Father of the Texas Panhandle

June 18th marks the official 144th anniversary of the J A Ranch located just southeast of Amarillo. This date celebrates the 1877 written agreement made between Charles Goodnight and John Adair for the financing of what would become the J A Ranch: one of the many adventures of Charles Goodnight. He was an army scout, a Texas Ranger, a literal trailblazer for the cattle industry in more ways than one, a philanthropist, a humanitarian, and even an inventor.

Having secured a small fortune in his partnership with John Chisholm herding cattle from Texas as far north as Montana, Charles Goodnight purchased land for a ranch on the Purgatoire River in southern Colorado. As an organizer of “The Stock Growers Bank of Pueblo,” he invested the bulk of his holdings in that institution and subsequently lost nearly everything during the panic of 1873.

Undeterred, Charles liquidated his Colorado lands and drove his remaining cattle south to Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. Goodnight previously had occasion to see the area during his time as a scout for the Texas Rangers and recalled being impressed with the virgin grasslands it contained. Now with the threat of hostilities with the Comanche and Kiowa all but gone, the canyon seemed the ideal place to start anew. What Goodnight built was not only the first cattle ranch in the Panhandle, but also the first established settlement in that part of the state. Once the ranch house was constructed and his men and herd were well situated for the winter, Goodnight returned to Colorado to plan for his wife to join him in Texas. It was during this trip that he first met John G. Adair. Adair was looking to invest in the western cattle trade and sought a partner who had the experience needed to make such a venture thrive. Goodnight came so highly recommended that Adair drafted a contract for them to form what is today known as the J A Ranch.

The contract stipulated that Goodnight was to be paid a salary of $2500/year in his capacity of ranch manager for the term of five years. As a condition, Goodnight had to agree to live exclusively on-site and not engage in other business endeavors. Furthermore, during this initial five-year period, Adair would be repaid for his capital investment from ranch profits at an interest rate of ten percent. At the contract’s conclusion, all subsequent surplus from the ranch and its holdings would be split: two-thirds to Adair and one-third to Goodnight. To all these stipulations, Goodnight agreed, remarking, “It was mighty high interest, but I did not mind it because I knew I had a fortune made. I made that money pay over seventy per cent interest per year counting the rise in the value of land.”

Indeed, Goodnight did make a substantial fortune. In 1882, at the end of his contract, the J A Ranch occupied more than 93,000 acres and stood at a net value of more than $700,000 – $170,000 of which went directly to Charles Goodnight. John Adair was so pleased with Goodnight’s leadership that he was offered a second contract to stay on as manager at an increased salary of $7,500/year and would retain his one-third stake in the ranch’s profits. By the end of Goodnight’s second contract, the J A Ranch covered six counties and boasted a land holding of 1,335,202 acres which supported just over 100,000 head of cattle.

At the second contract’s end, Goodnight opted to trade his third of the J A Ranch to outright own one of the smaller ranches on the J A property. It was here that he would go on to raise bison and even crossbreed them with cows (which he referred to as “cattalo”). He eventually sold his interest in the Lazy F Ranch and bought a sizable parcel of land in Armstrong County. A town took root near his property which was named after him, and even though its population has now fallen to double digits, Goodnight, Texas still exists today.

If you would like to learn more about Charles Goodnight, the J A Ranch, or the Goodnight-Loving Trail; please come and visit The Bryan Museum. The collection has several great items including a rare lithograph of the J A ranch, a side saddle based on the one that he designed for his wife Molly, a letter to Goodnight from famous writer J. Frank Dobie, and a set of paintings by Lee Cable that commemorate Goodnight’s life as a cattle-driver.



“Welcome to the JA Ranch”; http://www.jaranch.org

“A Sketch of the First Settlement of the Panhandle”; https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth866270/m1/1/?q=%22charles%20goodnight%22

Hagan, William T. Charles Goodnight: Father of the Texas Panhandle. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Harley True Burton, A History of the JA Ranch (Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1928; rpt., New York: Argonaut, 1966). Dorothy Abbott McCoy, Texas Ranchmen (Austin: Eakin Press, 1987).