End of the trail for legend and a way of life
Colorado had been a destination for trailblazing cowman Charlie Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving when they first drove cattle across “the Graveyard of Cattleman’s Hopes,” “the Bitter River,” the Pecos.
For almost two decades, blazing trails through the cattle country from the Brazos in Texas, on into New Mexico, to the Arkansas and the Platte in Colorado, he was searching for his own “Shangri-La,” where he might one day settle.
“In the summer of 1868, he found ‘The Spot.’ It was a green little valley along the Arkansas about five miles upstream from Pueblo, surrounded by bluffs of shale,” wrote Ralph C. Taylor in his Colorful Colorado column in early April of 1950. (The column was sponsored by Coors Brewing for years and aired on radio stations and published in Colorado newspapers, including the Pueblo Chieftain.)
“This, he decided should become the headquarters of his vast cattle business. Around it lay thousands of acres of uncropped Gama grass that fattened steers almost as fast as corn.”
Finally closing the partnership maintained long after the death of Oliver Loving in the winter of 1868-69, he established his headquarters at a spot (one among many) known as “Goodnight.”
“Most of the land of his new domain he acquired in partnership with Jacob and Peter Dotson and Mrs. Annie Blake. Mrs. Blake had only recently acquired from the heirs of Gervacio Nolan the 48,000 acres which the U.S. government had recognized from the 300,000 originally granted the Frenchman Nolan by the Spanish government when it controlled all the land South of the Arkansas River,” noted Taylor.
“Mrs. Blake bought the land for $10,000 and then sold one third to Goodnight for $5,000 and another third to the Dotsons for a like amount, retaining her third. The deal gave Goodnight access to most of land from the St. Charles River on the east to Hardscrabble on the west, with the Arkansas River as the northern boundary. The tract formed a triangle, the southeastern boundary going along the St. Charles and the Greenhorn Rivers to meet the western boundary along the Greenhorn Range.”
It included what was later to become the town site of South Pueblo. With big plans set in motion, he left for Kentucky to be married to Mary Ann (Molly) Dyer. Goodnight met Dyer in Texas during the Civil War in Cross Timbers and they had maintained a relationship since. She was 31 and Goodnight was 34 when they were married in Hickman, Ky., on July 26, 1870.
They went by boat to St. Louis, traveled to Abilene, Texas, by train, and then set out by stage to Pueblo.
En route to Pueblo, Goodnight had discovered the trail of two cattle thieves associated with the notorious Coe gang and alerted Colorado Vigilance committee upon his arrival in Pueblo. His alarm allowed them to quickly capture the rustlers and they were placed in the Pueblo Jail. However, the unfortunate souls were taken from the jail in the night and hanged from a telegraph pole outside the Drover hotel in which the newlyweds were staying. Goodnight first tried to keep the lynching from his new wife Molly, but was unable to do so.
“The bride accused Goodnight of associating with Yankees and ruffians and demanded to be taken back to Texas,” wrote Taylor.
In Goodnight’s own account in letters, he recalled his and his wife’s exchange.
“I understand they hanged them to a telegraph pole,” she exclaimed in her distress.
“Having been married such a short time, while and not accustomed to making excuses, I hardly knew how to reply, but finally stammered out in very abashed manner: “Well, I don’t think it hurt the telegraph pole.”
Goodnight agreed to return his new wife to civilized Texas, allowing she would rest a few days. But the growing and developing town in the meantime offered the promise of becoming civilized itself — and she soon forgot about going back.
Pueblo, with about 600 residents in 1870, found Charles and Molly Goodnight as good neighbors. Goodnight, intent on improving his herd, imported shorthorn bulls to the range of the plains. He also started extensive farming operations, growing corn to fatten cattle and planted several thousand apple trees. Additionally, he built irrigation ditches, and tried to improve the streambed to protect his trees and increase his land holdings.
He took an active interest in the business community as well, giving $1,000 to found an educational institution and requiring it to be independent of all sects and religious creeds. His wife was instrumental in the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Pueblo — the first of its denomination in southern Colorado.
“Money was a costly matter to borrow. Goodnight was paying one and a half to two percent per month. He joined others in 1873 in organizing the Stock Growers’ Bank, which advertised six percent on three month deposits, and eight percent on 12 months,” noted Taylor.
“Goodnight owned and operated the opera house and many business properties in Pueblo, but when the panic hit, it just about wiped him out. (He) turned again to the cattle ranges to regain his panic losses and formed a partnership with John W. Prowers, the lower Arkansas Valley stockman who was the father of Lamar and Prowers County.
Prowers & Goodnight started a meat packing business at Las Animas, which in the early seventies was the end of the Santa Fe Railroad. Goodnight’s aim was to improve the quality of the range cattle by using better bulls; by slaughtering inferior stock and sending it to eastern markets.”
But he became discouraged by the slow financial recuperation process and the increasingly crowded southern Colorado range. He decided once again to relocate. This time back to Texas and the Palo Duro area he knew as a Texas Ranger and scout.
“In the fall of 1875, he took what was was left of his Colorado outfit and herded it past Two Buttes to the Cimarron, past the ruins of Robber’s Roost and down the Canadian River… Goodnights established their home ranch, 100 miles from their nearest neighbor, 250 miles from Las Animas where supplies were packed,” wrote Taylor.
Using his land near Pueblo as security, he borrowed $30,000 from George W. Clayton.
He paid 18 percent interest per year and eventually befriended Clayton’s agent, John Adair, who had a large estate in Ireland but wanted to get into the cattle business. Adair and the Goodnights formed partnership, which became widely known as the JA Brand. With Adair’s money and Goodnight’s know-how, the operation flourished and had nearly a quarter million acres under fence by Adair’s death in 1885.
The JA has survived, and today is still run by descendants of the Adair family. Today, it has 1,335,000 acres of land and 100,000 cattle on range, and includes operations in six Texas counties, and a ranch near Larkspur, Colorado.
Two years later, Goodnight dissolved the arrangement and moved to a smaller spread of 140,000 acres with 20,000 head of cattle in nearby Goodnight, Texas, his namesake.
In later years he dabbled with breeding experiments designed to produce better beef cattle ... as well as the ill-fated “Cattalo.”
“The latter resulted when his buffalo bull ‘Old Sikes’ became enamored with longhorn cows,” wrote Mike Flanigan of the Denver Post in a 1986 article.
In addition to all these accomplishments, he is credited with the invention of the Chuck Wagon, when he converted an old military Studebaker wagon during his early trail days, by building shelves and compartments on the wagon to make cooking on the trail easier.
He invested (with little or no success) in mining operations in Mexico, and once even tried his hand at producing a movie to show how he remembered the West. Shown only at a cattleman’s convention and at a dinner in New York, the flick never caught on with the viewing public because of its decided lack of gunfights, and the Indians portrayed were as likely to be friends as they were to be hostile.
His first wife, Mary Ann or “Molly,” as she was known, died in 1926.
After her death, a sick and despondent Charlie Goodnight was nursed backed to health by a 26-year-old nurse and telegraph operator from Butte, Montana, that he first came in contact with because of their shared surname.
In March of 1927, right after Charlie turned 91, the two un-related Goodnights, Charlie and the very young Corrine, married. Charlie died of a heart attack two years later in Tucson, Arizona, after selling and delivering Buffalo roasts to butcher shops in Phoenix, on Dec. 12, 1929.
Years later, Ralph C. Taylor captured the sentiment of the moment.
“The great, driving spirit of the old cowman had gone on, but the civilization he had blazed in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado has remained. The cowboys, with tears streaming down their leathery cheeks, laid his body under the verdant grass on the edge of Palo Duro Canyon. It was the end of a long and famous trail — the Goodnight trail.”