Kent Biffle: Rancher Kenedy's known as more than just a pretty face
09:24 AM CST on Sunday, January 6, 2008
As historic figures go, Petra's must have been terrific. Her looks stunned frontiersmen.
And after researching her for years, biographers Jane Clements Monday and Frances Brannen Vick concluded that Petra (1825-1885) was beautiful not merely physically, but spiritually as well. Forever helping friends, kin and her Catholic church, she gave away a wagonload of money to charities way before such acts earned tax credits.
Historian John Henry Brown called her "a woman of superior accomplishments and great natural intelligence." He noted, "She was considered one of the handsomest women of her day."
Indian warriors killed her father, ex-governor of Spanish Texas, and carried off three of her sisters, one of whom was never rescued. After marrying a Mexican army colonel, Petra Vela de Vidal had six children. Widowed, she then married steamboat tycoon Mifflin Kenedy and had six more children. She helped the captain build a ranching empire whose tall bunchgrasses and mesquites adorned oil deposits unknown to them that today are worth untold millions.
A Pennsylvania Quaker who, as a boy, shipped before the mast, Captain Kenedy and another Yankee steamboat captain, Richard King, partnered as tight as bark on a Gulf Coast scrub oak. And, after profitably plying the Rio Grande with their fleet of steamboats, they amicably divvied up the proceeds in 1868.
Mifflin Kenedy had 400,000 acres (in present Kenedy County), next to the 900,000-acre King Ranch. Both captains were business majors of the buccaneer school. Unapologetic wartime profiteers, they got rich moving troops and munitions during the U.S. war with Mexico and running Confederate cotton during the Civil War.
If it weren't footnoted, Petra's Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy (Texas A&M Press) might be mistaken for soaring fiction. It is chockablock with crooked politics, cattle rustlers, land fraud, warfare, and enough illicit sex to populate South Texas courtrooms for generations. There were once about 300 claimants to the Kenedy estate.
Mifflin and Petra's aggressive son, James "Spike" Kenedy, drove herds to railheads in Kansas, where he proved a poor loser at the gambling tables.
On July 20, 1872, in Ellsworth, Kan., a gambling dispute erupted into a gunfight between Spike and Print Olive, a Texas rancher and gunman. Both shot-up combatants recovered.
In August 1878, the quarrelsome cards set Spike at odds with Mayor Jim Kelley of Dodge City, Kan. Spike tried to murder him, shooting into his house. His Honor was out, but his sleeping roommate, Dora Hand, a popular singer at the Lady Gay Theater, caught a fatal slug. Maybe being the son of the second-richest cowman in Texas had something to do with Spike's beating the rap.
In April 1884, Spike shot to death a disagreeable, vagrant vaquero at the La Parra Ranch. It was ruled accidental.
Much earlier, Petra's son (Spike's half-brother), Adrian Vidal, who had deserted both the U.S. and Confederate armies, was executed by Imperialists in Mexico, where he had been captured while fighting Emperor Maximilian's troops. The Kenedys' firstborn son, Tom, 35, was killed from ambush in 1888 while campaigning for sheriff in Cameron County.
When the Texas State Historical Association gathers March 5 in Corpus Christi, Petra's biographers will talk about her and the problems facing researchers of women in her time and place. Fran Vick is the association's new president, and former Huntsville Mayor Jane Monday is on the executive board. Historians will find the Kenedys' old La Parra Ranch a short drive down U.S. 77 from Corpus Christi.