Monday, November 14, 2011


On a desolate stretch of flat four lane highway about 40 miles east of Amarillo is the hamlet of Goodnight. If you did not know to look for it, you would certainly miss it. There is little more than a railroad crossing and a historical marker commemorating the last residence of Charles Goodnight, one of the true legends of Texas and the West.

Born March 5th, 1836 (the day before the Alamo fell to Santa Anna) in Illinois, the Goodnights came to Texas in 1846 and at 21, "Charlie" joined the Texas Rangers. These were the times of fierce battles with the Comanche and Goodnight was part of the troop that located Cynthia Ann Parker (a white girl abducted by the Comanche and who later became one of them). Not content with being a scout and Indian fighter, Goodnight signed up on the Confederate side during the Civil War.

From these experiences came the plan to supply the Army Forts as far north as Colorado and Wyoming with Texas beef. This was the era before barbed wire, of open range, where the Spanish introduced Longhorn roamed freely. Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving practically invented the large scale cattle drive, blazing trails through hostile Indian territory, enduring storms, stampedes and drought. Sound familiar? The remarkable heart-wrenching scene in Lonesome Dove where Colonel Call brings Gus's remains all they way from Montana to Texas... That was Goodnight hauling the body of his friend Oliver Loving "home" to Weatherford, TX from New Mexico. Larry McMurtry's epic was no work of fiction.

And the Danny Glover character "Deets"? That was Goodnight's right hand man Bose Ikard, also buried in Weatherford with the memorable epitaph "Bose Ikard served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior."

Wow! That was the real West!

In 1876, with the Army money paid for Texas beef in hand, Goodnight, with an investment from Irishman John Adair, founded the JA Ranch. Located around the Palo Duro Canyon in the southern part of the Texas Panhandle, the JA grew to be an enormous spread encompassing over 1.3 million acres and grazing 100,000 head of livestock. Goodnight was a renowned judge of cattle and horses, and worked to select and improve the breeds of both. He made peace with the Indians, preserved a herd of buffalo, started a college... The man was larger than life. In 1887, he pulled out of the partnership and later an ill-advised investment in Mexican silver mines in Mexico cost Goodnight his fortune. He died not quite broke but certainly not rich.

The JA Brand:

Goodnight did not have any heirs; ironically his second wife (whom he married at the ripe old age of 91 - she was 26) was also a Goodnight - they met as pen pals due to the same last name. Charles Goodnight died in the year of the Big Crash (1929), aged 93. His legacy is the legend around his name. He lived in one of the most exciting eras imaginable: the push Westward, the Indian wars, Civil War, cattle drives, huge ranches, the coming of the railroad, telegraph, electricity and the auto.

His biography was published in 1936, written by J. Evetts Haley, who knew Goodnight well and "faced the flow of tobacco juice and profanity" in order to capture all the epic stories. Goodnight was no wallflower and his directness was well-known. The resulting book "Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman" is an excellent read.

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