Charles Goodnight's Legacy
See related: Retracing the Goodnight-Loving Trail
By Julia Robinson
My Obsession with Charles Goodnight began with a nudge from my father, a one-time history major who, as a retired state employee astride a motorcycle, explored historical sites all over Texas and reported his observations back to me. When his father, my grandfather, became seriously ill, those exploratory trips became therapeutic. My dad latched on to Goodnight’s story, and as he lost his own father, he sought out a tale that wove manliness, mortality, and legacy into the mythic story of a man who became legend.
Goodnight appears to ride energetically through Texas history, making cameo appearances in a number of business and political scenarios. In my quest to gain a more personal perspective on Goodnight’s legacy by retracing some of his tracks, I relied on J. Evetts Haley’s biography, Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, as my guide.
I learned that after the death of his business partner, Oliver Loving, in 1867, Goodnight continued his ranching operations. In 1869, he established a ranch on the Arkansas River just above Pueblo, Colorado, which became a swing station for his cattle drives north to Wyoming. In 1870, Goodnight married his longtime sweetheart, Mary Ann Dyer, the daughter of a prominent lawyer and the only girl in a family of boys. Because of his wife’s influence, Goodnight pledged $1,000 to help establish a school “independent of all religious creeds and sects.”
Goodnight joined in organizing Colorado’s first stock raisers’ association, a group that organized roundups, recorded brands, and regulated grazing of the region’s growing herds. He joined the Stock Growers’ Bank and, working with a neighbor, established a meat-packing plant at the terminus of the Santa Fe Railroad in Las Animas.
The nationwide Panic of 1873, along with the effects of drought in Colorado, sent the Goodnights back to Texas, where the Llano Estacado was still open country. The Texas Rural Register and Immigrants Handbook described the area as “the only uninhabitable portion of Texas.” Despite that ominous description, Goodnight knew the region’s rich grasses and scattered watering holes supported thousands of buffalo. And a wandering mustanger further piqued Goodnight’s interest with descriptions of a vast canyon that bisected the plains. While searching for a site to establish his ranch headquarters in the late 1870s, Goodnight trailed a herd into the canyon, which is now called “Palo Duro,” just east of the present-day town of Canyon. With a sheepherder named Nicolas Martinez as guide, Goodnight followed an old trail into the lower reaches of the canyon, 1,000 feet below the plains.
Today, it’s possible to retrace a path similar to the one that Goodnight followed in 1876 by driving east on Fourth Street in Canyon and following this thoroughfare as it becomes Texas 217 and forms the Charles Goodnight Memorial Trail. Beyond the town, the Llano Estacado stretches out with high grasses waving in the breeze, reminiscent of the landscape Goodnight traversed more than a century ago. Windmills dot the landscape and the horizon, which bisects the view of the world into blocks of blue above and gold below. There’s nothing to indicate the awe-inspiring crevasse that is Palo Duro Canyon until you reach the rim, the yawning entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, with its striated walls of sandstone in reds, yellows, and oranges.
Charles Goodnight’s Legacy
See the full article in the September 2011 issue.