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

Campaign to Open the West

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement. The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.” The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains. An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland. The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival. Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel. Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies. After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood

Buffalo hunters used a tripod to steady their aim.

six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue. They hauled hides and bones to the railroad and left the carcass to rot on the prairie. This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment to the railroad.

and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites. When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In retaliation for the army’s tactics of search and destroy, coupled with Indian anger over the destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle. The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials. As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

Palo Duro Canyon

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire. Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the winter supply of buffalo meat destroyed. The army rounded up 1,400 horses, shared some with their guides, and shot the remaining.

MacKenzie Raid at Palo Duro Canyon

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians––surrendered at Fort Sill. The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.

PLAINS INDIANS BOW TO WHITE SUPREMACY

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement.  The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.”  The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains.  An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland.  The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival.  Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel.  Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies.  After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue—sold what they could, and left the remaining carcass to rot on the prairie.  This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo, and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Bison Skulls

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites.  When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In this climate of search and destroy by the Army, coupled with Indian anger over destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle.  The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials.  As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep

Palo Duro Canyon

gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire.  Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the supply of buffalo meat destroyed.  The army rounded up 1,400 horses, kept all they could use, and shot the remaining.

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians–surrendered at Fort Sill.  The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.