Charles Goodnight was known as the Father of the Texas Panhandle because he was the first to establish a cattle ranch in what was know as the Llano Estacado—the Stake Plains. In the fall of 1875, he drove sixteen hundred head of cattle into Palo Duro Canyon and began ranching under the JA brand, named after his Irish-born investment partner John George Adair.
Along with the Four Sixes (6666), the Pitchfork, the XIT, the Waggoner with its backwards triple D brand, and the King Ranch with its running W the JA is one of the most famous cattle outfits in Texas. Renowned because of the man who built it. Goodnight wasn’t merely a cowman. He was a plainsman, trailblazer, and inventor. He pioneered the Goodnight-Loving trail in 1866, crossing west Texas from Fort Belknap on the Brazos River through New Mexico to meat markets in Colorado. To feed cowpunchers during roundups and along the trail, Goodnight invented a mobile catering wagon—the chuckwagon, which transformed the cattle business.
Goodnight was already famous by the time he drove a heard into the Palo Duro. But one episode made him a legend. It was immortalized in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove. On a drive from Texas to New Mexico Goodnight’s partner, Oliver Loving decided to leave the heard and ride ahead to Fort Sumner to ensure a market for their cattle. At the time, Indian raids had been particularly troublesome and Goodnight thought the idea foolhardy. But Loving wouldn’t be dissuaded, so he, along with one of “the coolest heads in the outfit,” one-armed Bill Wilson, struck out. Though Goodnight encouraged the two men to only travel at night, on the second day Loving ignored that advice. Within a matter of hours the two men encountered mounted warriors. Loving and Wilson spurred their horses and ran to the banks of the Pecos in hopes of finding a place to shelter. However, before Loving and Wilson made it to the river the pursuing Indians began firing. Loving was hit in the wrist. The ball passed through and lodged in his side. Loving kept his seat in the saddle and Wilson was able to get him to the river, where they holed up under a bank. Spying their location, the Indians set up a perimeter, occasionally showing the two cattlemen with arrows.
Loving believed his wound was probably fatal. He believed if Wilson stayed he too would be killed. When night fell, Loving persuaded Wilson to float down the Pecos, using the darkness as cover. Wilson was reluctant to leave, but in the end agreed to make his escape and find Goodnight. Wilson gave Loving his revolvers, stripped himself of his boots and long johns, and took to the river. When he was well past the Indians, Wilson left the river and headed across country in the direction Goodnight and the heard would soon pass.
For three days Wilson walked barefoot across sticker infected country. On his last night, wolves trailed him. Whenever he stopped to rest, they “snapped and [snarled]” at him. When he reached a route the herd had to pass through, Wilson found a cave and waited until Goodnight and the cow crew came into sight.
Learning of Loving’s plight, Goodnight rushed to the spot where Wilson said he left Loving under the bank of the Pecos. But Loving wasn’t there. Goodnight assumed the Indians must have killed him and taken his body. Returning to the herd, Goodnight later encountered a party from Fort Sumner who informed him that Loving has escaped. Some people discovered him walking on the plains and took him to the fort. When Goodnight arrived at Fort Sumner he found Loving alive, but suffering from a serious infection in his wounded arm. Goodnight demanded that the fort’s doctor amputate the arm, but the physician had never performed an amputation and was reluctant to try. By the time the doctor got up enough courage to at least make the attempt Oliver Loving died. It was September 25, 1867.
Before his death, Loving and Goodnight discussed what should happen with their partnership and with his body if Loving didn’t live. In the event of Loving’s death, Goodnight agreed to maintain their partnership for two years in order to provide for Loving’s family. Goodnight also agreed to carry Loving’s body back to Texas for burial. “I don’t want my bones to rest in alien soil,” Loving told Goodnight.
Loving’s death took a toll on Goodnight. He greatly admired the older man. Sixty years later, thinking back on his relationship with Loving, Goodnight said: “I was so very fond of him, he was the nearest father to me I’d ever known. Gave me so much good advice on his death bed. . . . If I have any good qualities, I often thought that I owed them to that great man.”
Before Goodnight could fulfill his promise to his friend and partner, he had to drive the cattle he didn’t sell in New Mexico to Colorado, promising to come back in the Fall. Returning to Fort Sumner in October, Goodnight had Loving’s body exhumed and packed in charcoal in a casket and placed in a wagon. Goodnight carried his friend’s body six hundred miles to a cemetery in Weatherford, where Loving’s family and friends interred him.
Later in life, after divesting himself from his partnership with John Adair and the JA ranch, Goodnight established his own ranch some forty miles east of Amarillo. He built a 2,900 square foot ranch house that sits a hundred yards off of U.S. 287 to the south in the little community named after the cowman. You can visited the house today.
Goodnight began experimenting with crossbreeding, most notable the development of the cattalo—a crossbreed between Angus cattle and a buffalo. He also became a champion of preserving the buffalo, which has been nearly shot to extinction by white hunters, as well as traditional Indian lifestyles.
In celebration of a history that was all but lost, Goodnight ventured into movie making. Just before the United States entered World War I, in 1916, Goodnight produced a movie showcasing an Indian buffalo hunt. Titled Old Texas, the idea came from J. L. Lackey, an attorney who had attended a buffalo hunt Goodnight staged on his ranch for Kiowa Indians. Goodnight provided a lone animal, but as word spread a large crowd formed to watch the hunt. Lackey approached Goodnight to repeat the performance, but this time to allow a movie crew to capture it on film. Goodnight initially rejected the idea, but upon further reflection agreed, believing “it would be both profitable and of great historic value.”
Before filming began, Goodnight and the few Kiowa Indians old enough to have hunted buffalo choreographed the action. The camera crew came from Denver and the Indians came from the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Reservation in Oklahoma. The Indians didn’t have traditional weapons so Goodnight had to provide the bows and arrow. Nor did the Indians any longer wear breechclouts so some decided to substitute drawers that at the time served as underwear, making the sight of a few Indians charging up and down hills in hunt for a lone buffalo a bit comic-tragic.
The film, faithful and beautifully preserved by the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, was never profitable. By the time the movie was ready for distribution, World War I entertainment taxes made it impossible to get into theaters. Goodnight’s initial investment of two thousand dollars was never paid back. But the old rancher turned movie producer was right about one thing: the film is indeed of “great historic value.”