Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Charles Goodnight epitomized the plainsman. Born in Macoupin County, Illinois, on March 5, 1836, Goodnight, riding bareback, first came to the Southern Plains of Texas in 1846. During his young adulthood in the Brazos River valley, he worked as a farmhand, freighter, and cowboy. In 1856 Goodnight hired himself out to a local rancher and received every fourth calf as pay. Within a year he had also become a Texas Ranger. Meanwhile, he continued to add to his small herd of cattle, which he moved to Palo Pinto County, Texas.

His eight-year Ranger career, filled with frontier patrols, ended when the twenty-nineyear- old entrepreneur decided to take his 180 head of cattle west to reservation agencies. He became partners with Oliver Loving, a man twenty-five years his senior with experience in driving cattle long distances. The two adventurers planned to trail their combined herd from Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. While preparing for departure, Goodnight invented the chuck wagon by remodeling the back end of an existing wagon into a mess area. In 1866 the two men took 2,000 cattle guided by eighteen cowboys and struck out southwest for the Pecos River, which they would follow north. The 700-mile journey, 96 miles of it without water on the Staked Plains, established the Goodnight- Loving Trail that later extended to Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The two stockmen quickly made a successful second trip but met disaster on their third trip in 1868, when Comanches mortally wounded Loving. Goodnight made three more trips on the trail from 1869 to 1871 while simultaneously operating a corn farm and way station ranch in southeastern Colorado. In 1871 he wed Mary Dyer from Fort Belknap, Texas. Subsequently, they lost their Colorado holdings in the Panic of 1873.

Charles returned to his trail-driving days by blazing the Goodnight Trail from Alamogordo Creek, New Mexico, to Granada, Colorado, in 1875. The following year, he moved his remaining cattle into the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle, where he found a partner in John Adair from Ireland. Their spread, the ja Ranch, eventually covered one million acres and included more than 100,000 cattle. To these cattle, Goodnight added bison from a captive breeding program he had initiated in 1878 at the request of his wife. Goodnight bred bison with cattle, thereby developing the "cattalo." He later abandoned the project, but his knack for cattle breeding resulted in the improvement of his herds with Hereford bulls. In 1880 Goodnight became the inaugural president of the Panhandle Stockman's Association.

Goodnight retired from the ja Ranch in 1888 and within a couple of years purchased a smaller ranch at nearby Goodnight Station. He spent the remainder of his life as a cattle breeder, an active member of the American Bison Society, and a leading citizen. Goodnight died on December 12, 1929, in Phoenix, Arizona. His family buried him next to his wife in Goodnight, Texas. Goodnight was commemorated by the U.S. Postal Service with a stamp and postcard in its 1993 Legends of the West series.

See also AGRICULTURE: Ranches / TRANSPORTATION: Cattle Trails.

Ken Zontek University of Idaho

Goodnight, Charles, Emanuel Dubbs, and John A. Hart. Pioneer Days in the Southwest from 1850 to 1879. Guthrie OK: State Capital Company, 1909.

Haley, J. Evetts. Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1936.

Hamner, Laura. The No-Gun Man of Texas: A Century of Achievement, 1835–1929. Amarillo: Hamner, 1935.

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