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Charles Goodnight was a pioneer of the early range cattle industry—an opinionated and profane but energetic and well-liked rancher.
Goodnight’s story is now re-examined by William T. Hagan in this brief, authoritative account that considers the role of ranching in general—and Goodnight in particular—in the development of the Texas Panhandle. The first major reassessment of his life in seventy years, Charles Goodnight: Father of the Texas Panhandle traces its subject’s life from ...
Charles Goodnight was a pioneer of the early range cattle industry—an opinionated and profane but energetic and well-liked rancher.
Goodnight’s story is now re-examined by William T. Hagan in this brief, authoritative account that considers the role of ranching in general—and Goodnight in particular—in the development of the Texas Panhandle. The first major reassessment of his life in seventy years, Charles Goodnight: Father of the Texas Panhandle traces its subject’s life from hardscrabble farmer to cattle baron, giving close attention to lesser-known aspects of his last thirty years.
Goodnight came up in the days when much of Texas was free range and open to occupancy by any cattleman brave enough to stake a claim. Hagan shows how Goodnight learned the cattle business and became one of the most famous ranchers of the Southwest. Hagan also presents a clearer picture than ever before of Goodnight’s business arrangements and investments, including the financial setbacks of his later life.
As entertaining as it is informative, Hagan’s account takes readers back to the Palo Duro Canyon and the Staked Plains to share insights into the cattleman’s life—riding the range, fighting grass fires, driving cattle to the nearest railhead—the very stuff of cowboy legend and lore. This fascinating biography enriches our understanding of a Texas icon.
Becoming a Man
When he died in 1929 at the age of ninety-three, Goodnight had outlived almost all of his fellow participants in the opening of the Texas Panhandle. He had become a living legend, an icon at whose feet one could learn of an era now glamorized in a surge of nostalgia for the pioneer days.
Certainly no one would have predicted celebrity for the nine-year-old youngster who in 1845 had ridden bareback eight hundred miles from Illinois with his family to what would be the first of several hardscrabble farms in Texas. Goodnight's was the common experience for a youth struggling to survive on the frontier. As he recalled in his later years: "I rarely think of my childhood days.... I had no special ambition; not a single plan that I can recall; just lived along like other boys; devilish poor; had to work all the time just for a living." Thus it is no surprise that Goodnight's formal education was limited to two terms in a rural Illinois school, and he was never able to read and write with any facility. His early experience with poverty and drudgery, however, taught him the value of a dollar and spurred him to seize any opportunity to get ahead.
As a young teenager Goodnight moved on from the usual chores on the family farm to work as a hired hand for other farmers to supplement the family income. His first real job required him to walk to and from a farm two miles away, and the pay was only four dollars a month. But he proved his worth, and as he grew he was given more responsibilities, and his wages rose accordingly. Before he branched out on his own, Goodnight was earning twenty-five dollars a month.
His first real education as a rider came in the form of an unbroken mustang colt. As an old man he remembered that he had not had a saddle, and the mustang threw him "hundreds of times," but never ran away. "I became much attached to this wild mustang." Not until the boy was a couple of years older did he acquire a saddle of his own, a reward for helping a drover recover his runaway cattle from a stretch of timber. By the age of fifteen, his riding skills and then-small frame earned him brief employment as a jockey.
In the next few years Goodnight graduated to working with cattle and began freighting, in which he engaged off and on until 1865. Driving ox-drawn wagons as a bull whacker could be a frustrating experience that undoubtedly helped him develop the highly profane vocabulary for which he was noted throughout his adult life.
In the mid-1850s the family located in the Cross Timbers in north-central Texas. The region offered sufficient good, free range to become the birthplace of some of the most prominent ranching operations in the state. Here, families like the Waggoners, Burnettes, and Ikards would emerge as local cattle kings. In contrast to Goodnight, all these ranchers came from families with sufficient financial resources to help launch them in the business.
Goodnight's entry into ranching came by chance. When he was twenty, he and a stepbrother, John Wesley Sheek, determined that their future lay in California. The summer of 1856 the two young men actually headed west, only to be held up not far from home by a flooded stream. By the time it was fordable they had met a relative of Sheek's, Claiborn Varner, who talked them into becoming co-owners with him of a herd of about four hundred longhorns. Goodnight and Sheek contracted for five years, later extended to ten, to take responsibility for the herd in return for half the annual calf crop. They drove the herd to the Black Springs area on Keechi Creek in Palo Pinto County, on what was then Texas's northwest frontier. The county would become the home of several prominent ranching families such as the Slaughters and the Hittsons.
The first year of Goodnight and Sheek's contract with Varner, the calf crop was disappointingly small, but at the end of their second contract, they had accumulated, with some purchases on the side, about 6,000 head. They then bought out Varner's share in the herd. The census of 1860 listed them with property, presumably cattle, worth $1,250 each.
Three years after the young men located in Palo Pinto County, the parents decided to join them and reunite the family on Keechi Creek. With Charlie playing the lead role, they erected a large log cabin, actually two cabins joined by a breezeway. It became, in addition to being a residence, a tavern for travelers on the road from Weatherford, Texas, to New Mexico.
At that time most of north-central Texas was free range, open to occupancy by the first cattleman brave enough to stake out his claim. Palo Pinto County continued to attract a number of stockmen, including Oliver Loving, already a major figure in the cattle business. The 1860 census recorded his affuence. He was listed as forty-eight years of age and a trader with property worth $2,000 and a total estate of $25,440.
Palo Pinto County, however, was less than fifty miles from two American Indian reservations. The closest was home to several nonthreatening farming and hunting tribes, among them the Wichitas and Caddos. But the other reservation was occupied by Penateka Comanches, buffalo Indians. Other Comanches were still roaming the South Plains, periodically raiding Texas frontier settlements, killing settlers, carrying off women and children, and driving off cattle and horses. Rarely was there accurate identification of the raiders, but outraged settlers accused the reservation Comanches of either participating in the assaults or, at a minimum, providing the raiders a supply base.
Charles Goodnight had his first experience with American Indians in the late 1850s. He quickly established a reputation for possessing the qualities of a scout: excellent vision and woods and plains craft that enabled him to track raiding parties. He attributed his abilities to a lifetime outdoors, although that was a background common to most young Texans. Goodnight was clearly better endowed and had a deeper interest in nature in all of its manifestations.
The response of the federal government to the increasing Indian threat to settlement along the Texas frontier had been the construction of a chain of forts, beginning in 1851. These were beyond the Cross Timbers and on the eastern edge of the Rolling Plains, which extended west to the ramparts of the Staked Plains. The first wave of settlers in Palo Pinto County took some comfort from the presence of Fort Belknap, some forty miles northwest of Black Springs. Unfortunately, the garrisons of the forts were usually too small, or made up of infantry and artillerymen—no threat to horse Indians. Historian David Paul Smith has uncovered a relevant statement by journalist Frederick Law Olmstead: "Keeping a bulldog to chase mosquitoes would be of no greater nonsense than stationing six-pounders, bayonets, and dragoons for the pursuit of these red wolves."
In 1858 the raids on the Texas frontier had intensified, and the settlers tended to place much of the blame on the occupants of the two reservations on the Upper Brazos, particularly the Comanches. A principal agitator for a military solution was John R. Baylor, himself a former agent for the Texas Comanches. In 1859 he raised a force of settlers and marched on the Comanche reservation. Among his recruits was Charles Goodnight. Decades later he remembered that when they had reached the reservation they found it protected by federal troops, and withdrew. But it had become apparent in Washington that the only solution palatable to its Texas citizens was the removal to Indian Territory, north of Red River, of the populations of the two Texas reservations. That was accomplished in the fall of 1859, but it did not end the raids on the Texas frontier.
The response of the state authorities in Austin consisted mostly of authorizations of units to be raised among the frontier population. One of the volunteers was again Goodnight, who participated in some of the expeditions against the Indians. The best-known of these resulted in the Pease River Battle in December 1860. It came after continued Indian raids had forced Governor Sam Houston to authorize L. S. "Sul" Ross to raise a company of rangers.
Captain Ross's rangers were reinforced by a small detachment of regulars, plus additional volunteers from the local population. They rendezvoused at Fort Belknap, no longer garrisoned by regular troops. Here, Ross mustered into service a few more volunteers, including Charles Goodnight. Because of his familiarity with the area, Goodnight was asked to serve as scout and guide. This was his first official service in that capacity.
Years later, he summarized for J. Frank Dobie, a University of Texas authority on Southwest folklore and history, the qualities of a good scout. First of all, he must be able to approximate the direction, and distance to, the nearest water source. Goodnight's estimates were based on a range of factors, including the nature of local plant life and the actions of animals and birds. The presence of mustangs, for example, would indicate water within three miles, as they seldom ranged farther than that from water.
Following a horse's trail, Goodnight could determine the age of the track by checking the condition of grass trampled by the horse's hooves and any disturbance of insect activity. The nature of the hoofprints also would inform him as to whether or not the horse had a rider, or was being led. Finally, the color of the mount might be determined by hair left on the ground when the horse rolled after being unsaddled, as horses customarily did.
The good scout also had to be able to identify animal sounds and distinguish between the real turkey call and what could be the effort of an Indian to fake one. The scout must have the knack for approximating the direction from which the sound was coming and stay on that tack, regardless of terrain changes. Goodnight believed that few men had that capacity or "instinct." He did, and despite never possessing a compass, was never completely lost.
When they pulled out of Fort Belknap, Goodnight led the detachment in a northwest direction, and quickly intercepted a trail that he had located on an earlier reconnaissance with another detachment. Only two days out, they reached an Indian encampment on the Pease River, in present-day Foard County. The surprised Indians were in the act of breaking camp, and the sudden attack sent them fleeing in disorder. The troops quickly overtook and killed them, except for a woman and her infant daughter, whom they took captive.
The mother was Cynthia Ann Parker, whom Comanches had abducted as a nine-year-old, when they attacked Fort Parker in East Texas in 1836. Subsequently she had become the wife of an Indian man and the mother of three children, the oldest being Quanah, who would become the most-celebrated Comanche chief of all time. As he rose to prominence, members of the Sul Ross command would boast of having been present at his mother's recapture, and dispute with Goodnight his claim to have been the first to identify Cynthia Ann as a white woman.
Within a year of the Pease River skirmish, the Civil War would be underway, and Indian attacks on the Texas frontier would intensify. Federal authorities in Indian Territory no longer had an incentive to restrain the raiders, and indeed, encouraged attacks on the rebels. Goodnight would be involved in trying to protect the Texas frontier, as he missed service in the Confederate Army because he had been on crutches from a leg injury when the initial recruitment occurred. Subsequently, able-bodied young men were permitted the alternative of enlisting for frontier duty. Goodnight served in that capacity off and on throughout the war. When he was on active duty, he scouted for ranger units as far west as the eastern escarpment of the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) in the Texas Panhandle.
Goodnight's service was so irregular as to permit him to keep an eye on the Goodnight-Sheek herd as it continued to multiply. Indeed, in the early sixties it had reached the size that their old pasture near Black Springs could no longer support the entire herd, and he drove 3,000 head fifty miles northwest to Throck-morton County, where he found good grazing for them.
There was a downside to this. It complicated his courtship of the schoolteacher at Black Springs, Mary Ann Dyer. A pretty, black-haired girl in her late twenties, she was that rarity on the frontier, an attractive, single female of marriageable age. Indeed, most girls married in their teens in a frontier society that always had a preponderance of young males. But Mary, as Goodnight always referred to her, had as her first responsibility, after the death of both parents, the care of three younger brothers. Goodnight, however, was persistent. Even her relocation to Weatherford, a settlement about twenty-five miles from Black Springs, did not deter his courtship. The local people were intrigued by the odd couple—the uneducated and uncouth cattleman and the petite and very feminine school teacher, Miss Dyer.
The end of the war, in 1865, and the resumption of more settled conditions did not alter the pace of their relationship. But, hopefully, peace would present opportunities for Goodnight and Sheek to finally cash in on their cattle holdings. Goodnight was prepared for any opportunity. He was now an experienced cattleman, and was recognized as having the skills, strength, and endurance to cope with the challenges that accompanied life on the frontier.CHAPTER 2
Cattle Drover and Colorado Rancher
In 1860 Texas was estimated to be the range for 3,786,433 cattle, but only one-sixth that many people. During the war, markets for those cattle were gradually cut off by the Union blockade of Texas ports, the fall of New Orleans into Union hands, and a stronger Union presence in Indian Territory. Meanwhile, the cattle continued to multiply, and most of the increase was unbranded and under no control. Charles Goodnight and Wes Sheek lost many of their cattle as they drifted away, or were driven off by local rustlers or Indians. One of their herdsmen had died at the hands of Indians in the summer of 1864. A few weeks later Goodnight got revenge by killing a warrior, one of a party driving off stolen horses. He was in hot pursuit of the fleeing Indian when the warrior's horse was killed by another ranger. But he hit the ground running, turning briefly to fire one arrow at Goodnight. That gave Goodnight time to put two revolver rounds in the Indian, and he was dead—"a good Indian" as Goodnight phrased it.
The raids that fall were especially intense. Goodnight estimated that the local cattlemen had lost ten thousand head. Such financial blows forced the Texans to consider other ranching sites. At the end of the Civil War they made a party to explore the ranching possibilities in Old Mexico. The party of six included Christopher C. "Lum" Slaughter, who had been with Goodnight in the ranger party that recaptured Cynthia Ann Parker. Only a few miles from the Rio Grande, the party was riding single file through a cedar break when one man's rifle was entangled in brush and fired, seriously wounding Slaughter. He would recover, but that terminated their expedition to Mexico.
In the spring of 1866 Goodnight, still looking for a means to capitalize on the surplus of cattle in north-central Texas, discussed the problem with a neighbor and a leading figure in Palo Pinto County, Oliver Loving, whom Goodnight liked and respected. The younger man was planning a drive of a thousand head that would reduce the chances of encountering Plains Indians by "taking roundance," by traveling southwest on the Old Butterfield Overland Mail route to a crossing of the Pecos River. Once beyond that, he proposed to head north to Fort Sumner. There the army was holding—and feeding—about eight thousand Navajos, and had advertised for beef on the hoof.
Loving was by far the more experienced cattleman, having driven herds north, including one that in 1860 pioneered a trail across Indian Territory and on to Colorado. Goodnight had accompanied that drive, but only as far as Red River. Now Loving decided to accept the lead of the younger man, and put together another thousand head to match Goodnight's. The combined herds included a mix of steers, cows, and young stock. They agreed on a rough division of responsibilities. Loving, at fifty-five the elder and more experienced in marketing cattle, would take the lead in financial matters while Goodnight, twenty years younger and a veteran scout, would concentrate on organizing and conducting the drive. It fell to him to assign duties to the sixteen hands recruited and oversee their performance.
Goodnight was a demanding boss, approaching every task himself with all the energy he could muster, and he expected the same dedicated work habits from those under his direction. Several months before his death, at age ninety-three, his second wife, then only in her mid-twenties, complained of his insistence on finishing all projects set for that day. While she believed that this was admirable in principle, she felt that it did not take into consideration that "sometimes one doesn't have as much energy as they would like." Scores of men that he had employed over the years would have chorused assent. They also, however, appreciated that he never spared himself, nor asked them to do anything he would not do.
Excerpted from Charles Goodnight by William T. Hagan. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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