Charles Goodnight, also known as Charlie Goodnight (March 5, 1836 – December 12, 1929), was a cattle rancher in the American West, perhaps the best known rancher in Texas. He is sometimes known as the “father of the Texas Panhandle.” Essayist and historian J. Frank Dobie said that Goodnight “approached greatness more nearly than any other cowman of history.”
Goodnight was born in Macoupin County, Illinois, northeast of St. Louis, Missouri, the fourth child of Charles Goodnight and the former Charlotte Collier. Goodnight’s father’s grave is located in a pasture south of Bunker Hill, Illinois.
Goodnight moved to Texas in 1846 with his mother and stepfather, Hiram Daugherty. In 1856, he became a cowboy and served with the local militia, fighting against Comanche raiders. A year later, in 1857, Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers. Goodnight is also known for rousing and leading a posse against the Comanche in 1860 that located the Indian camp where Cynthia Ann Parker was living with her husband, Peta Nocona, then guiding Texas Rangers to the camp, leading to Cynthia Ann’s recapture. He later made a treaty with her son, Quanah Parker.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate States Army. Most of his time was spent as part of a frontier regiment guarding against raids by Indians.
Goodnight described what it took to become a scout, “First, he must be a born a natural woodsmen and have the faculty of never needing a compass except in snow storms or darkness.”
Following the war, he became involved in the herding of feral Texas Longhorn cattle northward from West Texas to railroads. This “making the gather” was a near state-wide round-up of cattle that had roamed free during the four long years of war. In 1866, he and Oliver Loving drove their first herd of cattle northward along what would become known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Early in the partnership with Loving, they pastured cattle at such sites as Capulin Mountain in northeastern New Mexico. Goodnight invented the chuckwagon, which was first used on the initial cattle drive. Upon arriving in New Mexico, they formed a partnership with New Mexico cattleman John Chisum for future contracts to supply the United States Army with cattle. After Loving’s death, Goodnight and Chisum extended the trail from New Mexico to Colorado, and eventually to Wyoming. The Goodnight-Loving trail extended from Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico
Goodnight and Loving were close friends. Goodnight sat by Loving’s bed during the two weeks it took the latter to die, and reportedly kept a photograph of Loving in his pocket long after his death, and later put a photograph on his desk. As requested by the dying Loving, Goodnight carried the body from New Mexico to Weatherford in Parker County, Texas, for burial.
In order to take advantage of available grass, timber, water, and game, he founded in 1876 what was to become the first Texas Panhandle ranch, the JA Ranch, in the Palo Duro Canyon of the Texas Panhandle. He partnered with the Irish businessman John George Adair to create the JA, which stands for “John Adair”. In 1880, Goodnight was a founder of the Panhandle Stockman’s Association. The organization sought to improve cattle-breeding methods and to reduce the threat of rustlers and outlaws. After Adair’s death in 1885, Goodnight worked in partnership for a time with Adair’s widow Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair.
He also developed an acquaintanceship with W. D. Twichell, who lived in Amarillo from 1890 to 1918 and surveyed 165 of the 254 Texas counties.
After Goodnight had already left the JA, Tom Blasingame came to the ranch in 1918. Blasingame worked there most of the next seventy-three years, having, at the time of his death in 1989, become the oldest cowboy in the history of the American West.
In addition to raising cattle in 1876, the Goodnights preserved a herd of native plains bison that year, which is said to survive to this day in Caprock Canyons State Park. The herd in Caprock Canyons was actually donated by JA Ranch and there is no documentation demonstrating that this was the herd preserved by the Goodnights. Bison of this herd were introduced into the Yellowstone National Park in 1902 and into the larger zoos and ranches throughout the nation. He also crossbred the bison with domestic cattle, which he called cattalo. Charles “Buffalo” Jones, a co-founder of Garden City, Kansas, after meeting with Goodnight in Texas, also bred cattalo, or beefalo, on a ranch near Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona.
On July 26, 1870, Goodnight married Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer, a teacher from Weatherford, west of Fort Worth. Goodnight developed a practical sidesaddle for Molly. Though he was not of his wife’s denomination, Goodnight donated money to build a Methodist Church in Goodnight. He and Molly also established the Goodnight Academy to offer post-elementary education to hundreds of children of ranchers. For several years after their marriage the Goodnights resided in Pueblo, Colorado, where Goodnight had considerable financial success, having invested in real estate, buying town lots, and even becoming part owner of the opera house. The barn from the Goodnight home west of Pueblo on the Arkansas River is still standing and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Much of his money was invested in the Stock Growers Bank in Pueblo; locals there began referring to him by the title “Colonel”.
After Molly died in April 1926, Goodnight became ill himself. He was nourished back to health by a distant paternal cousin, 26-year-old nurse and telegraph operator from Butte, Montana, named Corinne Goodnight, with whom Charles had been corresponding because of their shared surname.
On March 5, 1927, his ninety-first birthday, Goodnight married Corinne, who was young enough to be his great-granddaughter and who soon miscarried their unborn child. her name was hence Corinne Goodnight Goodnight. He joined her Two by Twos church and was baptized a few months before his death in Goodnight, Texas. Evetts Haley had described Goodnight as “deeply religious and reverential by nature.”
In his younger years, Goodnight smoked some fifty cigars per day but switched to a pipe in his mature years. He never learned to read or write but had his wives write letters for him to various individuals, including Quanah Parker. During his last illness, he gave his gold Hampton pocket watch to his pastor, Ralph Blackburn.
After he mastered ranching, Goodnight was involved in other activities, including the establishment of his Goodnight College in Armstrong County and working as a newspaperman and a banker. He lost his life’s savings when the Mexican silver mine he invested in was nationalized by the Mexican government. He was forced to sell his ranch in 1919 to an oilman friend, W. J. McAlister, with the provision that Goodnight and his then first wife could stay in the home until they both died.
He is buried next to his first wife, Mary Ann, in the Goodnight Cemetery near Amarillo.
Goodnight House Restoration
The Goodnight home is located one-quarter mile south of U.S. Highway 287 about forty miles east of Amarillo. The home was renovated by the Armstrong County Museum from 2006 to 2012. The structure was painted to resemble its appearance in 1887. The interior was restored based on research into the original paint and wallpapers used. In 2005, Amarillo businessman Brent Caviness and a partner donated the home and thirty acres. Mary Ann Goodnight taught children in the bunkhouse. The cowboys slept there at night, and she moved their things aside for school during the day. Goodin said.
Included in the National Register of Historic Places, the house had electricity and sheltered hundreds of ranch workers and cowboys over the years. Beginning in 2006, the Armstrong County Museum in Claude started raising money to restore the structure and make it the centerpiece of the Charles Goodnight Historical Center. Nearly $1.8 million was raised, but another $600,000 is needed. Funds were contributed by several Amarillo-area philanthropies as well as fundraisers from the Texas Historical Foundation. The first phase of the restoration, which included work on the foundation, porches, roof, and exterior paint, has been completed. Goodin said that the next step will include interior painting and wallpapering. A small rope bed built by Adam Sheek, Goodnight’s second stepfather, a minister and a furniture maker, will be placed in the house upon renovation. Ruth Robinson of Clarendon, the seat of Donley County, who is a great-great-niece of Goodnight’s, donated the bed as well as her mother’s Victorian bedroom set. The house is schedule to open in April 2013.
Montie Goodin, a member of the museum board who was born in the Goodnight house in 1931, two years after Goodnight’s death, said that Goodnight had no concept of his own importance: “It didn’t matter who you were, he invited all in.”
Goodnight is generally presented as a good and decent man. J. Frank Dobie, who knew Goodnight, is quoted in Charles Goodnight: Father of the Texas Panhandle as having said: “I have met a lot of good men, several fine gentlemen, hordes of cunning climbers, plenty of loud-braying asses and plenty of dumb oxen, but I haven’t lived long enough or traveled far enough to meet more than two or three men I’d call great. This is a word I will not bandy around. To me, Charles Goodnight was great-natured.”
There are other views. In Time-Life’s 1973 publication The Cowboys, the author states (p. 62): “Goodnight was no better than the rest. Once when his wife expressed shock at some vigilante hangings (“I understand,” she exclaimed, “they hanged them to a telegraph pole!”) Charlie replied quietly, “Well, I don’t think it hurt the telegraph pole.” What she didn’t know was that the victims had actually been strung up with Goodnight’s full approval.”
The western-themed sculptor Grant Speed’s depiction of Goodnight is housed in the Square House Museum in the city of Panhandle, Texas. In 2010, another of Speed’s sculptures of Goodnight sold at auction for $5,400.
In 1935, six years after Goodnight’s death, Laura Vernon Hamner, who knew Charles and Molly Goodnight from her time in Claude in Armstrong County, Texas, published a fictionalized biography of the cattleman entitled, The No-Gun Man of Texas.
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove is a fictionalized account of Goodnight and Loving’s third cattle drive. Woodrow F. Call represents Goodnight, Augustus McCrae is Oliver Loving. Though the characters have personalities rather different from their real-life counterparts, the novel borrows heavily from actual events, in particular Loving’s ambush by Indians and Goodnight’s attentive care as Loving died from an arrow-induced infection. Call returns McCrae’s body to Texas, just as Goodnight returned Loving for burial in Weatherford. The marker that Call carves for Deets is based on an epitaph Charles Goodnight created for Bose Ikard, an ex-slave that worked alongside Goodnight most of his life.
All four “Lonesome Dove” novels include brief appearances by Goodnight. He plays his largest role in the final volume, Streets of Laredo. His appearance in the prequel Dead Man’s Walk is historically inaccurate. The story takes place during the Santa Fe Expedition of 1841, when Goodnight would have been only five years old. Goodnight is played in Dead Man’s Walk by Chris Penn, in Comanche Moon by Jeremy Ratchford and in Streets of Laredo by James Gammon.
The western novelist Matt Braun’s novel Texas Empire is based on the life of Goodnight and fictionalizes the founding of the JA Ranch. The Goodnight Trail is the name of a novel by Ralph Compton.
Mari Sandoz’s Old Jules Country in the part “Some dedicated men” relates the difficulties of Goodnight’s cattle drives to Colorado. In James A. Michener’s novel, Centennial, the Skimmerhorn Trail is based on the actual Goodnight-Loving Trail. In addition his name is mentioned in the novel; the character R. J. Poteet appears to have been based on Goodnight.
Historians John Milton Price (born 1942) of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and Byron Price (born 1949), the director of the Charles M. Russell Center at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, will compile a book on Goodnight’s life. Entitled The Charles Goodnight Papers, the three-volume work will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press, of which Byron Price is also the director. In November 2013, the two professors received a $50,000 grant from the Summerlee Foundation in Dallas to assist in the Goodnight project. John Price explains, “Our endeavor is an important addition to the historiography of the American West. It is a work of original source materials, photographs, letters, and documents – the lifeblood of this most important keystone of Western Americana.” John Price added that the study will focus on the last three years of Goodnight’s life, which have been given little attention in other works.