Petra's Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy

Petra's Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy

Petra's Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy

Petra's Legacy: The South Texas Ranching Empire of Petra Vela and Mifflin Kenedy


The matriarch of one of the most important families in Texas history, Petra Vela Kenedy has remained a shadowy presence in the annals of South Texas. In this biography of Petra Vela Kenedy, the authors not only tell her story but also relate the history of South Texas through a woman's perspective. Utilizing previously unpublished letters, journals, photographs, and other primary materials, the authors reveal the intimate stories of the families who for years dominated governments, land acquisition, commerce, and border politics along the Rio Grande and across the Wild Horse Desert.

From Petra's early life in the landed ranchero society of northern Mexico, through her alliance with Luis Vidal-an officer in the Mexican army to whom she bore eight children-until her move to Brownsville after Vidal's death, Petra lived in Mexico. When she moved to Texas, having taken Vidal's name, she represented a link to the landed families of the region. Mifflin Kenedy, a steamboat captain who had first come to Texas during the Mexican War, married into her world, acquiring local respectability and stature when he took Petra as his wife.

The story of their life together encompasses war, the taming of a frontier, the blending of cultures, the origin of a ranching empire, and the establishment of a foundation and trust that still endure today, giving millions to Texas through charitable gifts. An attractive woman of business acumen, strong religious convictions, and intense family loyalty, Petra Vela Kenedy's influence through her husband and her children left a legacy whose exploration is long overdue.


Francis E. Abernethy once wrote that folklorists follow historians “like gleaners—or cotton strippers in West Texas,” collecting “the leavings from academic historians,” all the tales and songs and traditions that the historians allow to fall between the cracks. Sometimes the historians lose the spirit of the story in doing so. the story of Petra Kenedy and most Tejanas must be told like those gleaners because so many facts of their lives and their families have fallen between the cracks of history. Thus we have at times gone outside the mainline historical sources to find more of the story. However, as can be noted from research of various historical events, and as new material comes to light, sometimes the historians get the details right, and sometimes they don’t, which adds to the problem of writing this history of the Kenedy family and of Petra.

It has been said that there is no history, just people. This remarkable family stepped onto the stage of history and molded it in their own way. They made history. They were major players from the frontier settlements in northern Mexico in the 1820s, through the Mexican War, the establishment of Brownsville, the U.S. Civil War, the trail drives and development of one of the great cattle ranches, the expansion of the West, the settling of the Wild Horse Desert, and on to helping bring the railroad to South Texas, catapulting commerce in the United States and Mexico into the twentieth century.

Many have written about these events, but the women seemed to be missing. We wanted to know what role the women played. We knew that Petra was special but we had no idea how important she was until her story began to unfold. the dearth of material on Petra made the piecing together of her life a real challenge. We began with newspaper reports, the writings of historians and folklorists of the region, and the histories of Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King. Then we found the treasure trove of primary material—letters and court documents—that gave us a real sense of Petra’s family. Through the letters the happiness, conflicts, marriages, births, deaths, tragedies, and conquests came to life on the stage of history. We wanted to surround this family with the environment in which they lived so that the reader could taste, feel . . .

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