Our New Mexico Heritage: Charles Goodnight pioneered the West’s cattle industry

Bud Russo (SWS Writer) | February, 2015 | Articles, Features


(Top) Charles S. Goodnight, cattleman and inventor of the chuck wagon. Photo courtesy University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, and Cattle Raisers Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. (Middle) “Cookie” prepares a dutch-oven meal on the back of his chuck wagon for hardworking cowboys. The wagon also served to transport sleeping bags and extra clothing. Ervin E. Smith Photo, courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art. (Bottom) On the trail, cattle are herded as a leisurely pace to preserve their weight and monetary value. Photo courtesy Harney County, Oregon, Cattle Grazing Study.

(Top) Charles S. Goodnight, cattleman and inventor of the chuck wagon. Photo courtesy University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, and Cattle Raisers Museum, Fort Worth, Texas. (Middle) “Cookie” prepares a dutch-oven meal on the back of his chuck wagon for hardworking cowboys. The wagon also served to transport sleeping bags and extra clothing. Ervin E. Smith Photo, courtesy Amon Carter Museum of American Art. (Bottom) On the trail, cattle are herded as a leisurely pace to preserve their weight and monetary value. Photo courtesy Harney County, Oregon, Cattle Grazing Study.

If you’ve read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove or saw the TV series, you already know the story of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. McMurtry patterned his characters, Woodrow Call (Goodnight) and Augustus McCrae (Loving), after the two cattle ranching pioneers. But you may not know all of the story.

Charles Goodnight moved to Texas in 1846, when he was ten. A decade later he was a cowboy as well as a militiaman fighting Comanche raiders. The Comanche considered Texas their home, and they fought fiercely to defend it. They were, in this writer’s opinion, the best horse-soldiers the West ever knew.

Just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, Goodnight joined a company of Texas Rangers to beat back the Comanche. The Rangers captured three women and were surprised to find one with blue eyes. She turned out to be Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been abducted by the tribe in 1836. She was nine years old then and, in time, grew to accept the Comanche way, including marrying Peta Nocona, with whom she had three children — a daughter, Toh-tseeah (Prairie Flower) and two sons, Pecos, and Quanah Parker, the last and perhaps greatest of Comanche chiefs. But that’s another story.

Following the war, Goodnight joined forces with Oliver Loving, not only ten years his senior but also the first man who ever trailed cattle from Texas. Loving’s earlier attempts were marginally successful, so he and Goodnight decided to drive their herd of feral Texas longhorn steer west from Belknap, Texas, to the Pecos River and then north across New Mexico and Colorado to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the Union Pacific railhead. The 1200-mile trail they blazed came to be known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail and is as famous as the Old Chisum Trail, although no one every wrote, “Coma ti yi youpy, youpy yea, youpy yea… ,” about the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

On their first drive, they got as far as Fort Sumner, where they sold the herd to the army to feed 8,000 starving Navajo and Mescalero detained at Bosque Redondo. Later drives resulted in cattle reaching the railroad in Wyoming for shipment east.

As it turns out, along the trail, the cattle had plenty on which to graze. Feeding the cowboys was problematic, so Goodnight invented a box that fit in the back end of a Studebaker wagon. Some historians believe Goodnight’s idea emerged from seeing Mexican shepherds and drovers eating meals prepared on the back of an ox-drawn carreta, which served as a mobile kitchen.

Goodnight’s invention had drawers and shelves holding supplies and utensils all contained by a hinged door. When opened flat, the door provided a surface on which the camp “cookie” could prepare biscuits, beans, and bacon. If there was a layover so the herd could fatten on good grass, the cook had time to prepare an apple or peach cobbler. Otherwise, the men’s sweet treat was Spotted Pup, what they called rice pudding with raisins. Goodnight’s mobile kitchen came to be called the chuck wagon, not because its inventor was named Charles but because “chuck” was slang for food.

In Lonesome Dove, McCrae gets shot with an arrow and eventually dies of gangrene poisoning. That’s pretty much the truth. According to Diane Alden, who posted her story on the Internet, Loving was shot by Comanches. The arrow went through his arm and into his side. Alden cites Loving from records in the Texas Cushman Library, “I went down the river about a hundred yards and saw an Indian sitting on his horse out in the river, with the water almost over the horse’s back. He was sitting there splashing the water with his foot, just playing. I got under some smart-weed and drifted by until I got far enough below the Indian where I could get out. Then I made a three days’ march barefooted.”

Loving was rescued by some vaqueros and taken to Fort Sumner. “By the time Goodnight arrived,” Alden writes, “the wound in [Loving’s] side had healed, but the doctor refused to amputate the arm, where gangrene had set in. Goodnight had to coerce the doctor to amputate, but it was too late to save Loving.”

Loving asked Goodnight to provide for his family and to return his body to Weatherford, Texas, some 30 miles west of Fort Worth, where he wanted to be buried. Goodnight sat with his friend for two weeks until he died and then kept his promise. “The 600-mile trip to Weatherford was probably the longest funeral procession of all time,” Alden writes.

In 1876, Goodnight established the JA ranch in the Texas panhandle with John Adair as his financial partner; thus the brand JA. The Comanches were surprised and appalled to learn Goodnight’s land included Palo Duro Canyon, which they considered their sacred homeland. But the sun was setting on the Comanche empire as it would for all the Plains tribes within the next decade. They were passing into history and were no longer a force on the Llano and Texas plains.

Goodnight is not only known for trailing cattle the length of New Mexico. He worked to improve cattlebreeding methods, adopted by other ranchers in the West. He rounded up one of the last remaining bison herds on the Southern Plains and even cross-bred them with cattle. Some years ago, I sampled beefalo, the result of the cross-breeding, and found it leaner and tastier than steak from a regular steer.

Goodnight had married Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer in 1870. She had been a teacher in Weatherford and became his devoted helpmate.

For a few years, they moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where the couple successfully invested in real estate. Then, Goodnight lost his life savings when the Mexican silver mine in which he had invested was nationalized. He was forced to sell his ranch in 1919 to W.J. McAlister, with the provision he and Molly could stay there until they both died.

When Molly died in 1926, Goodnight himself became despondent and ill. He was nursed back to health by Corinne Goodnight, his 26-year-old distant cousin, who was a nurse from Butte, Montana. A year later, on his 91st birthday, Goodnight married Corrine, whose name legally became Mrs. Goodnight-Goodnight.

Charlie Goodnight was said to smoke upwards of 50 cigars a day, but that probably didn’t contribute much to his death, which occurred December 29, 1929. He was 93 years old.

The Goodnight home and Armstrong County Museum is in Goodnight, Texas, 40 east of Amarillo on U.S. 287. The ranch home is on the National Register of Historic Places and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for school-age children.



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