An Instinct for Direction
Above all things, the plainsman had to have a sense -- an instinct for direction... Few men have this instinct. Yet in the few it is to be trusted as absolutely as the homing instinct of a wild goose... I never had a compass in my life. I was never lost.
Charles Goodnight was used to tough times. A dirt farmer's son, he had ridden bareback all the way from Illinois to Texas at the age of nine and had been working full-time to support his widowed mother since he was eleven. At nineteen, he and his brother went into the cattle business. Still too poor to buy their own herd, they agreed to watch over someone else's -- receiving every fourth calf as pay.
Goodnight had managed to collect 180 head of his own by the time the Civil War broke out. But he left his cattle to join the Texas Rangers and fight for the Confederacy. When he returned to his ranch at the end of the war, he found the cattle business in ruins. Texas herds had multiplied wildly -- from three-and-a-half million to 6 million -- so many that beef prices fell to nearly nothing.
It looked like everything worth living for was gone. The entire country was depressed -- there was no hope.
The only way to survive as a cattleman, Goodnight decided, was to take his herds north to better markets -- the Indian reservations, Colorado mining camps, and the Union Pacific railroad crews now working their way across Wyoming.
To reach them, he and his partner, Oliver Loving, with 18 cowboys and 2,000 cattled, blazed a new trail in 1866. And when the long drive was done, the partners cleared $24,000, more than they had ever dreamed of getting. They hurried back to Texas to buy more cattle, then headed right back up the newly named Goodnight-Loving trail, before anyone else could beat them to it.
Loving was a man of religious instincts and one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution.
Loving pushed on ahead to get in the partners' bid for new government contracts. But Comanches caught him on the open plain, shot him in the wrist and side, and chased him to a riverbank, where he held them off for several days before he crawled to safety in the night. He was picked up by a passing wagon and taken to an army hospital, but it was too late to save him. The night Loving died, he called his partner to his side.
His mind turned back to Texas, and at last he said: "I regret to have to be laid away in a foreign country." I assured him that he need have no fears; that I would see that his remains were laid in the cemetery at home. He felt this would be impossible, but I told him it would be done.
Goodnight ordered his men to fashion a tin casket out of flattened cans. They put Loving's wooden coffin inside, covered it with charcoal, sealed the top, and placed it in a wagon. Flanked by a cowboy escort, Goodnight started back south for Texas.
Word of their profits had spread throughout cattle country, and other outfits were already streaming north -- blazing trails to the nearest railheads from which they could ship their steers east. A new industry had been born. But in February of 1868, Charles Goodnight, the man who had helped start it all, was headed in the other direction.
Keeping his promise to his dead partner, he was taking Oliver Loving home.
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz|
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA