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Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman

Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman

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by J. Evetts Haley, Harold D. Bugbee

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An exciting story of a Texas Ranger, adventurer, and immigration officer who became a symbol of his age while gambling with death in the wild frontier regions of Texas, Arizona, and Old and New Mexico. Charles Goodnight knew the West of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Dick Wooton, St. Vrain, and Lucien Maxwell. He ranged a country as vast as Bridger ranged. He rode with


An exciting story of a Texas Ranger, adventurer, and immigration officer who became a symbol of his age while gambling with death in the wild frontier regions of Texas, Arizona, and Old and New Mexico. Charles Goodnight knew the West of Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, Dick Wooton, St. Vrain, and Lucien Maxwell. He ranged a country as vast as Bridger ranged. He rode with the boldness of Fremont, guided by the craft of Carson. His vigorous zest for life enabled him to live intensely and amply, and in this book by J. Evetts Haley, himself no stranger to the West, provides a fully readable and important western biography, vividly told, thrilling, witty, and completely authentic.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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6.09(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.06(d)

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Charles Goodnight

Cowman & Plainsman

By J. Evetts Haley


Copyright © 1949 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8517-0



One day in the fall of 1849, a fine old Indian warrior named Caddo Jake was at the Goodnight home, where he regularly came for a cup of coffee, and then invariably tanked up on buttermilk, of which he was very fond. As he left the cabin and crossed the mile of prairie beyond the house, the widow's thirteen-year-old boy trailed close in his tracks. The leaves of the oak were tinted by frost, and many deer had already grown fat upon abundant acorns still falling from their cups. In the edge of the timber the Indian shot a fat, barren doe, cut her in two, and placed the carcass upon the boy's back, a hind leg to either side of his head. The slight youth protested at the load, but Caddo Jake replied: 'Heap big man! You take him all home.'

The Caddo was right. Charlie Goodnight, like so many other lads of far-flung wilderness lands, had arrived prematurely at the estate of a man. Upon the trail with friendly Indians, alone in the woods, faring for himself among hard men while yet at the age of thirteen, fighting for every advantage and for the necessities of life, Charlie Goodnight was laying up the physical and mental preparation that was to make him a noted scout, a cattleman so efficient as to be termed natural born, a trailblazer through thousands of miles of wilderness at the point of Texas cattle, and the foremost frontier breeder of livestock in America. Uneducated from printed sources, but closely observant of natural phenomena, he grew up a sensitive lad among the rough-hewn surroundings of frontier life. He was born and bound to be a pioneer.

Family tradition records the origin of the name in times of chivalry, when some man of fighting stock, who proudly lived and traveled by horse, was noted for gallantry in battle and called the 'Good Knight.' But the sober research of the genealogist disputes the claim, and apparently the Goodnights were of plebeian instead of aristocratic origin.

Michael Goodnight, who first introduced the family to America, was born in Germany, and became a part of that heavy migration away from the oppression of the Old World to the vital freedom of the New. He reached Pennsylvania in 1752, settled soon afterward in Virginia, moved to North Carolina, and late in life migrated to the 'dark and bloody ground' that beckoned men so firmly from the wilderness of Kentucky, presumably in 1777 or 1778. Through the years family tradition has built him into a virile figure of heroic proportions, often married and breeding bountifully.

In 1754, historically close on his heels, came his brother George. He, too, tarried but briefly in Pennsylvania, moved to Virginia, and from there to Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, in the 1760's, where he lived for years. He was appointed assessor there in 1778, but he probably went on with Michael and his family to become one of the early settlers of Kentucky, for in December of the same year he had three sons serving as soldiers at Ruddell's Station, thirty miles northeast of Lexington. Michael, however, located at Harlan's Station, thirty-five miles southwest of Lexington, within a mile of which, as an old man, he was killed and scalped by the Indians while travelling the Wilderness Road.

In the widespread diffusion of these families through the years, there developed much confusion about origins, and Charles Goodnight died supposing that Michael was his great-grandfather. Both were vigorous branches, and except for the satisfaction of a naturally inquisitive mind, it mattered not at all to Charlie. His world was that of adventure and accomplishment on fresh frontiers; not concern with a past beyond recall.

The record now reveals that George was the founder of his line. Both brothers came to Kentucky, as already observed, in the days of Daniel Boone, and both 'met sad misfortune' at the hands of the Indians. In June, 1780, when the Indians and the Canadians took Ruddell's Station, its three hundred people as prisoners were turned over to the Indians. Old George, as one of his descendants recorded, 'was massacreed in the most barbarous manner,' while his boys and girls 'were scattered among the Indians,' some being taken into Canada. Eventually all of them got back to Kentucky. Among these was one named Peter, grandfather of the subject of this story.

Peter acquired three hundred and ninety acres of land in Bourbon County in 1786, was commissioned a captain in the Tenth Regiment by the Governor, February 5, 1798, and, apprently in 1806, sired a son named Charles, who was to become the father of this future frontiersman of Texas. Charles grew up in Kentucky and married Charlotte Collier when he was twenty and she fifteen. In 1828, three years after their marriage, they moved to southern Illinois and settled in Madison County, just across the river from St. Louis. A malaria called milk sickness, common among the early settlers of that country and often fatal, prompted the family to move north to the prairie country near the Madison and Macoupin County line. There, March 5, 1836, three days after the declaration of Texas independence, Charles, the junior, was born. A brother, Elijah, preceded him by four years, a sister, Elizabeth, by two years, and a younger sister, Cynthia, was born two years later.

Typically restless frontier energy drove the father to his farming early and kept him busy late. He gave no thought to himself and his health, and, becoming weakened from exposure, died of pneumonia in 1841. His estate was adequate, but under the administration of his wife's brother, Charles Collier, was mishandled, and the family was all but destitute at the end of a year. Those were not days of feminine economic independence, and the widow Goodnight soon married Hiram Daugherty, a farmer of the same neighborhood.

Charlie spent much time in day-dreaming, and was looked upon as a lazy boy, but the energy that was to drive him through life at furious tension did not lie dormant long. That quality of a visionary, exhibited in his day-dreams as a boy, spread to most daring but practical ventures as a man, carried him through life eager and tireless, and never left him until the end. At ninety-three he dreamed of great ranching enterprises he would yet direct.

As a child he was alert and keenly observant. The Goodnight homestead stood at the edge of hickory and oak timbered land, where he spent many rainy days watching wild animals and birds. At seven he started to school, and though able to attend only two terms, he always regretted that circumstances prevented his re-entering school. His only teacher, Jane Hagerman, inspired him with a desire to learn, and almost ninety years later he revered her memory for her 'kindness and sincerity.'

The seclusion and solitude of the timber grew upon him and was conducive to his contemplative moods. His aversion to any form of urban activity, even to living beneath a roof, lasted down the years, while this early trait of observation was heightened with every experience. He spent more and more time out-of-doors, for no other school so stimulated him.

During his early boyhood the entire nation was throbbing to the importance of Texas, the new republic to the southwest. The original colonizing schemes attracted national attention, and with the Texan War of Independence that interest grew and spread like wildfire before a prairie wind. In Washington it was fanned to new heat by intense partisan struggles over the admission of Texas to the Union. Everywhere talk of Texas flowed from the mouths of many men, and those who tore their livings from ungracious soil heard much of its fertility, its generous homestead laws, and its manifest advantages for energetic folk. Caught into the current of the migratory stream were Hiram Daugherty, his wife, and the Goodnight children.

Late in 1845, they loaded their household goods and farming tools into two covered wagons and set out for Texas. Without saddle or blanket, Charlie straddled a young white-faced mare called Blaze, and rode alongside the wagons or dropped behind as he and his mount grew tired. Saddles were then made for men, and boys early learned the sting of horse sweat in a galled crotch. The trip to Texas astride the little mare was an outstanding event in Charlie's life. A horse was carrying the boy who dreamed in the woods of southern Illinois to the land where any dreaming boy would wish to be, to young, turbulent, unsettled Texas. Early in life his spindly legs began to bow against the vibrant sides of a saddle horse, always thereafter to be more at home against the sweat leathers of a stock saddle than moving awkwardly in cowboy walk upon the ground.

After crossing the Mississippi at St. Louis, the Daughertys moved on to Springfield, Missouri, drove to Little Rock, and ferried the Arkansas River. They crossed Red River, drove by Paris, and on to Dallas, a trading post, as Charlie recalled, consisting of a ferryboat and one log cabin belonging to some hunters and traders. The river was low, the boat reached entirely across the narrow current, and, by placing logs at either end to raise it to the level of the landings, the emigrants drove across as on a bridge, paying a toll for passage.

Along the west bank of the Trinity, Charlie saw his first buffalo. Great, powerful, shaggy-headed creatures, they must have stirred his imagination, and excited great longing to watch, perhaps to hunt, and certainly to know more about them. Hunters had rounded them up in the river bottom with a pack of curs and were leisurely shooting them down. Near Waxahachie, he again saw them rounded up and killed in the same way, thus learning that the best way of handling the buffalo was by the use of dogs, for these great, fierce, brindle dogsof the frontier resembled lobos, of which animal alone the buffalo had much to fear.

Across the prairie country to the south, by the extreme western road of the State, Daugherty led his family into the heart of Texas. After leaving the Trinity they passed no houses until they reached the Randall Robinson Plantation on the Little Brazos, where they crossed, and came to the main Brazos at Old Nashville. The settlers were forted up, but breathing more freely than usual as Indians had not depredated for a year or so. Pleased with the settlement and the country, Daugherty rented a farm just below the junction of the rivers, and there the family put in its first year in Texas.

The farthermost settler beyond them was an old Georgian Major—said never to have seen an army—by the name of Bryant. He had two wives whom he kept in the same house, and since he could not live around conventional folks, who disapproved of his arrangement, was forced to be the most distant settler upon the frontier—just fifteen miles up Little River from Cameron. The two wives did not live in perfect congeniality, much to the Major's disgust, who swore that it was 'damned strange, since there was no one else within fifteen miles of them.'

Settlers generally forted up and went out from a central location to work their farms or herd their cattle during the day, returning to their homes at night. In the middle forties most of them were farmers, combining stock-raising with agricultural pursuits. Their wants were ordinarily few, their needs the simple necessities of life. Corn and cotton were the principal crops; corn for home use, for bread and horse feed, and cotton for sale or exchange. Houston was the nearest point of delivery and the trade center for all the Western frontier.

Shortly after Daugherty settled in Texas, his wife quit him 'for good reason,' as Charlie explained. Again she was a widow, in a destitute, lonely, and unsettled country. Three months later a baby was born, bringing the family to five. Besides her own efforts, the only dependence was Elijah, aged fifteen, and Charlie, small for his eleven years. Elijah could find unremunerative but steady work upon neighboring farms, and fortunately Charlie found work with a merchant named Aiken at four dollars a month.

There was little stability to the tenure of their home. In 1848 they located at Port Sullivan, and again Charlie went to work, this time for an Irish farmer named Sullivan, who paid him double his first salary. Then, happily for the boy who had barely known a father, he hired to John Poole, a farmer and stock-raiser, 'a very kind and noble man,' who paid him from twelve to fifteen dollars a month besides giving him much good counsel. Eighty years later, Goodnight revered his memory, as he had admired the man at thirteen, saying: 'He was the only man who ever gave me any good advice when I was a boy.'

While Charlie was farming he was riding, for he was passionately fond of animals. Hardly had the family settled down to their new life in Texas when his brother caught a mustang colt from the herds upon the prairies. After feeding it milk by hand to keep it from starving, Charlie broke it to ride almost as soon as its body grew into proportion with its eyes. Raising it by bottle did not wean it from the fighting tendencies of mustang blood.

'That pony made me a rider, he mused. 'I guess it threw me a hundred times, and I always thought it bucked me off just for amusement.' Instead of running away and leaving him to walk, it stood and waited until he got back on.

For two years he rode much, always without a saddle, until he helped to gather a herd lost in stampede, and was presented with a rough, homemade tree without riggin' of any kind. He supplied the necessary cinch straps and sweat and stirrup leathers from rawhide, and soon was riding with the best of horsemen. For sixty-five years he was to feel the sweat of faithful horses harden and curl the saddle leathers beneath his legs. In the marvelous riding tradition of the West probably no record excels his in intensity and in time. He was as good a rider as Buffalo Bill, though abhorring the dramatic sense that made Bill famous. He knew as much about horses as Little Aubry, who rode the eight hundred miles from Santa Fé to Independence in less than six days to win a bet. But he rode of necessity, not for wager. Although a careful horseman who favored his mounts, few riders consumed more horseflesh than he.

At fifteen he hired to a racing outfit at Port Sullivan when he and the saddle weighed but ninety pounds. His was the diminutive size, and, in spite of his years, the knowledge of horses, to make a good jockey. He trained a bad horse that nobody else would ride, and successfully competed on the track with men of ten times his experience. He was happy with his horses, but extremely unhappy in the racing environment. In spite of the high wages of fifteen dollars a month, he stayed only long enough to draw one payment, for he could not endure the swearing, gambling, and general roughness of the racing camp. Becoming dissatisfied and homesick, he gave up his job and returned to his mother.

The times were hard for the Goodnights, and it is no wonder he remembered the story told of an emigrant Tennessee family. One member, writing to the folks back home, was asking what word each would like to send.

'And Grandmother,' the writer asked, 'what would you like to tell them?'

'Tell them,' she answered, 'that Texas is all right for men and dogs, but hell on women and horses!'

In the fall of 1850, the family acquired a small farm northeast of Cameron, but later located fifteen miles west of Waco, between the junction of the Bosque and the Brazos. Here Charlie worked at odd jobs. He whacked bulls, split rails, and sometimes received as much as twenty-five dollars a month for superintending slaves at various kinds of work.

He still found time to wander across the prairies, to hunt, and to fish. He saw alligators in the Brazos west of Waco, ten to twelve feet long and 'bigger-bellied' than a man; he trailed the old cows to where they had raked up great piles of leaves and twigs, and laid their eggs in the middle to be hatched by the heat of the decaying mass. They came back when the eggs had hatched, he discovered, and led the little ones into a slough away from the river to keep the old bulls from 'eating the little bulls up.'

He watched the soft-shelled turtles come from the water, dig pits in the clay banks, lay from fifteen to thirty eggs, seal the excavation over with clay dampened from their own bladders, and waddle back into the stream. The sun dried and hardened the covering; its heat hatched the eggs. Uncannily, the turtle appeared on the proper day, unfailingly picked her nest from any number of others, dampened and broke the clay covering, watched her newborn progeny swarm out, and then proudly led them into the water.

The sage grass grew high and rank in Milam County around their homestead, and once during a snowstorm an old sow disappeared. Positive of finding her somewhere with a litter of pigs, but fearing that they would be frozen to death, Charlie went to look for her. On a ridge nearly a mile away he found her in a den she had built by cutting sage grass, piling it up, and burrowing under it—the belligerent mother of nine white pigs. Succeeding in gathering the pigs into a basket, Charlie set out for the house, placed them in a pen, and went back to drive in the sow. When he got to the pen with her, he discovered that the pigs had escaped, and upon returning to their birthplace found them already back in the bed.


Excerpted from Charles Goodnight by J. Evetts Haley. Copyright © 1949 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

J. Evetts Haley is a historian and a cowman and the author of three other books published by the University of Oklahoma Press: Jeff Milton: A Good Man With a Gun; Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman; and George W. Littlefield, Texan.

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