A Mother to the Cowboys

She was called “Mary” by her husband Charles Goodnight, the best-known cattle rancher in Texas. Her distinguished Tennessee family referred to her as “Molly.” And she was known affectionately as “Mother of the Texas Panhandle” by the cowhands she doctored, fed, and counseled. Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight was loved and admired by all.

She was fourteen in 1854 when she moved with her parents to Fort Belknap on the western edge of Texas settlement. Soon, both parents died, and Mary began teaching school to support her three younger brothers. She met the young cattleman Charlie Goodnight at Fort Belknap in 1864 and their courtship continued through Goodnight’s service in the Civil War. By the time they married in 1870, Goodnight had a well-established reputation for driving cattle along the Goodnight-Loving Trail to New Mexico and eventually on to Wyoming before he built a thriving cattle ranch at Pueblo, Colorado.

When Charlie Goodnight and his bride arrived in Pueblo, Mary was shocked to discover two men hanging from a telegraph pole. Goodnight writes in his Recollections: “I hardly knew how to reply, but finally stammered out in a very abashed manner: ‘Well, I don’t think they hurt the telegraph pole.’ This seemed to irritate her very much and she said: ‘I used to think I knew you in Texas, but you have been out here among the Yankees and ruffians until I don’t know whether I know you or not, and I want you to take me back to Texas. I won’t live in such a country.’ I agreed to this but insisted that she must first have a rest, and during the next few days made it a point to acquaint her with all the good ladies of Pueblo, whom she found quite as human as herself, and the trip back to Texas was soon forgotten.”

The Goodnight-Dyer Cattle Company thrived in Pueblo until the financial panic of 1873 and a severe drought. Goodnight formed a partnership with John George Adair, an Irish financier, to establish the first ranch in the Texas Panhandle in the lush green pastureland of Palo Duro Canyon. Adair, who was interested in investing in the cattle business, put up the financial backing while Goodnight was charged with running the entire operation. Goodnight made the first of many land purchases—12,000 acres for twenty-five cents an acre—and trailed 1,600 head of cattle into the canyon in the spring of 1876. Adair and his wife, Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair a highborn lady from New York, had fallen in love with the west on a buffalo hunt and viewed the investment and the trip to the canyon as a great adventure.

The two couples, one of Mary’s brothers, and several cowhands made the 400-mile journey from Colorado to Palo Duro Canyon the following spring. The entourage consisted of 100 head of the finest Durham bulls, four wagons loaded with six months’ supply of provisions, equipment, and horses to upgrade Goodnight’s Texas herd. Cornelia Adair rode the entire distance on a fine white horse while Mary Goodnight drove one of the wagons.

When the Goodnight/Adair outfit reached the rim of Palo Duro Canyon, a 1,500-foot deep gorge, ten miles wide, and almost 100 miles long, it was teaming with 1,000 to 1,500 buffalo. They gazed upon the new JA (for John Adair) Ranch, home of Charlie and Mary Goodnight for the next eleven years. It took several days to move all the stock and supplies along the trail that wound for four miles down to the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River at the base of the canyon. After a few days exploring the area, the Adairs left, and Mary Goodnight set about adjusting to life in a two-room log cabin at least seventy-five miles from the nearest white neighbor.

Goodnight, in his Recollections claims that Mary was frightened that first night by the loud noises echoing off the canyon walls made by the buffalo during that spring mating season. Some accounts claim he had to convince her that dried buffalo dung made excellent firewood for her cook stove.

Charlie Goodnight devoted his boundless energy to enlarging the ranch, improving the stock, and blazing the Palo Duro-Dodge City Cattle Trail. Mary acted as surrogate mother for the cowboys—patching their clothes, sewing on buttons, and listening to their troubles. According to Crawford and Ragsdale in Women in Texas, Mary’s doctoring consisted of “coal-oil for lice, prickly pear for wounds, salt and buffalo tallow for piles, mud for inflammation and fever, and buffalo meat made into a broth for a general tonic.”

Despite the constant wind and the loneliness from going six months to a year without seeing another white woman (Comanche squaws came into the canyon with Quanah Parker’s band.) Mary claimed that was the happiest time of her life. Charlie Goodnight made a peace treaty with the Comanches that both he and Quanah Parker honored: Goodnight would give two beeves every other day to Quanah Parker’s band until they could find the buffalo they were hunting as long as the Indians did not take cattle from the JA herd.

Mary Goodnight said in later years that a cowboy brought her three chickens in a sack, and they became something she could talk to. They ran to her when she called and tried to talk to her in their language, following her as she went about her chores. She wrote in her diary that during the day she could hear the gunshots of commercial buffalo hunters who swept the plains killing the bison for their hides, even if a calf was standing next to its mother. At night she could hear the orphans bawling, alone and starving among the rotting carcasses that were left behind. She insisted that Charlie bring the orphaned calves home and by nursing them with three gallons of milk a day she restored them to health and helped establish the Goodnight buffalo herd.

The Goodnights cross-bred some of the buffalo with range cattle, calling the new breed “Cattalo.” Mary established her own herd and commissioned artist J.C. Cowles to paint scenes of the ranch. In 2011, eighty descendants of the great southern plains bison that Mary Goodnight was instrumental in saving were released to roam on 700 acres of the Caprock Canyon State Park in the Texas Panhandle.

After John Adair died in 1885, Goodnight worked for a couple of years in partnership with Cornelia Adair before he and Mary left the JA Ranch taking as their share a 140,000-acre spread and 20,000 head of cattle to land that became known as Goodnight Station. As railroads, fencing, farmers, and townspeople moved into the Panhandle, Mary helped establish Goodnight College, a post-secondary school, in 1898. As a result of their generosity, churches, schools, and other organizations in the Panhandle were named for the ranching pioneers.

Mary died in 1926 and her headstone reads: “Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight: One who spent her whole life in the service of others.

Mary and Charles Goodnight, Courtesy Charles Goodnight Historical Center


8 thoughts on “A Mother to the Cowboys

  1. Ha! As soon as I saw your title, I knew who you were talking about. The Goodnights were quite the people, and it was fun to read about Mary again. I learned about her first because of the buffalo, but she certainly “mothered” more than those creatures. Nice post.

    Liked by 2 people

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