Charles Goodnight – Blazing the Cattle Trails

Charles Goodnight

Charles Goodnight

Co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, Charles Goodnight was born in Macoupin County, Illinois, on March 5, 1836. Charles moved with his family to Waco, Texas, in 1846 when he was ten years old. By age 20, he was working as a cowboy and served with the local militia in the many fights against Comanche raiders. In 1857, he joined the Texas Rangers, where he continued to fight in the Indian Wars and served as an Indian scout. Later, when the Civil War began, he served as a scout again.

After the war, Goodnight joined Oliver Loving to move cattle from Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in what became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. During this time, Charles would invent the chuck wagon when he rebuilt an army surplus Studebaker wagon for more practical use on a long cattle drive.

Unfortunately, Loving was killed by a Comanche war party in 1867, but this did not stop Goodnight from continuing to organize cattle drives on his own.

Though busy with his numerous cattle drives, Goodnight married Mary Ann (Molly) Dyer, a schoolteacher from Weatherford, Texas, on July 26, 1870.  A year later, he joined up with John Chisum and extended the trail from New Mexico to Colorado and eventually to Wyoming.

Charles Goodnight when younger

Charles Goodnight when younger

In 1876, Goodnight founded what was to become the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. Partnering with John Adair, the ranch would end up encompassing nearly a million acres, where they maintained a herd of about 100,000 head of cattle and preserving a bison, which continues to survive today.

In the summer of 1878, Goodnight took the first JA trail herd north to Dodge City, Kansas, the nearest railhead. Blazing the Palo Duro-Dodge City Trail, the path would quickly become well-used by several Panhandle ranchers in the upcoming years. Just a few months later, when destitute Indians from the reservations in Indian Territory arrived to hunt the now-scarce buffalo, Goodnight made his famous treaty with Quanah Parker in which he promised two beeves every other day if Parker and his followers would not disturb the JA herd.

In 1879 Goodnight moved the ranch headquarters to Turkey Creek, farther east, to be closer to the railroad. He built a new ranch, a log home for himself, and later, a stone house for the Adairs to live in.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Kathy Weiser.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

By 1880, the area was suffering badly from several cattle rustlers, and having warned the Texas Rangers that if they could not handle the problem, he would, he established the Panhandle Stockman’s Association.  The association, located in Mobeetie, Texas, immediately began to take care of the cattle rustling problem, by applying vigilante justice to the area’s outlaws and cattle thieves.

Foreseeing the end of the open range, Goodnight ended his association with Adair and the JA Ranch in 1889 and bought his own ranch at what would become the village of Goodnight, Texas. He was reportedly the first Panhandle rancher to build barbed wire fences.

Throughout the following years, Goodnight dabbled in several other endeavors, establishing Goodnight College in Armstrong County, Texas, and working as a newspaperman and banker.

However, an investment in Mexican silver mines eventually brought him financial ruin.  Forced to sell his ranch, Goodnight conveyed the property to a friend, oilman W.J. McAlister in 1919, with the provision that he and his wife could stay in the home until they died. She passed before him in 1926, and Charles Goodnight lived there until the end of that year before moving to Clarendon, Texas. He passed away on December 12, 1929.

The JA Ranch continues to operate as an active ranch today, located within Palo Duro Canyon, and owned by Adair descendants. The original buildings, erected in 1879, are still standing, including the big stone house built for the Adairs. Though modernized and expanded, it continues to dominate the cluster of buildings at the ranch headquarters. The site of Goodnight’s original dug-out cabin is located within the Palo Duro Canyon State Park and has been rebuilt by the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society.

The frame house where Goodnight lived from 1889 until 1926 is still standing in the town of Goodnight, Texas, and was a private residence until 2005, when Mr. and Mrs. Brent Caviness and Mr. and Mrs. Marsh Pitman donated the home and 30 acres of land, along with an initial investment toward preservation, for the Charles Goodnight Historical Center. The Charles and Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight House is considered one of the most important historic structures in the Texas Panhandle and, for that matter, the state of Texas.  The house’s restoration was completed in 2012, and it operates as a museum and learning center.


© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2022.

Charles Goodnight House in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Charles Goodnight House in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

More Information:

The Charles Goodnight Historical Center and J. Evetts Haley Visitor and Education Center
4901 County Rd. 25
Goodnight, Texas

Also See:

The Chuck Wagon – Real Queen of the Cattle Trail

The Goodnight-Loving Trail

Oliver Loving – Pioneer Cowboy

Loving’s Bend – A 1910 Account

Tales & Trails of the American West