Former Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight built the first cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle and became one of the wealthiest cattle barons in the American West.
In 1845, Charles Goodnight and his family traveled 800 miles from his birthplace in Illinois to central Texas. He was nine years old and rode bareback on a mare named Blaze, a symbolic beginning to his long career as a cowboy and cattle rancher.
Goodnight’s Early Years
Charles Goodnight was born on March 5, 1836 in Macoupin County, Illinois to Charles and Charlotte Goodnight. His father died on pneumonia when he was five. His mother then married their neighbor, Hiram Daugherty. In 1845, the family moved to Milam County, Texas, near Nashville-on-the-Brazos. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Goodnight took great pride in the fact that he was born the same year the Republic of Texas was formed and arrived in Texas the same year Texas became part of the United States.
Variety of Experience Builds Goodnight’s Character
Goodnight learned to hunt and track at a young age. At fifteen, he was hired as a jockey. Dissatisfied with the job, he soon returned home. His mother was widowed once again and married the Methodist preacher, Rev. Adam Sheek in 1853. When he was twenty, Goodnight and his stepbrother, John Wesley Sheek, made a deal with the neighboring CV Ranch to care for 430 cattle. The men kept every fourth calf born as their payment, accumulating 180 cattle of their own and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn all they could about cattle ranching.
Goodnight and the Texas Rangers
At the start of the American Civil War the men were forced to abandon their cattle. Goodnight served as a scout and guide with the Texas Rangers in their battles against the Kiowas and Comanches. When the war ended, Goodnight and his stepbrother once again gathered their herd, which had grown remarkably to 5000 head. They bought the rest of the CV cattle, roped in a few strays, and their herd grew to 8000. When John Wesley Sheek married, Goodnight assumed all responsibilities for the cattle.
Blazing the Goodnight-Loving Trail
Unfortunately, all Texas herds expanded during the war, glutting the market. Instead of taking his cattle to Kansas with the rest of the ranchers, Goodnight decided to head north toward Colorado to ensure a higher profit. In 1866 he teamed up with the more experienced Oliver Loving and formed a solid friendship. Goodnight built the first chuckwagon from an old Studebaker army wagon then he and Loving and their 18 hired cowhands hit the trail with 2000 cattle. They traveled southwest to avoid trouble with the Comanches, then north through Fort Sumner, New Mexico and into Denver. The trip was highly profitable and they made history along the way by establishing the now famous Goodnight-Loving Trail.
Bringing Oliver Loving Home to Texas
Goodnight returned to Texas for another herd while Loving rode ahead to secure government contracts for the next drive. As he crossed the prairies, Loving was attacked by Comanches and seriously injured. He crawled off in the night and found a wagon to take him to the nearest town, but by the time Goodnight arrived, Loving was near death. Goodnight promised to return Loving’s body to Texas just before Loving died. He and his men built a casket of tin cans to surround the wooden casket then covered Loving’s body with charcoal and transported him to Texas for burial.
Success and Failure in Colorado
In 1870, Goodnight built the Rock Canon Ranch five miles west of Pueblo, Colorado, then married his long-time sweetheart, Mary Ann Dyer. They lived in Rock Canon for six years, herding cattle and selling apples from their large orchard. The Goodnights had no children, but adopted the son of their housekeeper, Cleo Hubbard. Goodnight quickly became one of the wealthiest cattle ranchers in Colorado, but he still paid an exorbitant amount of interest on bank loans, which inspired him to co-found the Stock Growers Bank of Pueblo. Unfortunately, he lost most of his holdings in the bank during the panic of 1873.
Cattle Baron of the Texas Panhandle
In 1876, Goodnight moved his cattle to the Texas Panhandle. He chose Palo Duro Canyon for the site of his next ranch. He made deals with outlaws and local tribes to keep his ranch and cattle safe. He used his expert negotiating skills to secure foreign financing from Irish entrepreneurs John and Cornelia Adair. His shrewd land investments made his second cattle venture even more successful. His herd soon numbered 100,000 and his ranch grew to a community of 50 houses. He experimented with breeding bison and Angus cattle, called “cattalo,” and raised elk and antelope. In 1880, he organized the Panhandle Stock Association and served as its first president.
Death and Legacy
When Mary Ann died in 1926, Goodnight became very ill, but soon recovered. Goodnight married his 26 year old nurse, Corrine Goodnight (no relation). Goodnight died on December 12, 1929. Charles Goodnight was one of five cowboys voted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame when it was first founded in 1958. The Charles Goodnight Memorial Trail is also named in his honor.
- “Charles Goodnight.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved May 26, 2009.
- “Charles Goodnight.” PBS-The West. Retrieved May 26, 2009.
- Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada:1974.