The man most associated with Palo Duro canyon, Charles Goodnight, is a legendary figure in the Texas panhandle. Born in 1836, in Macoupin County, Illinois, Goodnight moved to Texas with his mother and stepfather when he was only ten years old. By age 20 he was working as a cowboy on the northwest Texas frontier, where he also served with the local militia in their long-running battle against Comanche raiders. Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers in 1857 and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

He established his own cattle herd in Palo Pinto County during the state-wide round-up of Texas Longhorns that had roamed free during the war. Goodnight branded his livestock, then in the spring of 1866 he headed for the Rocky Mountain mining region which he hoped would prove more lucrative than the depressed markets of the war-ravaged South. His decision was risky, as it meant he would have to drive the herd across a waterless stretch of west Texas. To avoid Indians, he decided to use the old Butterfield stagecoach route to the southwest, follow the Pecos River upstream and proceed northward toward Colorado. This route was almost twice as long as the direct route, but it was much safer. 

While buying supplies for this trip, he encountered Oliver Loving, and the two decided to join forces. Their combined herd numbered about 2,000 head when they left camp to blaze a trail from Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Their route took them past Camp Cooper, by the ruins of old Fort Phantom Hill, through Buffalo Gap, past Chadbourne, and across the North Concho River 20 miles above present-day San Angelo. They crossed the Middle Concho and followed it west to the Llano Estacado. The Goodnight-Loving Trail was born.

In New Mexico, they formed a partnership with New Mexico cattleman John Chisum for future contracts to supply the United States Army with cattle. From there, Loving headed north to Colorado, while Goodnight headed back to Texas for another herd. Between them they had made more than $12,000.

Over the following years, however, as the Goodnight-Loving Trail became one of the most heavily traveled in the Southwest, Goodnight extended his activities, blazing the Goodnight Trail from Alamogordo Creek, New Mexico, to Granada, Colorado. After Loving’s death, Goodnight and Chisum would eventually extend the trail all the way to Wyoming.

In 1876, Goodnight consolidated his operations back in Texas. He drove 1,600 longhorns from Pueblo, Colorado to the Palo Duro Canyon. Taking advantage of available grass, timber, water, and game around the canyon, he founded the JA Ranch there in partnership with Irish businessman John George Adair. This was the first ranch in the Texas Panhandle, and it soon covered more than a million acres, with a herd of one hundred thousand head.

A pioneer in cattle breeding, Goodnight crossed the tough but scrawny Texas longhorns with the more traditional Herefords to produce a longhorn breed that was both independent and commercially lucrative. After selling off his ranch, he spent his last years investing in Mexican mining operations, trying his luck as a movie producer, and enjoying the acclaim of his community at a small ranch near Goodnight, the panhandle town named for him, where he died in 1929.

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