Charlie Goodnight

Texas Cowman and Rancher

by Jay W. Sharp

Old Man Charlie Goodnight, they called him behind his back.  Colonel Goodnight, they called him to his face. 

“One day when I was going to school at Goodnight College [about 1908, in Armstrong County, on the high plains of the Texas Panhandle],” my grandfather once told me, “we looked out an open window of our classroom and saw Old Man Charlie Goodnight and some of his cowhands riding up from the south.  They had come to water their horses at the trough at the windmill right outside the schoolhouse.  Goodnight saw that the trough had gone bone dry.  He saw that the windmill had not been tended, that it had not been turned on to pump water into the trough.”

Goodnight, who had founded the college, paid the teachers, and even boarded some students, had given the schoolmaster two duties: Civilize these early 20th century farm and ranch boys from the Texas plains.  Keep the cows and horses in good water from the windmill.  Not necessarily in that order.



Goodnight shouted through the open windows to the schoolmaster, calling the man outside the building to account for the consequences of his negligence.  His students followed to see just what would happen.  “You may a good teacher,” Goodnight said to the man, “but you ain’t worth a damn as a cowman.”  That was the ultimate insult.  Goodnight and his hands rode off, leaving the teacher to his humiliation before his class.  “We all got a big laugh out of that,” said my grandfather, who was a far better cowman than scholar. 

Up the Pecos River

Charlie Goodnight, a legendary cowman and rancher of the high plains of northern Texas, east-central New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado. He was the first to drive a herd of longhorns up the Pecos River, opening the route as a cattle trail in 1866.  He expected to sell his livestock to military posts, the Fort Sumner Navajo and Mescalero Apache concentration camp, new mining operations, and startup ranches.  He hoped to reach markets, not only in northern New Mexico, but on up into Colorado and Wyoming. 

In the spring of the year, according to historian J. Evetts Haley in his richly detailed book, Charles Goodnight: Cowman & Plainsman, the 30-year old Goodnight began gathering his herd along the Brazos River drainage to the west of Fort Worth.  He hired drovers, including a colorful cowpuncher named “One-Armed” Bill Wilson, who would become a faithful and valued hand for years.  Goodnight bought saddle horses, many of them little more than raw broncs.  He bought a heavy-duty wagon, modifying it to serve as a rolling pantry and kitchen—the prototype chuck wagon of the cattle trails.  Most importantly, he formed a partnership with Oliver Loving, another, and older, cowman who was gathering his own herd to drive to New Mexico.

Goodnight, with Loving and 18 well-armed hands, began the drive with 2000 head of longhorns on June 6, 1866.  They had merged their two herds about 75 miles west of Fort Worth.  From there, they followed the old John Butterfield Southern Overland Mail stagecoach route west southwesterly.  They crossed Texas’ arid southern plains, striking the Pecos River at the infamous Horsehead Crossing on a summer day with longhorns so thirsty that “…they became wild for water,” according to Goodnight, quoted by Haley, “and when they reached the river those behind pushed the ones in the lead right on across before they had time to stop and drink.”  Goodnight and Loving had lost more than 300 head on the trail up to this point.  They lost at least another 100 in the river as thirst-crazed longhorns fell beneath hooves, drowned in swirling water, or sank in quicksand.  This left Goodnight and Loving with about 800 to 900 steers and about 700 to 800 mother cows.  From Horsehead Crossing, about 60 miles south of the Odessa/Midland area, they faced a drive of 300 miles upstream, a trail that one veteran range hand called “the worst driven by Texas cowmen.”

The Pecos River, roughly 550 miles in length altogether, rises cold and clear in the Santa Fe Mountains of north central New Mexico.  It flows down the eastern side of the state, its waters entraining alkali and other minerals as it carves a sinuous and changeable route southward.  It heads southeastward across west Texas, emptying, through a wide and vertical-walled canyon, into the Rio Grande at the northern end of the Amistad National Recreation Area and Reservoir.  It divides the windblown Llano Estacado to the east from the basin and range desert lands to the west.  In 1866, it served as the western margin of the homeland of the allied Comanches and Kiowas, ferocious and far-ranging Plains Indian raiders who threatened any cattle drive or caravan that directly crossed their range.  It served as the eastern margin of the homeland of the Mescalero Apaches, a tribe still dangerous even though its ranks in 1866 had been depleted by centuries of continual warfare and confinement at Fort Sumner. 

A small river, the Pecos would come to hold an outsized place in the history of the Southwest.  “…of all names that the cattle country of America has given to touch the imagination of men that of the Pecos seems to be the most enduring,” said J. Frank Dobie in A Vaquero of the Brush Country.

After three days of recuperation at Horsehead Crossing – a bone-littered ford that the Comanches and Kiowas used during their annual raiding expeditions southward, into Mexico – Goodnight and Loving began the first drive of longhorns up the Pecos, following the east bank at the outset.  Goodnight soon came to hate the river, said Haley.  “…the graveyard of the cowman’s hopes,” Goodnight called it, “…the most desolate country that I had ever explored.”   As the buffalo hunters used to say, according to Dobie, “When a bad man dies he goes either to hell or the Pecos.”    

Longhorn steer

During the drive up through Texas, Goodnight, Loving and the hands found the lower Pecos infested with diamondback rattlesnakes.  One drover alone shot several dozen, collecting the rattles to carry home as souvenirs. 

As they drew near to Pope’s Crossing – a ford near the Texas/New Mexico border and well known since Spanish times – the mother cows were dropping new calves, which the drovers had to kill because the babies could not keep up with the herd.  “I always hated to kill the innocent things,” Goodnight told Haley, “but as they were never counted in on the sale of cattle the loss of them was nothing financially.”

Goodnight and Loving drove the herd across the river at Pope’s Crossing to more favorable terrain for trailing.  They continued upstream on the western side. Opposite the Guadalupe Mountains, they drove the herd back across the river, to the east side, to put the stream between themselves and the Mescalero Apache range.  On a mid-summer day, they arrived at Fort Sumner, where the U. S. Army had incarcerated some 10,000 to 12,000 Navajos and several hundred Mescalero Apaches, who were suffering from hunger, exposure, disease, crop failure, intertribal disputes, and Comanche and Kiowa raiding. 

At the needy Army commissary, Goodnight and Loving found a ready market for their steers, or “beeves,” although not for their 700 or 800 head of mother cows.  They sold the steers for the exorbitant price of eight cents a pound, or a total of $12,000.  “…never had Goodnight known so much money to be made on cattle, and he and Loving were elated,” said Haley.  They quickly decided that Loving would drive the mother cows on northward, to Colorado, where he expected to find markets at new ranching enterprises.  Goodnight would take the $12,000 back to Texas, where he would buy another herd to drive up the Pecos River – up the cattle trail that would now bear his name, and that of his partner – before winter.     

The Goodnight-Loving Trail

Within a few years, the Goodnight-Loving Trail developed into one of the major cattle routes out of Texas, with tributaries originating in the Brazos River drainage, central Texas and the San Antonio region, according to Haley.  Branches led off from the Pecos River trunk of the trail, leading to markets north and west of Fort Sumner.  “…the amount of money handled by its Western bankers was noted as enormous,” said Haley.  From 1866 to 1875, Goodnight alone sent 8000 to 10,000 head a year up the trail.  “Numerous Texans handled more.” 

Cowmen such as the famous John Chisum as well as Goodnight, Loving and others soon carved out ranches, sometimes the size of small countries, along the river.  Drovers left their imprint on the land.  Comanches and Kiowas stole cattle and horses and accounted for many trailside cowboy graves, most of them long since forgotten.  Cattle rustlers and horse thieves such as William Bonney, or Billy the Kid, took a toll, and some left their own graves beside the trail.  Comancheros – illegal traders from New Mexico – bought cattle stolen by the Indians and sold the animals to the Army and settlers.

Only a decade and a half after Goodnight and Loving drove that first herd of longhorns up the Pecos River, giving rise to an profusion of tales, yarns and fables, their trail faded into disuse, memorialized only in cowboy lore, novels, history books and movies.  The railroads had come. 

The Travelers

While legendary figures of the desert Southwest – for instance, Kit Carson, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – made appearances on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, it was the Texas cowmen, cowboys and the longhorn that defined the character of the route.

Charles Goodnight, of course, played the lead role.  Born in Illinois in 1836, Goodnight moved with his family to the Brazos River in central Texas in 1845—a nine-year-old boy riding bareback on a blaze-faced mare for the entire journey.  According to H. Allen Anderson’s article “Charles Goodnight,” The Handbook of Texas Online, the young boy barely ever saw the inside of a formal schoolroom, but he learned to read the wilderness from a master, an aging Caddoan Indian named Caddo Jake.  Through his adolescence, Goodnight worked as a farm hand, a jockey and a freighter.  During his 20’s, while he continued freighting, he ran cows in the Brazos River drainage and drove herds to Kansas and the Rocky Mountains.  He spent the Civil War on the Texas plains, running down Comanches, Kiowas and outlaws.  In the decade after he, with Loving, opened the trail up the Pecos, the restless and dynamic Goodnight continued to buy, drive and sell longhorns.  He began ranching on the Pecos.  He married Molly Dyer.  He bought and operated farmland and ranchland in Colorado, where he helped found a bank and a stock-raisers association, bought into an opera house, owned a meatpacking facility and other businesses, and went broke. 

In the next decade, Goodnight borrowed money, formed partnerships, founded new cattlemen’s associations, helped preserve the buffalo, and befriended Indians.  He established ranching operations that, at the peak, encompassed some 2000 square miles of rangeland with 100,000 head of cattle in the Texas Panhandle.  Always imaginative, restless and forward-looking, he ran improved breeds of cattle.  He experimented with cross breeding cattle and buffalo to establish a new species of range animal, the “cattalo.”  He built some of the first barbed wire fencing on the southern Great Plains.  He dug some of the first water wells and built some of the first windmills.  Denied an education in his own youth, he founded Goodnight College for the rural kids of the Texas Plains in 1898, making it possible for those like my grandfather to get an education.  He died on December 12, 1929, age 93.  Colonel Charles Goodnight became one of the original five cowmen voted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City in 1958. 

Oliver Loving, Charles Goodnight’s partner in opening the cattle trail up the Pecos, came from Kentucky in 1843, according to Julia Cauble Smith’s paper, “Loving, Oliver (1812-1867)” in The Handbook of Texas Online.  He eventually settled, with his wife and children, in the Fort Worth and Dallas area, where he worked as a farmer, rancher, cattle drover, freighter and merchant.  In August of the second season of driving longhorns up the Pecos with Goodnight, Loving and “One-Armed” Bill Wilson, riding in advance of the herd, came under attack by a large party of Comanches northwest of Pope’s Crossing.  Loving suffered a gunshot wound.  He sent Wilson, the “coolest man in the outfit,” according to Goodnight, back through nerve-wracking conditions to the herd and drovers to get help.  Before anyone could arrive, Loving managed to elude the Comanches in a harrowing escape, but still suffering from his wounds, he died at Fort Sumner of gangrene on September 25, 1867.  Again the Pecos River had become “the graveyard of the cowman’s hopes.”  A few months later, according to Haley, Loving came home, this time in a casket escorted by Charles Goodnight and his cowhands.  They traveled down the Pecos and over the trail together for one last time.  Loving’s casket had been made by cowboys at Fort Sumner from the only material available—discarded and flattened tin oilcans.  It was borne down the trail in a wagon drawn by six big mules.

The drover, or cowboy, who would become an American icon, often came from a Southern farm, an illiterate and destitute teenager.  Having labored in the fields of plantations and farms, he knew hard work.  He adapted quickly to long hours in the saddle, the heat and dust of the days, the cold of the night, the fear of stampede, the pain of neglected injuries, the misery of untreated illnesses, and the rough teasing of the older and more experienced hands.  He wore a Stetson hat, a long sleeve cotton shirt, a vest, a bandanna, wool pants, leather chaps and high top boots.  He learned how to ride a rough bronc, drive longhorn herds, rope wild yearling calves, fight a drunk, roll and smoke cigarettes, sing range songs and tell a good yarn.  On a drive, he felt the pain of homesickness, but when he returned, he would discover, as Thomas Wolfe would say years later, that you can’t go home again. 

The longhorn, the symbol of the cowboy’s trade, descended from Spanish stock introduced by 17th and 18th century colonists from Mexico.  As Dobie said in The Longhorns, this animal “made more history than any other breed of cattle the civilized world has known.”  Emerging from wild herds in Texas’ southwestern brush country, eastern woodlands and coastal prairies, the longhorn took on black, brown, brindle, slate, dun or reddish colors, often with a stripe down the back.  “Viewed from the side,” said Dobie, “his big frame would fool a novice into a ridiculous overestimate of his weight, but a rear view was likely to show cat hams, narrow hips, and a ridgepole kind of backbone.”  If the longhorn looked defective as a beef producer, the “carcasses ‘dressed out’ surprisingly well…” according to Dobie.  The animals used their horns, typically spanning three to four feet from tip to tip, “fight off wolves, to hook down succulent mistletoe out of trees, to sweep out of the way thorned branches protecting sparse tufts of grass on the parched ground.”  The horns, in Dobie’s view, signified “the wildness and the self-sufficiency of life belonging to the unfenced world.”

One longhorn known as “Old Blue,” which was Charlie Goodnight’s lead steer, became a bovine elder statesman, not only of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, but of other cattle trails as well.  Every morning on the trail, Blue, a survivor of Apache attacks and cattle rustling, automatically “took his place at the point and there he held it,” said Dobie.  “Powerful, sober and steady, he understood the least motion of the point men, and in guiding the herd showed himself worth a dozen extra hands.”  For more than eight years, Blue, with a copper bell tied around his neck, led herds up cattle trails he knew better than the cowboys.  He helped corral wild cattle, cross turbulent rivers and calm stampedes.  During nights on the trail, Blue wandered into camps and helped himself to the evening fare, with the encouragement of the cowboys and the aggravation of the cook.  Blue slept, not with the herds of common cows, but with the royalty of the cattle horses.  When he died, at the age of 20, Goodnight memorialized him by having his horns mounted on a plaque in the office of his ranch headquarters, a tribute not only to the animal but also to the days on the trail.

Travelers Scrapbook

I believe I could walk along the streets of any town or city and pick out the real cowboy, not by his clothes especially, but because one can nearly always notice that he has a very open countenance and almost innocent eyes and mouth.  He is not innocent of course; but living the open, next to nature, the cleaner life is stamped on his face.  His vices leave no scars, or few, because old mother nature has him with her most of the time.

Bulah Rust Kirkland, Phoenix, Arizona, “The Real Cowboy,” The Trail Drivers of Texas

…we followed it [the Goodnight-Loving Trail up the Pecos River] as far as Roswell, New Mexico [about 80 miles south of Fort Sumner].  We had a tough time getting there, with no grass and no rain.  We suffered heavy losses all the way up the Pecos, pulling and digging cattle out of bogs every day and losing some each day.  We were a dilapidated looking bunch, cattle, horses and men… 

                        L. A. Franks, Pleasanton, Texas, “Up the Trail to Northern New Mexico,” The Trail Drivers of Texas

When we heard Mr. Loving was at Ft. Sumner, Mr. Goodnight and I hastened there.  As soon as we beheld his condition we realized the arm would have to be amputated.  The doctor was trying to cure it without cutting it off…  …we prevailed on the doctor to cut off the affected limb.  But too late.  Mortification went into his body and killed him.  Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew.  Mr. Goodnight had the body of Mr. Loving prepared for the long journey and carried it to Weatherford, Texas, where interment was made with Masonic honors.

“One-Armed” W. J. Wilson, “W. J. Wilson’s Narrative,” The Trail Drivers of Texas

Above all things, the plainsman had to have a sense—an instinct for direction…  Few men have this instinct.  Yet in the few it is to be trusted as absolutely as the homing instinct of a wild goose…  I never had a compass in my life.  I was never lost.  

Charles Goodnight, quoted by Geoffrey C. Ward in The West: An Illustrated History

Exploring the Trail

Since there is no convenient access to Horsehead Crossing, I suggest that you start an exploration of the Goodnight-Loving Trail at the community of Pecos, Texas, on U. S. Highway 20 roughly 60 miles upstream from the old ford and about 80 miles west southwest of the Odessa/Midland area.  The town lies on the west bank, just across the river from a campsite on the trail.  It stages the West of the Pecos Rodeo every summer, celebrating a tradition that began in 1883 when a bunch of cowboys got together to compete in the very first event of its kind.  The town’s West of the Pecos Museum, housed in the historic, century-old Orient Hotel, offers a number of period exhibits, including, for example, a cowboy bunkhouse, a saddle room, a mercantile store, and a saloon (with the original bar and its unrepaired bullet holes).

From Pecos, Texas, you can parallel the river upstream by following U. S. Highway 285 northward.  Near the border between Texas and New Mexico, about 50 miles from Pecos, you will pass Pope’s Crossing, which now lies inundated by the Red Bluff Reservoir.  Some 20 miles north of the reservoir, you will pass through the village of Loving, New Mexico, which is named for Goodnight’s old partner, Oliver Loving. 

A dozen miles farther, you will arrive at Carlsbad, which lies east of the Guadalupe Mountains and the old Mescalero Apaches range.  Although Carlsbad was not founded until well after the heyday of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the town serves as a convenient headquarters for exploring the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.  It is also the home for the Living Desert State Park, which offers enlightening exhibits of the animal and plant life of the Chihuahuan Desert. 

A dozen miles north of Carlsbad, you will pass Brantley Lake State Park, once the site of Seven Rivers, a place where seven arroyos feed into the Pecos.  During the cattle driving days, Seven Rivers, with a population of about 300, became a gathering place for cowmen, drovers and outlaws—a mix that produced a number of permanent occupants for the community’s Boot Cemetery.  Another 25 miles north on U. S. Highway 285, you will pass through Artesia, located near artesian springs where drovers once watered their longhorns.  

Forty miles farther up U. S. Highway 285, you come to Roswell, situated just west of the confluence of the Hondo and Pecos Rivers.  Famed for an alleged UFO crash in 1947 and for Robert Goddard’s real-life liquid propellant rocket launches in the 1920’s, Roswell took root during the 1860’s, when Goodnight and Loving camped near the mouth of the Hondo River during their drives up the trail.  Its first structures included an adobe hotel, a house and cattle pens.  It gained impetus as a settlement in the 1870’s with the establishment of ranch headquarters by cattlemen John Chisum and Joseph Lea.  Today, with a population of about 50,000, Roswell not only offers a tour of its historic district but it also offers a surprisingly fine collection at its museum and art center. 

From Roswell, you can take U. S. Highway 285 north for about 40 miles and State Highway 20 for about 45 miles to Fort Sumner.  From here, the Goodnight-Loving Trail branched northwest and northward, away from the Pecos River.  The military post, now a state monument, has a small visitor center, rebuilt fort foundations, a short riverside walk and historic markers, including one showing where lawman Pat Garrett shot outlaw Billy the Kid to death at midnight on July 14, 1881.  The community has a small museum located immediately next to the cemetery where Billy the Kid lies buried. 


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