Wednesday, March 4, 2009

March 5: the Father of the Texas Panhandle”

Do you know who this is?
-He had six months of formal education.
-He raised domesticated buffalo.
- He invented the chuckwagon.

He was a farmer, ranch hand, jockey. He fought the Commanche and the Commancheros, established a town bearing his name, and would carve out a ranch spanning over a million acres.

He was a member of the legendary Texas Rangers, created two new cattle trails, and started a college. He fought in the Civil War, domesticated buffalo, and was an inventor.

On March 5, 1836, Charles Goodnight, who would later be giving the title of ‘the father of the Texas panhandle”, was born in Macoupin County, Illinois. He was the fourth child of farmers Charles and Charlotte Goodnight.

Not much is know of his early life. His father died in 1841 when Charles was five. His mother remarried – a neighboring farmer named Hiram Dougherty. The family moved to Texas in 1846 when he age of 10. His formal education would end when he was eleven (with six months of formal schooling), and he would start working on neighboring farms; but his informal education continued: he learned how to hunt and track from an old Indian named Caddo Jake. At fifteen, he was a jockey, farm worker, and a teamster – a man who hauled freight – hauling cotton and foodstuffs to Houston. Around 1851 his stepfather died, and in 1853 his mother would marry again, this time to a Methodist minister, Reverend Adam Sheek. Charles would partner with his brother-in-law, John Wesley Sheek, to run cattle for Claiborne Varner (Adam Sheek’s brother in law) for a share of the herd.

By the time he was twenty he was riding the range as a cowboy; serving in the local militia; and tracking and fighting raiding Comanche Indians. A year later he was a member of Jack Cureton’s company of Rangers, and in 1860 was the scout leading the Rangers to the Comanche camp where Cynthia Ann Parker was a prisoner. He was involved in the controversial recapture of Parker.

When the Civil War broke out, Charles joined again served as a scout – this time for the Confederacy - working primarily on the Texas frontier and involved with various Indian raids. He was in a frontier regiment, and would patrol the western frontier – gaining valuable knowledge on the lay of the land that would help him in his later career as a cattleman.

After the War was over, Charles joined with Oliver Loving to organize a cattle drive from the glutted market of Texas to the higher demand market in New Mexico. Loving was a former Kentuckian who had moved to Texas and established a ranch there in 1843 when Texas was an independent Republic. Most of the herd was his, with Charles contributing cattle that he claimed during the ‘making a gather’ – a statewide roundup of cattle that had roamed free during the years of the Civil War. The long cattle drive would break trail to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where a government contract for beef to feed the inhabitants of the Indian reservations was waiting for them.

The cattle drive would involve several concepts: The cattle were Texas Longhorns, a tough, lean, –and at times mean-spirited – creature that was well suited to the Texas plains. It would also create a new trail – the Goodnight-Loving Trail – which would gradually lengthen, and over which future herds would travel northward to the rail junctions that would ship them to the processing plants east of the Mississippi River. Finally, a new way of feeding the cowboys was invented – the chuckwagon. Charles created the chuckwagon, a portable meals-on-wheels concept that involved a travelling kitchen to cook the staples needed by the range hands: sourdough bread, beans, and meat. He rebuilt an army surplus ‘Studebaker’ wagon into the new tool that would be used on cattle drives throughout the west. In New Mexico they would make an agreement with another rancher, John Chisum, to supply meat to the Army.

Loving would die from wounds inflicted by the Comanche in 1867 as he travelled to New Mexico. He was going ahead Charles to arrange the contracts of sale for the herd that they were bringing into New Mexico. Charles would fulfill a promise to return Loving’s body to Texas for burial. After Loving’s death, Charles and Chisum would expand the Trail to Colorado, and finally to Wyoming.

A successful businessman, 34-year-old Charles would marry Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer in 1870. Molly was a long-time sweetheart of Charles, and had taught school in Wetherford, Texas. He established the JA Ranch, the first Texas Panhandle ranch.

As a rancher, he formed a Cattleman’s Association to devise ways to improve the herd – and to reduce the threats of rustlers and outlaws. He also began a Bison preserve – which still exists today – and began a domestic buffalo herd. He also began crossbreeding buffalo and cattle, creating cattalo; e blazed a new cattle trail to the railroad junction in Dodge City that became known as the Palo Duro-Dodge City Trail; and invented the first practical sidesaddle, with an additional horn to rest the left knee, for his wife.

By 1885, Goodnight had over a million acre ranch with over 100,000 carefully bred cattle. He developed on of the country’s finest herds through the introduction of Hereford bulls into his breeding program. He spent an enormous amount of time trying to upgrade the quality his herd to the point that it was recognized as one of the best in the nation.

In 1887, at the age of 51, he would sell the JA Ranch and buy a smaller ranch, where he would continue his breeding efforts, raising his domestic buffalo, and kept a variety of animals – such as elk and antelope, in zoo-like enclosures. His ranch actually became a tourist attraction, and featured buffalo meat in its menus.

Through the encouragement of his wife he financed the start of the Goodnight College in the town of Goodnight in 1898, as well as building a Methodist church.

Molly died in April 1926 at the age of 86. Charles became ill soon after, was nursed back to health by Corinne Goodnight, a 26 year old telegraph operator and nurse from Butte, Montana, with whom Charles had been writing for some time because of the similarity of their last names. Charles would marry Corrine in March 1927.

Charles would pass away at his winter home in Arizona on December 12, 1929, at the age of 93. He would be buried next to Molly in the Goodnight community cemetery in his beloved Texas.

Charles Goodnight is an example of a man starting with nothing, but through hard work, imagination, and perseverance, built a lasting legacy.


No local library books on Charles Goodnight are available.


Handbook of Texas
History Makers of the High Plains
Legends of America


01. Portrait: Wikipedia
02. Chuckwagon: Wikipedia photo from the Chuckwagon exhibit at the Panhandle-Plains Museum
03. Portrait of Molly: National Cowgirl Hall of Fame


  1. As always, interesting stuff. It always amazes me how much these people accomplish. Seems like they get more done in the first twenty years then many of us do in a lifetime.

  2. And we try to go ten times as fast as they do. Can you even imagine the fits we would have today traveling as slow as they did with a herd of cattle?