Retracing the Goodnight-Loving Trail
Photojournalist connects past, present by following a legendary route
By Julia Robinson
In 1866, a young cattleman named Charles Goodnight forged a partnership with Oliver Loving, an established rancher 25 years his senior, and they blazed a new cattle trail across Texas to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. By 1868, the trail spanned some 2,000 miles, extending into Colorado and Wyoming. And the partnership that started with a handshake in an unassuming hamlet in North Texas became one of the most celebrated legends of the West.
The story of the Goodnight-Loving Trail represents the defining story of the last frontier, before fences and railroads changed the West forever. As a Texan born 100 years after the close of the frontier, I’ve always wanted to see the state as it was then—wide open to anyone courageous enough to take it on. Believing in the power of place to connect us to history, I decided to retrace the steps of Goodnight and Loving to call forth that sense of possibility and purpose.
The Saga Begins with Charles Goodnight, who was born in 1836 in Illinois, and moved with his family to Milam County, Texas, at age nine. In 1856, he and his stepbrother trailed a herd of 400 cattle up the Brazos River to the Keechi Valley in Palo Pinto County, where Goodnight soon settled. In 1857, he joined Cureton’s Rangers, serving as a scout and guide. When the Civil War broke out, Goodnight and his fellow rangers were attached to the Confederacy’s Frontier Regiment; they spent most of the war protecting settlers along the Brazos River frontier in the northwestern part of the state.
Goodnight was only 30 years old when the Civil War ended. The southern states were devastated by the loss of life and cause. They also were in ruin financially. Goodnight came home to the Keechi range, west of present-day Fort Worth, to find his herds scattered. Cattle rustling had gone unchecked during the war years, and feral herds were claimed by whoever could get a brand on the livestock first. “It looked like everything worth living for was gone,” Goodnight later told his biographer J. Evetts Haley. “The entire country was depressed—there was no hope.”
Most Texas cowmen drove their herds north along the existing, pre-war cattle trails like the Chisholm, flooding markets in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri with cheap beef. Goodnight came up with another plan. He decided to aim for the lucrative U.S. Army and mining settlements of New Mexico and Colorado. To get there, he had to skirt Comanche and Kiowa lands in the Panhandle. He knew horsemen from these tribes usually followed the buffalo, so he chose a route that would take him south of the buffalo range. It was calculated recklessness to follow that route, because it meant driving the cattle for days across difficult, waterless terrain.
As Goodnight prepared for his first drive in the spring of 1866, he traveled to nearby Weatherford for supplies. On the way, he encountered fellow cattleman Oliver Loving, at Black Springs (present-day Oran), gathering his own herds for a drive. Years later, Goodnight recalled the 1866 meeting at Black Springs, recounting for Haley the chivalrous tone of their exchange. “If you will let me, I will go with you,” Loving said. Goodnight replied, “I will not only let you, but it is the most desirable thing of my life. I not only need the assistance of your force, but I need your advice.”
I begin my journey northwest of Mineral Wells at Graford, in search of the site where the legendary partnership began. After heading east on Texas 254, I turn north on FM 52. The sparsely traveled road rolls over gentle prairie hills punctuated by dense patches of post oak and blackjack. As I come into Oran, the pavement abruptly ends, and I’m on the hard-packed dirt of Main Street, which is devoid of buildings. On the west side of the street, a pair of historical markers relate the town’s history and the partnership of Goodnight and Loving. Once a bustling frontier town, the site today appears a modest beginning for such an expansive story—a weathered, stone post office and the worn homes of some 60 residents flank an empty field.
Photojournalist Julia Robinson loved exploring the backroads associated with Charles Goodnight, especially the remote areas where she could imagine riding with him on the trail. She’ll explore Goodnight’s legacy next month, in the second installment of this two-part series.
From the August 2011 issue.