December 12

This Day in History

Old West

Dec 12, 1929:

Cattle pioneer Charles Goodnight dies

Charles Goodnight, co-founder of one of the most important southwestern cattle-drive trails, dies on this day. He was 93 years old.

Born in Illinois in 1836, Goodnight came to Texas with his family when he was nine years old, and he thrived in the rugged frontier environment. His skill as a frontiersman and scout won him a position as a regimental guide during the Civil War, and Goodnight became confident that he could blaze a trail across any landscape, no matter how rugged or desolate. By the time the war ended, Goodnight had also built up a herd of cattle on his ranch in Palo Pinto County, Texas, and he decided to combine his interest in ranching with his ability as a trailblazer. At the time, most Texas ranchers drove their herds north to the railheads in the cattle-towns of Kansas for shipment to the East, but Goodnight was convinced that he could make a better profit if he could find a path to drive his cattle to the growing beef markets in New Mexico and Colorado.

While buying provisions for his proposed drive, Goodnight met Oliver Loving, a cattleman who was already renowned for his frontier and livestock skills. Loving agreed that Goodnight's idea was solid and the two men became partners. In 1866, they blazed a 500-mile route from Fort Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Later extended north into Colorado, the Goodnight-Loving Trail became one of the most heavily used cattle trails in the Southwest. Though well utilized, it was a risky ride, since it passed through lands still dominated by small bands of hostile Indians. Loving was killed by Indians while planning a third trip on the trail, but Goodnight continued to use the route for three more years and in 1871 cleared a profit of $17,000.

In 1875, Goodnight blazed another cattle trail, this time from New Mexico to Colorado. But he had grown tired of the long and dangerous trail drives and increasingly focused his efforts on his new Colorado ranch. When the Colorado ranch failed, Goodnight transferred the remnants of his herd to the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle to make a fresh start. After convincing a wealthy Irishman to invest large amounts of capital into his new operation, Goodnight succeeded in building his new JA Ranch into one of the major Texas ranches of the day, eventually running more than 100,000 cattle and returning excellent profits. By the time he died, Goodnight had transformed himself from an intrepid trailblazer and cattle driver into one of the great cattle barons of the American West.

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