In the mini-series Lonesome Dove, Charles Goodnight was immortalized loosely as Captain Woodrow F. Call, played by Tommy Lee Jones. In truth, Charles Goodnight in real life was even more fascinating than the fictional Woodrow Call.
Goodnight, who is the most famous rancher in Texas history, and the most ubiquitous Texan of his time, became a Texas Ranger at the age of 21. They recruited him because he was already locally famous in North Texas as a skilled Indian scout and tracker. The year was 1857 and the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army were the front line of defense against Native American raids into Central Texas.
Goodnight tells of how the Texas Rangers one day got an inexperienced commander from back East. This commander had never fought Native Americans. He had never been out on the great plains. Yet he was all puffed up with self-importance and wanted to charge out and take on some Comanches. So he ordered the Rangers westward and after a couple of days, he spotted his first Indians on a distant hill.
Excited, he called Goodnight over and asked him, “What kind of Indians are those?” Goodnight paused and said, “Antelope.” The rookie Commander thought Goodnight was lying to him and ordered the Rangers to charge the group. Goodnight said, “We charged, laughing all the way, and successfully routed those antelope without losing a man.”
Goodnight was always fascinated by the shields the Native Americans carried to stop arrows and bullets. He had always heard that the shields had reams of paper stuffed inside to make them bullet resistant.
One day he shot at an Indian retreating into the brush. His target escaped but dropped his shield. Goodnight took it back to the camp and pried open the buffalo skin cover and wood frame and was shocked to discover an entire book inside. The book was The History of the Roman Empire. It solved the mystery as to why raiding Comanche so often took Bibles. They wanted the paper to bulletproof their shields, or, more accurately, to make them bullet-resistant. (They should have looked for Moby Dick. I always found that novel impenetrable. Don’t know what it would do against bullets, but it makes a hell of a door stopper.)
Charles Goodnight was indeed a genuine Texas Ranger, but he was also a genuine business entrepreneur. Had he lived a century later he might well have been someone like Michael Dell or Mark Cuban.
His biographer, J. Evetts Haley, said that Goodnight and his partner Oliver Loving were the first to drive cattle from Texas to Colorado. But before he started on this venture, everyone told Goodnight it couldn’t be done. They told him he couldn’t get cattle across the desert-like conditions of West Texas. They told him he would be brutally killed by Apache or Comanches, staked out naked on an ant bed to wait for vultures to pick his bones.
They told him that even if he did make it, the cattle would be mere skeletons by then and he’d have nothing to sell. Like all trailblazers, he simply ignored the naysayers. He ignored those who were always around to predict failure.
He proved them wrong and got rich doing so. He was only 30 years old at the time. Many Texans followed his lead and the trail became famous as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Loving, by the way, was loosely depicted as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove.
Though Goodnight eventually owned the biggest ranch in Texas, well over a million acres, when he was in his 90s, J. Evetts Haley, Goodnight’s foremost biographer, reported that he had this to say about his tumultuous life:
“All in all, my years on the cattle trail were the happiest I have lived. There were many hardships and dangers, of course, that called on all a man had of endurance and bravery; but when all went well there was no other life so pleasant. Most of the time we were solitary adventurers in a great land as fresh and new as a spring morning, and we were free and full of the zest of those who dared.”
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.