Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Society, Texas Style

The following article first appeared in a subscription website, Sanders Research Associates, in 2006 following a hunting accident in which Vice President Dick Cheney shot another hunter in the face. It was the 24-hour delay in reporting the hunting mishap which raised many to question what was being hidden. Few journalists connected the fact that the shooting occurred near the famous King Ranch, actually on a ranch owned by Anne Armstrong and her husband Tobin, who shares one common thread with Cheney:  Both were employed by Halliburton—the primary beneficiary of the war in Iraq. Was there a connection between Halliburton and the Armstrong Ranch? Let’s take a closer look.

“According to Austin American-Statesman reporter Robert Elder, the Armstrong [Ranch] is ‘a favored destination spot for this type of Republican with social connections, a fair amount of wealth....Certainly if you have access to the vice president or other high level administration officials, corporate officials, it gives you really a unique opportunity to kind of relax, talk, and who knows what happens from there.’ Well, Dick Cheney knows. He's been kicking back at Armstrong for over 30 years.” -- Arianna Huffington (February 17, 2006)
Profitable relationships

Richard King
Four thousand dollars was a lot of money in 1877 when Texas Ranger, John B. Armstrong—nicknamed “McNelly’s Bulldog” because of his doggedness as a tracker for his boss, Captain McNelly—captured the bounty on the head of John Wesley Hardin. Although bounties rarely if ever exceeded $500 in those days, the Texas Legislature had seen fit to increase the reward for the Methodist gunslinger who, during the bloody days of Reconstruction in Texas following the Civil War, had hired out his gun to the wrong side in a South Texas feud between competing cattle-rustling clans.  Land barons like Captain Richard King, who founded the King Ranch within the disputed Nueces strip after the Mexican War ended 1847, advised McNelly to end the disorder by whatever means was necessary. Armstrong became that means, and the bounty he received was only the beginning of a long and profitable relationship.

Disputed land during Mexican War

Five years later Armstrong staked his claim to disputed land claimed by his wife’s family, bordering a southern boundary of the King Ranch.  His presence there helped to insulate the larger ranch from marauders crossing the Mexican border, as was their wont, while at the same time it enhanced his claim to the land.  For generations land attorneys and Spanish translators would litigate such disputed land titles, while both the King Ranch and the Armstrong Ranch would grow larger each year.    

The ranch was not the only domain of the Armstrong clan, however.  The former Texas Ranger somehow managed to rear his family in a three-story Victorian mansion on the fringes of the University of Texas campus in Austin.[1] Three sons lived in the Austin house, one of whom, Charles Mitchell Armstrong, while boarding at the elite Military Institute in San Antonio, would meet Lucy Tobin Carr, whom he married after studying law at Yale Law School. A younger son, Thomas Reeves Armstrong, who chose Princeton, graduated in the class of 1913 and became a vice president of Standard Oil of New Jersey. 

Charles’ wife Lucy—through her mother’s family—connected the Armstrongs to some of the most aristocratic families in Texas. Lucy’s great-grandmother was María de Jesús Delgado Curbelo, a full-blooded Spaniard from the Canary Islands, descended from the first civil settlement in Texas in 1731. The marriage of Spanish land grant heiress Curbelo to John William Smith in 1830 combined the Spanish land grant properties she inherited with those Smith acquired as a land speculator. 

Curbelo genealogy from Debrett's Texas Peerage
Their six daughters would abandon Catholicism to marry only Episcopalian elites:  “the crème of the Texas crop at that time—cattle baron, doctor, lawyer, banker, shipper, planter.”[2]  Like Charles’ father, Lucy’s grandfather, William Gerard Tobin (1833-1884), had also been a Texas Ranger and had helped defend the Spanish land grants of his wife’s family from squatters and thieves.[3]

John Barclay Armstrong
Charles and Lucy named their first son John Barclay Armstrong after Charles’ father and brother. John grew up to marry a King Ranch heiress —his wife being Henrietta (“Etta”) Kleberg Larkin. Her mother grew up in a 20-room Victorian palace in Corpus Christi, similar to the Armstrongs’ house in Austin. Etta’s grandmother was Alice Gertrudis King Kleberg, wife of Robert Justus Kleberg—Captain King’s attorney. [4] In 1854 Captain Richard King had married Henrietta Maria Morse Chamberlain, daughter of a Presbyterian missionary to Brownsville, and she remained in total control of the Corpus Christi palace, and the huge King Ranch, until 1925. At that time it passed to her only surviving child, Alice Kleberg, who died a widow in 1944.

Despite Etta’s aristocratic Texas roots, she was, however, a city girl, having grown up in a high-rise New York City apartment on 81st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues near Central Park. Her father, John A. Larkin, had been in the Princeton class of 1913 with another Texan, Thomas Reeves Armstrong, uncle of Etta's husband. After John Larkin died in 1948, Etta's widowed mother, married Armstrong, causing much confusion for historians who come upon two Henrietta Armstrongs.

War logistics—1845 and beyond

Princeton, a Presbyterian university, had been favored by the King family because of Captain King’s wife—the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary who came to Texas during its early pioneer days with the hope of bringing Eastern civilization to the barbarians. Long after her husband died in 1885, Henrietta Chamberlain King controlled the ranch—and the family.
 “She ruled the roost, . . . rooming just across the hall from daughter Alice and husband for forty years.  The daughter of a New England Presbyterian minister, the first Protestant preacher in Rio Grande territory, she was prim, proper and Bible-pounding.”[5] 
Mrs. King would have relished the rise to power of her fellow Presbyterian Woodrow Wilson, hand-picked as a Presidential candidate by fellow Texan, "Colonel" Edward M. House, who had created four Texas governors before deciding he could only change life in Texas by grasping the power of the federal government.  Living in Austin about twelve city blocks from Charles M. Armstrong’s family, House had selected Wilson, a Virginian who had been chosen to head Princeton in New Jersey, much as he had prepared several Texans for statewide office. The King family had done business with House’s father and brother (both called T.W. House) who ran the House Bank in Houston. Thomas William House, Sr., born in England, had moved to Texas during the days of the Republic and had made much of his family fortune alongside Captain King as a smuggler and blockade runner in Matamoros during the Mexican and Civil wars. 

War logistics was a business model that the families whose wealth was derived as war profiteers in the early days of Texas would return to again and again. 
Both the House and King fortunes had been rescued from the Panic of 1907 by the son of their friend and partner, Charles Stillman. Together with Mifflin Kenedy and William Marsh Rice, the former riverboat owners had acquired sailing ships for which they hired crews to risk life and limb to transport food, clothing and munitions to both sides in both wars, while operating their own intelligence network. Demanding payment in gold, they made sure to deliver their spoils to the safety of banks beyond the fray of battle—in New York. That gold, combined with Rockefeller oil money, became the foundation for National City Bank of New York, now Citigroup. The bank, originally operated by James Stillman and his partner, William Rockefeller, would descend to an extended family created when Stillman’s two daughters married Rockefeller’s sons.

Less than half a century later, it was hoped that the election of the Presbyterian from Princeton would effectively increase the influence and power of Col. House’s Democratic Party friends in Texas—a state where Republicans still brought visions of defeat in the Civil War and the Reconstruction brought by that defeat.

Polo and politics

When Mrs. King died in 1925, her lawyer son-in-law, whose German-educated father had brought his family from Prussia to Dewitt County, Texas even before King himself had arrived, was finally able to assume management of the ranch—free of his mother-in-law’s interference. Unfortunately for him, ill health forced his retirement in 1927, when his second son, Robert J. Kleberg, Jr., took over.  Bob’s marriage the previous year to Virginia debutante Helen Campbell, promised to change the culture, and the politics, of the King Ranch forever. 

Bob Kleberg met Helen while she was visiting her sister in San Antonio, where Elizabeth’s husband, Burdette Wright, trained pilots at Kelly military base. Wright’s military career took a sudden turn after Gen. Billy Mitchell, for whom Wright served as aide, was forced into retirement because of his insubordinate advocacy of an autonomous air force. The General would become Wright’s life-long mentor and would lead the Klebergs into an even more powerful group of rogues. It would also bind them tightly to a community of military men who had retired near Fort Myers, Va., where Elizabeth had met Lieut. Wright.

Click to enlarge.
A polo enthusiast, in 1923 Helen had organized a polo team for Fort Myer officers’ wives. The Chicago Daily Tribune, lacking a wedding photo to announce her elopement in 1926, resuscitated a photograph from 1923 and captioned it: “Polo Girl Weds Texas Ranch Owner.”[6] The Klebergs and Armstrongs became experts at the game; the Armstrongs even played on Prince Charles’ team when they hosted his visit to their ranch in 1977.

Besides introducing polo to the ranch, the new bride also made a virulent strain of Republicanism more respectable.  Her father, Philip Pitt Campbell, had been elected to Congress in 1902 from Kansas and, although defeated in 1922 after many years as chairman of the House Rules Committee, remained in Arlington, Virginia.  His family during that time had developed many close relationships with horse fanciers within the heart of the Virginia Hunt Country.

Foxcroft is in Middleburg, Va.
The choice of Foxcroft—an elite girls school in Middleburg, Virginia—would lead to yet another link in a chain that would bind the Kleberg and Armstrong families even tighter. At Foxcroft Helenita met Anne Legendre. Not only would the girls graduate together in 1945 and enter Vassar at the same time, but each would be a bridesmaid at the other’s wedding. 

 Anne’s father was one of four Legendre brothers from New Orleans, each of whom won football honors at Princeton during the same decade Armstrong men were there.[7] 

Anne Legendre Armstrong with Pres. Ford, left; with Tobin, right
Tobin Armstrong, whose family also had strong ties to Princeton, was suitably impressed when he first met Anne at a King Ranch party. Tobin’s brother, John, and Helenita’s first cousin, Etta Larkin, linked the two Texas families by marriage.[8] Once the two families —Kleberg and Armstrong—had become inextricably intertwined, they seemed to operate almost in conjunction with each other. 

Voices in Congress

In 1931, needing a replacement in the U.S. Congress to replace uncle Rudolph Kleberg, who had served for many years, Bob, Jr.’s older brother, Richard Mifflin Kleberg—the Mifflin for his grandfather’s closest partner, Mifflin Kenedy—captured a special Congressional election as a Democrat.[9] Shortly thereafter, the new Congressman hired Lyndon Baines Johnson as his chief aide.  Kleberg, “adept at golf and polo, but awkward in politics,”[10] was more than happy to turn all political matters over to his young protégé, freeing himself to focus on promoting his family’s business—primarily beef and oil—all of which stemmed from the land itself, by then comprising one and a quarter million acres in Texas alone.[11] The eager and politically astute Lyndon would eventually rise to the Presidency of the United States, but would forever be beholden to the wealth and influence of the Kleberg-King Ranch network.[12]

[1] 1900 Census:  Address was 2610 Whitis Avenue, the site of which is now part of the University of Texas.
[2] Hugh Best, Debrett’s Texas Peerage (New York:  Coward-McCann, Inc., 1983), 28.
[3] Lucy was a first cousin to Edgar G. Tobin (who died in 1954), founder of Tobin Aerial Surveys, engaged in mapping operations for oil companies, which at the time of his death was the largest aerial mapping firm in the world. Edgar’s father-in-law, Robert L. Batts, was a University of Texas law professor and one-time law partner of Democrat President Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, Thomas Gregory—hand-picked for the administration by their Austin, Texas crony, Col. Edward M. House.
[4] Living in the house at 517 Upper N. Broadway were Henrietta King, daughter Alice, son-in-law Robert, and their five children—Richard Mifflin Kleberg, Alice Gertrudis Kleberg (East), Robert Justus Kleberg, Jr. and Sarah Spohn Kleberg (Shelton and Johnson), in addition to Etta’s mother, Henrietta Rosa Kleberg, who subsequently married John Adrian Larkin.
[5] Hugh Best, Texas Peerage, 55.
[6] Photograph syndicated by Pacific and Atlantic, appeared in Daily Tribune, Chicago, IL on page C4, March 21, 1926.
[7] Helen first married a Philadelphia physician, Dr. John Deaver Alexander, and subsequently married Lloyd Groves.
[8] Little is known about her parentage other than the fact that her father, a coffee importer, was the apparent victim of self-murder in September 1963.  Though his car was found near a bridge, no body or note were ever found.  Several years later on the anniversary of her father’s disappearance, Anne’s brother’s life was saved when he was pulled from the river below the same bridge.
[9] Mifflin Kenedy owned a neighboring South Texas ranch and engaged in land speculation.  In order to increase the value of their lands, and produce income from them, the men formed numerous companies to transport supplies and distribute merchandise throughout South Texas and Mexico.  In 1875 they backed the incorporation of the Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande  railroad, thus thwarting the growth of a competing railroad that had impacted their riverboat empire.  According to The Handbook of Texas: 
“In 1879 the Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande Railroad reached the town [San Diego, Texas], making the port of Corpus Christi easily accessible for Duval County ranchers and farmers. Two years later the Texas-Mexican Railway took over the Corpus Christi, San Diego and Rio Grande and then built on to Laredo, completing the first rail link between Corpus Christi and northern Mexico.”   
It was while working for the railroad in San Diego that the paternal grandfather of William F. Buckley, Jr. established his family’s nest egg, which ties them to the same underground intelligence network as the King family even to this day.  Another connecting link stems from the political corruption and vote selling centered in Duval County, long monitored on behalf of the ranchers by the Parr family. Another railroad in which the King-Kleberg family was heavily invested was the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway Company.
[10] James Reston, Jr., The Lone Star:  The Life of John Connally (New York:  Harper & Row, 1989), 9.
[11] The ranch land would be divided in 1935.  Time, December 15, 1947: 

In 1935, when the ranch trusteeship expired, the property was divided among the heirs. The Klebergs got 431,000 acres and formed the King Ranch Corp. with Bob as president and manager, and Dick, then a Congressman, as chairman. The stock is held in equal fifths by Bob, Dick, their sisters Henrietta (wife of Celanese Corp. Vice President John A. Larkin), Mrs. Alice East, and the two sons of Sarah (who was killed in an auto accident). By purchase, Bob Kleberg has built the ranch's holdings up to 750,000 acres, leased 140,000 more to the corporation from his own holdings as trustee of his mother's estate plus 20,000 from outside interests in Texas. The corporation has bought and leased 10,500 acres in Pennsylvania for grass fattening of King Ranch cattle. …

Bob keeps a tight lip about the ranch's profits. But they can be roughly estimated. The 20 million pounds of beef sold this year should gross between $3,000,000 and $4,000,000. (The ranch sells virtually all its cattle to Swift & Co. to keep from driving down prices by open sales.) Sales of breeding bulls bring in another $150,000 or so. But the expenses are huge, too. Real estate taxes run around $200,000, gasoline and oil take $48,000, land-clearing $120,000. The payroll for the 500 employees is over $400,000. At best guess, the ranch this year should net over $1,000,000 before income taxes.
[12] The two men were introduced by Welly Hopkins, a member of the Texas state senate, after Hopkins met Lyndon while campaigning in his hometown.