Charlie Goodnight Biography

Learn about Charlie Goodnight, the greatest Cattle Baron of them all and his rise from cow hand to millionaire.

Charles Goodnight, cattle baron extraordinaire, was born in 1836 on a farm in southern Illinois. Nine years later the family moved to the far west frontier country around the Brazos River in the newly admitted State of Texas. Young Charlie soon got very well acquainted with the long horn cattle that roamed these plains. These cattle, let loose by their Mexican owners after the war with Texas, numbered close to 300,000 in 1845.

With the growing American appetite for beef, as opposed to pork, Texans were beginning to round up these cattle and drive them to the rich markets of the East. One such entrepreneur, Tom Candy Ponting, took Texas cattle by foot and rail all the way to cattle pens in New York's Manhattan.

Young Charlie Goodnight grew up on a farm and became proficient as a cattle man. He also became adept at busting mustangs and racing horses. At the age of 20 he and a stepbrother took on the job of caring for 430 cows belonging to a neighbour. As payment they were allowed to keep every fourth calf that was born. After four years they owned 180 head of cattle.

During these years Goodnight learned the skills of a cattle baron. The biggest lesson was that he who controls the water controls the region. Each cow needed up to 30 gallons of water per day. The key thing, then, was to secure water for one's stock. When the Civil War came, Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers, serving as a scout and a guide. In 1864, he was mustered out of the Rangers and ready to return to civilian pursuits. His cattle herd had now grown to about 5,000 head. They increased this by purchasing the entire stock of the neighbour who started them out on credit. By the Spring of 1865, they had amassed a herd of 8,000 head of cattle. Now Goodnight planned to take his herd, not to the railheads in Kansas, but to Colorado where he could open up new markets among the mines and military camps that were not currently being serviced. This would require opening up a new route through territory that was both dangerous and difficult. In June, 1866 he set of with 19 men and 2,000 head of cattle on the route of the Southern Overland Mail. Despite losing hundreds of cattle through lack of water, they made it to New Mexico and then Colorado where Goodnight was able to sell his stock for 12,000 dollars in gold.

Over the next few years Goodnight drove many more head of cattle from Texas to Colorado. Then in 1870, he moved his base to Pueblo, Colorado. He married, built a home and trailed cattle up from Texas as stock. By building on his base operation of driving stock to well paying markets, Goodnight soon became one of the richest cattlemen in Colorado. In 1873, he decided to avoid the exorbitant interest rates that the banks charged for credit, by becoming a banker himself. He joined with the Stock Growers Bank of Pueblo. The Financial Crash of that year, however, not only put an end to this enterprise, but severely depleted Goodnight's financial resources.

To get back on his feet Charlie began searching for a new range. He found it in the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. He transferred his remaining stock to this area. By securing outside investors, Goodnight started to expand his Empire. He purchased 24,000 acres of strategic land around the Palo Duro Canyon, in effect gaining control of the whole region. His herd soon numbered 100,000 head.

Good night now established himself as the undisputed Cattle Baron of the Texas Panhandle. He soon had a reputation as a forceful administrator of justice against vigilantes, organising many telegraph pole hangings. He was also a very shrewd businessman. In his later years, Goodnight sold off his holdings and ventured into the very different world of movie making. He lived out his last days in the Panhandle town of Goodnight, named in his honor. Charles Goodnight died in 1929 at the age of 93.

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