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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal

Part 16, Founding "Parents" of the Texas Panhandle

Palo Duro Canyon

Three times, I drove to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when my son Zach lived there. Of the entire trip, the stretch on U.S. Highway 287 is by far the least scenic and the most deserted, especially from Childress to Amarillo. It’s 117 miles of flatland, generally not another car in sight, either direction. Along the way, there are eight communities, but only two possess enough population to support gas stations and a smattering of restaurants. Of the others, five are barely surviving and one, named Goodnight, long since succumbed and is a ghost town.

But in the middle of this huge expanse of nothingness, forty miles east of Amarillo and ¼ mile south of Highway 287, on Armstrong County Rd. 25, there is a home of some notoriety, listed on the National Register of Historic Places and a Texas Historic Site. It belonged to a husband and wife who were much revered and appreciated in the Texas Panhandle, back in the day. While the wife’s good deeds and accomplishments aren’t so well known, you may have heard of the husband. His name was Charles Goodnight.

He was born in Illinois on March 5, 1836. But where did that surname of Goodnight come from? The original immigrant was Hans Michael Gutknecht, from the area of modern-day Germany. Gutknecht means “good" or "able servant.” However, that name was difficult for English speakers to read. How are those letters pronounced? So, over time, the word was Americanized to Goodknight. Makes sense. Later, the k was dropped and the name became simply Goodnight, bringing to mind darkness, moon, and stars.

Charles’s father was a subsistence farmer who died of pneumonia when his eldest son was five years old. Soon after, Mrs. Goodnight made the wise decision to marry again, typical for the era when widowed women, especially those with children, had few options. The new stepfather was a fellow named Hiram Daugherty, who was apparently industrious and ambitious. Around 1835, when Charles was nine, Mr. Daugherty packed up the family (by then including more younger children) and moved from Illinois to Milam County in East Texas. The family story is that Charles rode bareback the entire trip, on a mare named Blaze, behind the family’s covered wagon. In Texas, Mr. Daugherty laid claim to property near the Brazos River, built a cabin, and began farming.

With little opportunity for formal education, Charles went through childhood, attending an actual school for only six months. Still, he learned plenty of other skills that would be of benefit in his adult years. He befriended the nearby Caddo Indians and accompanied them on hunting trips into the wilderness. I imagine Charles considered this great fun. They traveled long distances and from these excursions, the boy gained much knowledge of Indian trails, Texas terrain, and survival abilities. In his later teens, he worked for ranchers as a cowboy and, besides volunteering for the local militia. By his early 20s, he was a scout and guide for a regiment of the Texas Rangers, while they fought the raiding Comanche and Kiowas.

The Civil War began. Charles joined the Confederate Army and he expected to be involved in great battles. Instead, his regiment, consisting of former Texas Rangers, was assigned to a frontier outpost, their job being to stop Indian raids on settlers. Charles’s job was to scout, gain information of Indian movements, and report the information to soldiers at the outpost. Following his experiences in the Confederate Army, he claimed, “To be an expert scout, first, one must be born a natural woodsman and have the faculty of never needing a compass except in snow storms or darkness.” Sounds like good advice to me.

While the conflict between north and south raged, too many of the settler men went off to be soldiers and their cattle just skedaddled. The war did end eventually and Charles returned home. As he traversed Texas, he saw that cattle roamed everywhere, almost feral. Possibly, Charles grasped this as a golden opportunity. He partnered with his friend Oliver Loving. They rounded up as many cattle as they could and drove them on what came to be the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Starting near the Brazos River, they went southwest, forded the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing, and moved into New Mexico. Then, they sold this herd to the Federal Army at Fort Sumner. Admittedly, the route was tricky, but was taken intentionally to avoid the Comanche at a place called Staked Plains, near present-day Lubbock.

Charles and Oliver Loving made several more drives together. For these treks, Charles invented the chuck wagon, probably hiring a cook, too. The objective was to have an efficient way to feed the cowboys well and keep them happy. Another change came when Charles and Loving extended the trail from New Mexico to Denver and their earnings were significant.

Unfortunately, in early fall of 1867, partway through another drive, Oliver Loving traveled ahead with one helper to scout the route, leaving Charles and cowboys in New Mexico with the herd. Being only two, Loving and helper were easily ambushed by a band of Indians. Although both men survived the fight, (not sure about the Indians), Loving incurred serious wounds. His helper managed to get him back to Charles’s location, but all present recognized that Loving wouldn't recover. It took him fourteen days to weaken and perish and, for every one of those days, Charles sat by Loving’s bedside.

His body was buried temporarily at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, while Charles finished the drive to Denver. Then he returned to the fort and arranged for the body to be hauled by wagon a distance of almost 400 miles to Loving’s family in Weatherford, about 40 miles west of Fort Worth. Also, as an honest and compassionate man, Charles divided the trail drive earnings with Loving’s family. For years after, he kept a photo of Oliver Loving in his coat pocket.

The next drives were conducted with a new partner, John Chisum, a New Mexico rancher. These drives were to supply large quantities of beef for the U.S. Army and the trail was extended again, this time into Wyoming.

In 1870, Charles Goodnight formed perhaps his best partnership when he married Mary Ann Dyer. She was a schoolmarm in Weatherford. Maybe Charles had met her through his friend Oliver Loving. Charles was a thoughtful fellow and at the start of this marriage, he devised what he called a “practical” sidesaddle for his new wife. She would need that if she intended to travel with him, at least some of the time.

Next, he embarked on another business venture, establishing the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon, the first, true ranch in the Texas Panhandle. There, he built a small ranch house and Mary Ann took on the profession of ranch-wife-ing. One of her goals was to encourage her husband in developing a herd of bison that would preserve the species. Of course, she was thoroughly involved in the project and with their protection, the animals thrived. Some were donated by the JA Ranch to Yellowstone National Park in 1902. It’s said that the descendants of the original donated animals still roam there.

The same as her husband, Mary Ann wasn’t one to just sit around. Besides watching over the bison herd, she hosted parties for the ranch cowboys, taught them to read, mended their clothes, and listened to their troubles. She nursed them when they were sick or injured. She rescued orphaned buffalo calves andeven crossbred buffalo with cattle and called the result cattalo. At a later point, she commandeered the ranch bunkhouse and taught academic lessons there for the few local children each day, while the cowboys were out working at ranch duties. Throughout the area, she came to be known as Mother of the Panhandle and Charles picked up the moniker of Father of the Texas Panhandle.

Around 1886, Charles sold the JA Ranch, profiting a handsome sum, and then had a large ranch house built on the property in Armstrong County, now on County Rd. 25. It was designed in the late Victorian/Queen Anne style and is surrounded by 27.3 acres. There are four extra buildings, a carriage house, cold storage, servants’ quarters, and the remains of a water tower.

Along with the house, Charles and Mary Ann started a nearby town as their namesake. Growth was slow, but in 1898, Mary Ann helped to establish Goodnight College, as part of the town. In 1904, Goodnight Baptist Church was founded, although town growth continued at the pace of a sloth. In 1940, there were only nine businesses and 300 residents, not exactly a metropolis. By 1969, the town’s population had dwindled, down to 25, and by 2000, the population was just 18. The town consisted of a church, a cemetery, and the Goodnight Ranch House. From 2006 to 2012, the house and out-buildings were renovated to appear as they had when new in 1888 and can be toured for a small admission.

Mary Ann passed away in 1926. Charles lived onward for three more years and died in December, 1929.

J. Frank Dobie, writer of books depicting life in Texas during the era of the open range, became acquainted with Charles Goodnight in his elderly years. Dobie said of him, “I have met a lot of good men, several fine gentlemen, hordes of cunning climbers, plenty of loud-braying asses, and plenty of dumb oxen, but I haven’t lived long enough or traveled far enough to meet more than two or three I’d call great. This is a word I will not bandy around. To me, Charles Goodnight was great-natured.”

Charles Goodnight -- 1880

Statue of Charles Goodnight

Campus of West Texas A&M University

Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight

Statue of Mary Ann Goodnight

Campus of West Texas A&M University

Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch House

Armstrong County, Texas

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