I look and the social, economic, representational, and environmental heritages of this ranch kingdom along with the King Ranch's official histories and discourses.

Environmental historians and range scientists have shown us the often-disastrous outcomes of the Homestead Act with the division of western land into small square parcels. Social and economic historians, along with environmental scientists have demonstrated the equally problematic outcomes of land consolidation, corporate ownership, and industrial agriculture. My analysis of the King Ranch and the stories about it reveals the inadequacies of generalizations about such rangeland empires, as it considers the messiness of the intersection of myth, metaphor, and actual land use.

The King Ranch has inspired a powerful mythology about the great ranches of the western U.S., from Edna Ferber's Giant, to television's dynastic Cartwright, Barkley, and Ewing families, to the efforts to create a "Buffalo Commons" in the northern Plains. While touting their environmentalist bonafides, the ranch publicity machine also highlights their early entry into "vertically integrated" enterprises. At one point, the ranch owned 1.2 million acres in South Texas, including a town, its newspaper, its railroad, and its congressional representation, with one family member serving 7 terms in Congress. An exemplar of the corporatization of agriculture (the last family member to manage the ranch was fired by the corporation in 1997), the ranch continues to promote tradition and its place as homeland to both the King Ranch heirs and the descendants of those who served Richard King, the founder. By bringing the tools of cultural geography, environmental, literary, and cultural studies together, along with methods usually outside the purview of the field, such as ranch management and range science, all under the rubric of "Place Studies," I suggest how "home" can become a complex and contradictory concept in the contemporary U.S. west.

Nancy Cook is Associate Professor at the Department of English at the University of Montana in Missoula - nancy.cook@mso.umt.edu