Charles Goodnight: His trail & his chuckwagon

Linda_WommackIf there ever was a quintessential pioneer, it would be Charles Goodnight. An Illinois native, born 1836, he moved with his family to Texas in the middle of a raging Indian war. By the age of 18, Goodnight had already earned a reputation as a noted scout and Indian fighter when he joined the Texas Rangers. He remained in this capacity during the Civil War, protecting Texas citizens against marauding Indians and Mexican bandits.

Following the Civil War, Goodnight rode the Texas plains for a time, ranging cattle and buying a few head here and there. Within a year of the war’s end, Goodnight had a sizable herd. His problem, however, was marketability. The war-torn South, including Texas, was not the place to sell his cattle if he intended to make a profit. Goodnight began to put together a plan to head his herd north; to the gold fields of Colorado. It was about this time that Goodnight remembered an old acquaintance he had met before the war. Oliver Loving was also a cattleman and had taken a herd of cattle north into Colorado during the beginning of the gold rush days. Goodnight realized he needed Loving’s experience to blaze his own trail north. The reuniting of Loving and Goodnight proved to be the birth of one of Colorado’s most legendary cattle trails.

Chuck Wagon  Photos courtesy DPL.

Chuck Wagon
Photos courtesy DPL.

The Goodnight-Loving Trail began in 1866, herding 10,000 Texas Longhorns from the Brazos River north to the Pecos River. From this point, the trail turned west, into New Mexico, thereby avoiding marauding bands of Indians. The trail then moved north over Raton Pass, into Colorado, following the Arkansas River to Pueblo, and on north to the Denver markets. For their efforts, Goodnight and Loving received $12,000. Not a bad start. After this first legendary trail drive into Colorado, Charles Goodnight made a few changes. The first change he made was in logistics, and purely out of anger. Colorado’s colorful character, “Uncle Dick” Wootton had left Denver and opened a toll road over Raton Pass. When Goodnight brought his cattle herd toward the pass on that first drive, Wooton immediately realized the herd would be hard to turn around. Seeing the profit before him, he charged Goodnight ten cents a head, double the normal charge. Goodnight paid the steep toll, and never again did he use Wooton’s toll way. Instead, he rerouted his trail several miles to the east, over Trinchera Pass, where it didn’t cost him a cent.

That was also the end of the short-lived Goodnight-Loving Trail. The following year, the now famous duo led their second herd north out of Texas, when tragedy struck. In New Mexico, Loving was attacked by a band of Comanches. Before he died of his wounds, he asked Goodnight to bury him in Texas. Goodnight turned back from the trail and honored his partner’s last request, a journey that made all the headlines in the West. Goodnight returned to his trail herd, led the cattle over Trinchera Pass in Colorado, the trail now known simply as the Goodnight Trail.

It was about this time that Goodnight perfected a very necessary process needed along the cattle drive; feeding the cowboys. The men generally carried enough dried beef and hardtack for their daily meals, a six-day supply, and when the herd stopped for the night, a meal would be made out of whatever could be quickly found from the pack horses.  Goodnight saw a better, more efficient way and devised the “chuck-box.” Commonly known as the chuck wagon, after further development Goodnight’s invention revolutionized trail herding, not to mention a boost in the morale of the trail hands. Goodnight rebuilt an old government wagon with sturdy axles of iron which required six oxen to pull. The wagon was equipped with pull-down sides for work space and food preparation. Inside, barrels of flour, coffee, sugar, and the like were packed, along with sacks of beans and grains. A special compartment held medical supplies. Now, the cowboys had two fresh cooked meals every day. The chuck wagon was soon modified and sold by the Studebaker Company all over the West.

Goodnight trailed herds north to the Colorado markets for years, and in time, exclusively to northeastern Colorado, and John Iliff’s cattle empire. Iliff first bought 800 head of cattle from Oliver Loving, following Loving’s first trail drive from Texas to northern Colorado, in 1864. Goodnight continued the business arrangement with Iliff three years later. This new partnership would continue for many years, with Goodnight driving an average of 10,000 Texas longhorns per year to Iliff’s ranch in northeastern Colorado.

Charles Goodnight

Charles Goodnight

Early in 1868, Charles Goodnight bought a small ranch in the Arkansas River Valley, (a portion of the Mexican Nolan Grant) a few miles west of Pueblo. Here he lived for some years and ran his Goodnight Trail from this point. During the early 1870s, Goodnight branched his trail at the Pueblo point, creating a trail eastward to Granada and later, extending to Dodge City, Kansas. It was about this time that Goodnight married his longtime love, Mary Ann Dyer, and brought her to the Pueblo ranch. Mrs. Goodnight immediately fell in with Pueblo’s social elite, the Thatchers, the Blooms, and the Pickards. Mrs. Goodnight became the force behind the building of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the first of its kind in Southern Colorado, and was actively involved in Pueblo’s educational endeavors.

In the meantime, Charles Goodnight had increased his cattle herd to over 3,000, using the P A T brand. He joined with the Thatchers and Blooms in buying out smaller cattle outfits along the Hardscrabble area, a partnership which would become one of Colorado’s largest cooperative cattle empires of the era.  During his years in Pueblo, Goodnight improved his stock by interbreeding shorthorn bulls and with Texas longhorns raising corn for feed. He used his Arkansas River water rights to dig ditches for irrigation, which worked for a time, until a flood nearly wiped him out. The financial panic of 1873 caused Goodnight to borrow money with heavy mortgages against his property in an effort for Goodnight to continue.

Continue he did, by forming a partnership and lifelong friendship with cattleman John Prowers. The two operated a meat packing business in Las Animas, where some of their inferior cattle still produced somewhat of a profit. This arrangement, while economically sound, discouraged Goodnight. His love was the open range, the cattle trails, the freedom. Settlers settled, towns grew, people were everywhere. He hated the congestion. He sold out to Prowers, including his Pueblo ranch. Goodnight took his wife and his large herd of cattle and went back to Texas.

When he died in 1929, Charles Goodnight left a rich American heritage, a piece of which is still in Colorado, as well as his own western legend, and the tail of the Goodnight Trail.

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