Legacy of Thunder

With its numbers dwindling and future in doubt, the Great Southern Bison Herd owes everything to a Texas cattleman and his wife.

The Great Southern Bison Herd once numbered more than 3.5 million, and they ranged across the southwestern United States. During the summer, they fed on abundant grassy plains. In winter, they would descend into Texas' Palo Duro Canyon where the deep, red- and orange-colored walls protected them against cold winds and snow. And, when the herd moved, the Earth trembled with thunder.

Yet, as numerous and strong as the Great Southern Bison Herd was, it was not immune to destructive forces that besieged the species as a whole. Strategic slaughter by the military and rampant market hunting decimated the bison population across North America, and by the early 1870s, the Great Southern Bison Herd had been reduced to only a few hundred animals.

In 1874, the mournful cries from a handful of orphaned bison calves changed everything. The bison received two unlikely champions, and the Great Southern Bison Herd was saved by a cattleman and his wife - Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight.

Texas would not have become Texas without pioneers like Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, and bison may have disappeared completely from the landscape without them.

Goodnight is a legendary figure and sometimes known as the "Father of the Texas Panhandle." Essayist and historian J. Frank Dobie said that Goodnight "approached greatness more nearly than any other cowman of history."

Born in March 1836 in Macoupin County, Ill., Goodnight moved to Texas in 1846 with his mother and stepfather, Hiram Daugherty. In 1856, he became a cowboy and served with the militia, fighting against Comanche raiders. Goodnight joined the Texas Rangers and gained notoriety by guiding the Rangers to the Indian camp where Cynthia Ann Parker was recaptured, and for later making a treaty with her son, Quanah Parker.

Following the Civil War, he became involved in the cattle business. He joined up with Oliver Loving to take cattle from Fort Belknap in Texas to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, a path that later became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. (Ed. Note: Goodnight and Loving were depicted on the hit mini-series Lonesome Dove) Loving was killed by a Comanche war party in 1867, but Goodnight continued driving cattle, even joining forces with John Chisum. Goodnight also invented the chuckwagon.

As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman and the same can now be said for the entire bison species. In 1870, Goodnight married Mary Ann "Molly" Dyer, a teacher from Weatherford, Texas, and their relationship turned out to be a fateful affair for the Great Southern Bison Herd.

Mary Ann wrote in her diary about how she would hear rifles ringing during the day and the calves crying at night. At the time, commercial hunters would harvest an adult bison regardless of whether a calf was at their side, and this was the time when Charles and Mary Ann realized that were witnessing the tragic end of the buffalo.

Probably at the insistence of Mary Ann, Goodnight rounded up five orphaned calves in 1878 and set them loose on 10,000 acres in the Palo Duro Canyon, where the Goodnights had founded (with partner James George Adair) the JA Ranch - the first ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

Goodnight made many observations about bison behavior and believed them to be more intelligent and hardier than cattle. When compared to cattle, he noted bison have larger brains, live longer, and are better adapted to the extreme temperatures and precipitation.

Bison, he observed, also have two additional incisors which allow them to consume a wider array of vegetation, and they are less susceptible to flies which often attack the less protected skin around the animals' hooves. Goodnight saw that his cattle often ran themselves to exhaustion when tormented by flies but bison simply sat down, tucked their hooves beneath their bodies and continued to graze.

Eventually, the herd grew to 250 animals, with Goodnight frequently sending some to help start bison herds elsewhere. His preservation efforts for buffalo and other animals soon gained the attention of such naturalists as Edmund Seymour, and American Bison Society member Martin S. Garretson. And, while Charles received most of the accolades, it was Mary Ann and her inspired devotion to the bison that it largely responsible for changing the Texas landscape.

Mary Ann's life centered on the traditional chores of ranch life, however, her selfless rescue efforts and time spent raising orphaned buffaloes helped establish the herd.

Mary Ann died in April 1926. Her headstone reads: "Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight One who spent her whole life in the service of others."

Charles remarried in 1927 to Corinne Goodnight, a 26-year-old nurse from Montana with whom he had corresponded due to their shared surname. On December 12, 1929, Charles died at of the age of 93 at his winter home in Tucson. He was buried next to Mary Ann in a community cemetery in Goodnight, Texas, and he willed his bison herd to the State of Texas.

Over the next 50 years, the Goodnights' herd flourished and was used by the American Bison Society in restoring the species in other areas. Bison from the Goodnight herd have been shipped to zoos in Europe, Yellowstone National Park, New York and other cities.

The spiritual heart of the American bison still beats today in the Texas panhandle, and we all owe the Goodnights an immeasurable debt of gratitude. The descendants of the Charles Goodnight bison herd - now the “Official Texas State Bison Herd" - are pastured and protected at the Caprock Canyons State Park for millions of Americans to enjoy and appreciate.

With a simple act of compassion toward a handful of orphaned bison calves, Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight helped save the Great Southern Bison Herd and left all of us a legacy that is uniquely American, a legacy symbolic of the indomitable spirit of the buffalo, a legacy of thunder.

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