Texas Plains Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program


Kenedy Ranch, Kingsville
Kenedy Ranch, Kingsville


Ranching in Texas has thrived as a major industry for more than three centuries, from the Ojo de Agua and Las Meste–as ranches of pre-statehood colonial Texas to the sprawling King, XIT, and Rocking Chair spreads of our Anglo settlers. Throughout the region, ranchers have seen range conditions, water supplies, cattle breeds, and livelihoods fluctuate dramatically, reflecting the mercurial temperament of both natural and market forces. Cattle may have been king but nature, combined with the vagaries of supply and demand, ruled as emperor.

Weather and economy aside, Texas ranching heritage has given rise to some of the state's most enduring icons, including the cowboy, the longhorn, barbed-wire fencing, and the 10-gallon hat (a term more likely derived from the hatband width of a Mexican galón rather than a reference to the amount of water a hat might hold). It also gave us a diversity of related industries including slaughterhouses, commercial feedlots, meat-packing facilities, organic beef farms, chili cook-offs, and more recipes for preparing jerky than there are for tofu, which means real beef, not it's soy bean alternative, still wears the crown.

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In the Saddle for More Than a Century

Centuries of livestock-raising across the Texas landscape has made ranching a primary player in the state’s evolving legacy. More than 96 percent of Texas abides in private hands, giving historians (and landowners) an opportunity to trace the lineage of ranchland holdings back several hundred years.

In South Texas, ranches are rooted in Spanish land grants. In the western and Panhandle regions, some of the largest ranches originated with Anglo settlers and ownership in excess of a hundred thousand acres was not uncommon.

Remarkably, many of our oldest ranches are still in operation, headed by the descendents of the patriarchs and matriarchs who championed the challenges of ranching in the rough days of our frontier. Although few of the staggeringly large family landholdings are still intact, many descendents continue the ranching operations on a smaller and more updated scale, adopting modern conservation practices that make the best use of the remaining grazing lands without compromising tradition.

Today, the largest historic ranch in Texas is the W.T. Waggoner south of Vernon. At over half a million contiguous acres, the Waggoner is considered the largest ranch in the nation under one fence.


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Read more about ranching in the Handbook of Texas Online.