Charles Goodnight, Jr. (1836-1929)

The grave of Charles Goodnight, Sr. located at the Willis Wolf farm (left); Charlie and John’s ranch in Palo Duro (right)
Up-close picture of the headstone, Zoomed out picture of Charles Goodnight Senior's grave

      You often hear stories of cowboys who roamed the west with nothing but a blanket, a herd of cattle, and their trusty steed.  Not too many people think of these illusive cowboys as real, individual men who worked hard to succeed in farming and business, not to mention cattle herding.  But one of those so-called cowboys originated right here in Macoupin County, and went on to lead an amazing life.  His name was Charles Goodnight, and he happened to be one of the most prosperous cattle herders in the old American West.

      Charles Goodnight, Jr. was born in 1836 on the farm now owned by Willis Wolf, Jr.  He grew up with three other siblings and was raised by his parents, Charlotte and Charles Goodnight, Sr.  When he was only five, his father died of pneumonia.  Charlotte married a neighboring farmer soon after.  When Charlie was ten, the family moved to Texas.  There, he began looking for odd jobs at neighboring farms.  When he was fifteen, he tried jockeying at a local racing outfit, but found that it didn’t suit him as well as ranching and farming.  So, he returned home to his mother and continued finding work to do at nearby farms.

      At about twenty years old, Charles found his way into the cattle business in northwest Texas, where he also helped out with the local militia.  In 1857 Charlie joined the Texas Rangers and fought on the Confederacy’s side in the Civil War.

      After the war, he met up with a large group of other men and began helping in a statewide roundup of cattle that had scattered across Texas during the war.  After Charlie got his herd back, he had to think of a way to get them out of the almost destroyed South and to the market.  He wanted to go further west, where beef was in high demand.

      Charlie found a partner in Oliver Loving, whose way of making a living during the Civil War was to sell Confederates his beef.  Loving was somewhat of an experienced cattle herder, so he joined Goodnight in his long trek from Texas to New Mexico.  Trailing two thousand head, they paved the path that would be later known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This trail between Belknap and Fort Sumner became one of the most heavily traveled trails in the Southwest.

      Oliver Loving died from wounds inflicted by fighting Indians at the very end of their third trip to Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  Distressed, Charlie turned back from the cattle drive to take his partner’s body safely back to Texas.  Charlie kindly continued to divide his profits with his old friend’s family.

      In the following years, Goodnight also created a trail singularly named after him that extended from Alamogordo Creek, New Mexico, to Granada, Colorado.  In later years, his lead steer, Old Blue, helped him lead several cattle drives.  Once, this famous steer helped lead a thousand head 250 miles all the way to Dodge City.  That accomplished, Old Blue then turned around and trotted back home with the cowboys.

      Traveling the trail everyday carrying minimal baggage in hot, uncomfortable weather was tough on a cowboy.  In 1866, Charles saw his opportunity and began on his new invention – the chuck wagon.  He basically redesigned a Studebaker wagon to fit a cowboy’s needs.  The Studebaker was a tough army surplus wagon that could last months of hard driving on the trails.  Goodnight designed his very own chuck box, containing a number of shelves and drawers.  He fitted this to the back of the wagon and it served to keep the cook’s things in order.  The box had a hinged lid, and when the cook shut it, he would have a perfect surface to fix meals on.  A water barrel holding a two days’ water supply was also attached to the wagon alongside a row of hooks, boxes, brackets, and a coffee grinder.  Charles also hung a canvas under the wagon (hammock-style) to carry wood and kindling, which is scarce on the prairies.  An additional wagon box was used to carry the cowboys’ bedrolls, personal items, and food supplies.  Goodnight’s genius invention is used in cattle drives to this day.

      On July 26, 1870, Charlie finally tied the knot.  The lucky lady was Molly Ann Dyer, affectionately nicknamed Mary.  Previously she had been a schoolteacher at Weatherford. The two had been longtime sweethearts, and now, with Charles at age 34 and Mary at age 31, they were married.

      At 40 years old, Charlie drifted back to Texas and put his business efforts toward running a ranch in the panhandle.  He settled in Palo Duro, an area he was formerly acquainted with from his experience with the Texas Rangers during the Civil War.   He partnered up with Englishman John G. Adair, and together they attempted a pioneer venture at the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon.  This venture expanded their ranch to over a million acres and 100,000 steers.

      Mary faithfully settled down with her husband as the only woman on Charlie and John’s ranch.  Mary imprinted her loving nature in the hearts of the cowboys and hands working there.  She became known forever as Mother of the Panhandle for acting as a nurse, comforter, nurturer, homemaker, mother, and sister to all those living in Palo Duro around her.  Mary adjusted to life in the same canyon where the indians who killed Oliver Loving had once camped.  Women in that time would have cringed, but Mary held onto her faith in Charles and in herself.  Horrified at the sometimes brutal ways of men and forever the protector of baby animals on the ranch, she struggled to maintain a halfway civilized way of life.  Her only friends were the ranch hands, a few wandering Indians, and several pet chickens she received as gifts.

      Yet Mary adapted, and busied herself with the many baby buffaloes left to die on the plains.  Abandoned by commercial hunters, the rescued baby buffaloes later made up the Goodnight buffalo herd, which became well known throughout the world.  Mary was the one who played the biggest part in building up this herd.

      During his eleven years spent at the JA Ranch, Goodnight not only built up the herd and extended the ranch, but he also assisted in enforcing law and order in the area.  He helped send numerous outlaws and cattle thieves to justice.

      Goodnight was a pioneer in cattle breeding.  He successfully crossed Texas longhorns with Herefords, creating a breed of cattle combining the longhorns’ toughness with the Herefords’ more heavyset build.  He also created the very first “cattalo” by breeding buffalo and cattle.  At 60 years old, Goodnight’s reputation for cattle breeding grew.  He is recognized as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cattle breeders in the American West.

      But Charles Goodnight, Jr. didn’t retire then.  As if ranching and cattle driving wasn’t enough, he went on to be a very successful entrepreneur, investing in various Mexican mining operations, and even trying his hand at movie producing.  As he reached his 90s, he was an internationally recognized figure in range and cattle economics.

      At the age of 93 and unknowingly living the last year of his life, Charlie joined a church.  Although he had founded and funded many in his lifetime, he had never been a part of one.  So, having made his mark on the world, Charles died peacefully on the morning of December 12, 1929.  He was buried next to Mary in the panhandle town of Goodnight, Texas.