Friday, September 7, 2012

Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving: Cattle Kings

Sometimes in life people meet then go their separate ways, never to hear from each other again. Then there are times when a meeting between two people seems both destined and inevitable. When Charlies Gooodnight and Oliver Loving first met, they must have instinctively known that their friendship was both inevitable and destined to change the American West forever.

Goodnight and Loving both followed the path of typical Cattle Barons, or Cattle Kings, in the 1800s--they started out as cowboys, gradually learned business skills, and with a tremendous amount of hard work and an equal amount of luck they made themselves rich. Most of the Cattle Kings were Texas cowboys, former soldiers of the Texas Revolution, or ancestors of the first wave of Texas settlers led by Stephen F. Austin, though there were also Cattle Kings in Wyoming, Montana, and other states. Many of the Texas Cattle Kings came from back east, the "Gone to Texas" group who, like my own Texas ancestors, wanted a fresh start in a new country. (Remember, Texas was a country for 10 years, separate from both the US and Mexico, prior to the American Civil War.) This last group of people were known as GTTs, referring to the signs they left on their doors, signs that said simply "Gone to Texas."

Texas Longhorn surrounded by bluebonnets. 
Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

When Horace Greeley made the legendary command to "Go West, young man," he may have had Manifest Destiny in mind, but most of the young men who followed his advice were less concerned with conquering the West and more concerned with making money, either by panning for gold or starting a business. The dream of the cowboy was to make his money with cattle. Unlike gold mining, the cattle business was more than a dream, it was an achievable goal. By 1885 the cattle business was the most profitable line of business in the Old West. Cattle fed the miners, the businessmen, the soldiers, and the people back East who once preferred pork, but found they were much happier with steaks on their plates.

Charles Goodnight

Charles Goodnight (1836-1929) and his family were from the "Gone to Texas" group. Goodnight's father died when Charles was five and his mother remarried their neighbor, Hiram Daugherty. According to the Texas State Historical Association, young Charles 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. In 1845, Goodnight and his family traveled 800 miles from his birthplace in Macoupin County, Illinois to central Texas with Charles riding bareback on a mare named Blaze. He wanted to teach himself how to be a cowboy. This was his childhood dream, and he may have had a sore bottom by the time they reached their destination near Nashville-on-the-Brazos, but one thing is certain, Charles learned how to ride like a cowboy. He also learned how to hunt and track as they made their way south.

In 1853, when his mother was widowed a second time, she married a Methodist preacher, Rev. Adam Sheek. Charles and his stepbrother, John Wesley Sheek, were close friends. When Charles was twenty, Charles and John made plans to leave the family ranch and explore California, possibly seeking gold. Instead, they made a deal with the neighboring CV Ranch to care for 430 cattle, a decision that would change Goodnight's life forever.

The CV Ranch was owned by Sheek's brother-in-law, Charles Varney. The arrangement was that the two young men could keep every fourth calf born to the herd as payment for their services. Goodnight and Sheek were dedicated to learning the cattle ranching business and apparently quite savvy about their work. In four years they had accumulated 180 head of cattle for their own herd. In 1857 they moved their heard to Palo Pinto County where they also built a log cabin for their aging parents. They remained a close family throughout their lifetimes, caring for each other as best they could.

Unfortunately, like all young men in the south, when their home state of Texas seceded from the Union, Goodnight and Sheek were forced to abandon their cattle and join the Confederate Army. Most of the ranchers made certain their cattle were carefully branded then set them free to roam the wilderness until they returned from the war.

Goodnight chose to serve with the Texas Rangers protecting homes and ranches from attacks by the Kiowa and Comanche. He was admired for his tracking skills and asked to assist in tracking down the location of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured by Comanche when she was ten. By the time she was recaptured 25 years later she was married to a Comanche warrior and had a family, and remembered nothing about her previous life. She was separated from her husband and son, the famous Comanche leader Quanah Parker. When Cynthia's infant daughter, Topsannah, died, Cynthia refused to eat and soon after died of a broken heart. Although I can understand her birth family's desire to have her returned, I can only imagine the pain and suffering she endured losing her husband, her baby daughter, and separated forever from her sons. The John Wayne movie The Seekers is loosely based on her story, as are many other Hollywood Westerns. Her son, Quanah Parker became an important leader to his people, one of the last warriors to surrender to reservation life.

When the war ended and Goodnight and Sheek, the two brothers, returned to collect their cattle, they were surprised to learn that their herd had grown to 5000 head. They purchased the remaining herd at the CV Ranch, gathered in a few strays, and in a short time had a herd of 8000. In spite of their great success, John Wesley Sheek's heart was not set on becoming a cowboy like his stepbrother. He wanted to become a family man. When he married, Charles Goodnight took over the herd. It was a huge responsibility, but one that Charles had been preparing for his entire life.

Unfortunately, Goodnight's situation was not unique. All Texans who returned from the war found their herds had increased in size and the market was soon glutted with cattle. Goodnight knew he would have to try a different approach than the other ranchers and decided to head northwest toward the soldiers in Colorado to ensure a higher profit. In 1866 he teamed up with his neighbor, the more experienced Oliver Loving whom he had met years earlier when he first moved to the area, and the two formed their legendary friendship.

Oliver Loving

Oliver Loving (1812-1867) was also from the "Gone to Texas" group. Loving was born and raised in Kentucky. In 1833, Loving married his childhood sweetheart, Susan Doggett Morgan, and started a family. Ten years and four children later the Lovings posted the legendary "Gone to Texas" sign on their door and left Kentucky forever along with Loving's brother, brother-in-law, and their families. Loving, however, originally chose the life of a farmer and gradually expanded his ranch in Palo Pinto County to include over 1000 acres. He also ran the general store near Keechi Creek, and his family grew with five more children born in Texas.

At some point through the years Loving started to raise cattle and accumulated a herd equal to the size of Charles Goodnight's. Like Goodnight, Loving was also a wise businessman and recognized that the greatest profits could be made by taking his cattle north. In 1857 he sent his 19-year-old son, William, on a cattle drive to Illinois by way of the Shawnee Trail.

The success of this first drive encouraged Loving to repeat the process, but the second time he chose to join his cattle with those of his neighbor, John Durkee. This drive was as profitable as the first, so he tried it a third time. Three years later, on August 19, 1860, Loving and another neighbor, John Durham, left Texas with 1500 cattle to feed the gold miners in the fledgling City of Denver. They moved their herd across the Red River then followed the Arkansas to Pueblo, Colorado where they decided to spend the winter. In the spring they sold the cattle for gold, and Loving started back through New Mexico to return to Texas. In a few short years Loving had established a reputation as an honest, expert cattleman.

By the time he started for home the Civil War had started and Loving was detained in Fort Sumner, New Mexico by Union forces. He turned to his friends, Colonel Kit Carson and wealthy landowner Lucien Maxwell, to convince the Union officers to set Loving free. Lucien Maxwell was the father of Pete Maxwell, friend of Billy the Kid and owner of the ranch where the Kid was shot. At one time, Lucien Maxwell--a former fur trapper who had traveled with explorer John C. Freemont--through inheritance and deeds, was the largest private landowner in the world with a total of 1,714,765 acres in New Mexico and Colorado. This made him a very powerful man and the Union soldiers were eager to cooperate.

The Union soldiers agreed to release Loving, and you can imagine their frustration when Loving returned to Texas and was commissioned to deliver cattle to the Confederate troops! This commission did not pay well in the end. When the war was over, and the Confederate Army disbanded, they still owed Loving between $150,000 and $200,000, which was a lot of money in the days of the Old West.

Loving knew he had to act fast to repair his finances as he still had a large family to support. This is when he formed the bond with the young Charles Goodnight who he had hired once before to run cattle through Kansas to the Colorado miners. There was a chemistry between these two men, an immediate understanding that they had equal intelligence and skill as ranchers and cowboys, and they quickly agreed to become partners. In 1866, Charles Goodnight created his famous invention, the Chuckwagon, and the two men started northwest with 2000 cattle, heading back to Fort Sumner where soldiers were guarding 400 Mescalero Apache and 8000 Navajo following the January 1864 Long Walks to the Bosque Redondo. Both the soldiers and their captives were desperate for food.

Chuckwagon photograph taken in Texas circa 1900.

Goodnight and Loving moved their cattle through dangerous territory as the Texas Panhandle was still heavily populated with bandits from Mexico, Apache, and Comanche. Goodnight, however, was familiar with dealing with the Apache and Comanche and realized it was wiser to offer them cattle in exchange for safe passage rather than fight a senseless and potentially costly battle. The men soon arrived safely with their herd in Fort Sumner, New Mexico where they sold most of the herd to the United States Army for $12,000. Oliver Loving moved the remaining cattle to Denver, and their path through New Mexico and Colorado became the legendary Goodnight/Loving trail.

In addition to their great success the two men also gained tremendous respect for each other. They trusted each other and were close friends. While Loving was in Denver, Goodnight returned to Weatherford, Texas with the gold from the Fort Sumner sale, gathered a second herd, and met up with Loving in New Mexico. The men decided to start a base camp ranch in the Bosque Grande where they could supply cattle to Fort Sumner and the City of Santa Fe through the winter months.

When spring arrived in 1867, Loving and Goodnight decided it was time to leave their base camp for another cattle drive to Colorado. They returned to Texas for more cattle, but the herd was moving slow due to bad weather and muddy, mucky trails. Loving made the fateful decision to ride west with their scout, Bill Wilson, in order to secure the government contracts before Goodnight arrived with the cattle. This was actually a wise business move. By this time, other cattle barons realized how Goodnight and Loving were making their money and Loving knew that he had to act fast to secure a written agreement before Goodnight arrived with the cattle or the value of their herd could drop considerably.

As a former scout for the Texas Rangers, Charles Goodnight realized the dangers that lay ahead and asked his friend to promise that he absolutely would not travel during daylight hours. Although Loving initially agreed to this request, he felt pressured to make the deal as soon as possible, so Loving and Wilson rode swiftly through the sagebrush and cactus, day and night, while at the same time watching for potential threats. Unfortunately Loving's luck ran out, and the two men encountered a party of Comanche.

Loving was shot in the arm and side. He fought valiantly, but could feel his body growing weaker. He told Wilson he would cover the man's escape and sent Wilson back to Goodnight for help. Somehow, Loving not only survived out in the desert alone, but he also managed to evade the Comanche for three days and nights. When he sensed that they had moved on, possibly assuming he was dead, he started crawling for the trail. He met a group of Mexican traders who lifted him up into their wagon and took him in to Fort Sumner. Goodnight arrived soon after, but Loving was already dying from gangrene. As he stood by his bedside, Goodnight agreed to fulfill his friend's dying wish and return Loving's body to his family in Texas for burial--not an easy task in the days of the Old West.

Oliver Loving was temporarily buried at Fort Sumner. Goodnight and the rest of the cowboys on the drive built a casket of tin cans to surround Loving's wooden casket then covered Loving’s body with charcoal. Then Goodnight moved the herd into Colorado for sale to the soldiers. He returned with the gold and exhumed Loving's body. Loving was escorted back to Weatherford, Texas and buried with Masonic honors in the Greenwood Cemetery on March 4, 1868. Charles Goodnight divided the profits from the cattle drive with the Loving family. In 1958, Oliver Loving was inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Loving County, Texas and Loving, New Mexico are named in his honor.

Charles Goodnight had lost a dear friend, but he did not lose his stubborn drive and determination. In 1870 he built the Rock Canon Ranch five miles west of Pueblo, Colorado, an area he had been observing for some time as he moved his cattle to Denver. Goodnight then married his long-time sweetheart, the beautiful Weatherford, Texas schoolteacher Mary Ann Dyer. The couple lived in Rock Canon for six years. Goodnight continued herding cattle with another Cattle King legend, John Chisum, and also sold apples the large orchard on the ranch. The Goodnights had no children, but decided to adopt the son of their long-time housekeeper. His name was Cleo Hubbard and he would later inherit much of the Goodnight fortune.

Soon, Charles Goodnight was one of the wealthiest cattle ranchers in Colorado and considered one of the legendary Cattle Kings. In spite of his great success, Goodnight continued to pay an exorbitant amount of interest on bank loans for his business deals, which irritated him for obvious reasons, so he co-founded the Stock Growers Bank of Pueblo. He invested in many other business ventures in the area, including an Opera House and meat packing plant. He founded Colorado's first Stock Grower's Association. Then, in 1873, the economy collapsed, and Goodnight lost most of his savings in the ensuing panic.

Goodnight was not the only man in the American Old West to find himself a king one day and poor the next, but he still had his cattle herd, his apple orchard, and his unwavering determination. In 1876, he decided to move his cattle to the Texas Panhandle where he was told by Mexican traders there was an oasis in the desert, a strip of land in a canyon that was filled with trees and had a river running through the middle. He found this oasis in Palo Duro Canyon and decided he would make the land his own and start over. He negotiated deals with the bandits, Apache, and Comanche to allow his herds to pass safely through the panhandle in exchange for cattle. Then 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 than his Pueblo adventure. His herd grew to 100,000 and his ranch became a community of 50 houses. The community was named Goodnight, of course. Goodnight experimented with breeding bison and Angus cattle on his ranch, which he called “cattalo,” and raised elk and antelope on the land. A recent genetic report suggests that some of the cattle on Catalina Island of the coast of California were from Charles Goodnight's original experimental herd of cattalo, part cattle and part buffalo. In 1880, he organized the Panhandle Stock Association and served as its first president.

When Mary Ann Goodnight died in 1926, Charles became deathly sick, but he soon recovered with the help of his nurse, 26-year-old Corrine Goodnight (no relation). Friends, family, and pretty much everyone who knew him was shocked when Goodnight announced he was marrying the young woman--he was obsessively dedicated to his first wife from the time they met, and Corrine was young enough to be his great granddaughter. Nevertheless, they did marry at the home of Goodnight's nephew, Henry W. Taylor, and shocked the family once more when they sold the ranch home in Palo Duro and moved to Arizona for Goodnight's health.

Goodnight lived his last days surrounded by journalists begging for interviews with the legendary cattle king. Charles Goodnight died in Phoenix, Arizona on December 12, 1929. He was buried next to his first wife, Mary Ann, in Goodnight, Texas.

Along with his friend, Oliver Loving, Charles Goodnight was one of the first five cowboys voted into Oklahoma's National Cowboy Hall of Fame when it was founded in 1958. Many of his personal belongings were donated to museums by his adopted son, Cleo Hubbard. There are several streets in the Texas Panhandle named after Charles Goodnight, along with the highway to Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park. The park contains an earthen shelter believed to be Goodnight's first headquarters while he built his ranch. The Goodnight ranchhouse is still standing near US Highway 287.

Although it is widely believed that the characters of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call in Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize Winning novel Lonesome Dove are modeled after cattlemen Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, there is a note on the IMDb stating that McMurtry denied the connection. The note, however, is not linked to a source.


  • Banks, Phyllis Eileen. "Bosque Redondo--Destination of the long walk."
  • "Bosque Redondo Memorial." New Mexico State Monuments.
  • “Charles Goodnight.” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association.
  • "Charles Goodnight." PBS-The West.
  • Forbis, William H. The Old West: The Cowboys. Time Life Books. Canada: 1974.
  • Leonard, Randy. Trail Drives of the Old West: The Story of Oliver Loving and the Goodnight/Loving Trail.
  • "Oliver Loving” The Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association.
  • Story of the Great American West. Readers Digest Association. Montreal: 1977.
  • Strotter, Mike. Wild West. Kingfisher. New York: 1997.
  • We Americans. National Geographic Society. Washington: 1975.

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...