Mary Ann “Molly” Goodnight was the wife of Charles Goodnight and was highly involved in the Goodnight ranching operation. She was born September 12, 1839 in Tennessee to John Henry and Susan Lynch Miller Dyer and her grandfather was the first governor of Tennessee. The Dyers were well established in Tennessee but her father, noted for his service in the Battle of New Orleans and a former Attorney General of the state, moved the family to a settlement near Fort Belknap in North Texas in 1854. Ten years later, her mother died shortly to be followed by the death of her father in another two years, after which Molly became the head of her family for her younger brothers. The oldest, Leigh, went to work for Charles Goodnight in 1867 while Molly continued to raise the younger brothers, several of whom also went on to work on the Goodnight ranches. Molly served as a teacher in Young County though she had no formal education.
Charles Goodnight was born in Illinois in 1836 and moved with his family to Milam County (roughly between College Station and Georgetown) where he worked on his family’s farm. During the Civil War, he did not join the Confederate Army but “rangered” as many others did to defend the frontier. Soon after the war, he partnered up with the older Oliver Loving to develop a route where their cattle could be driven to market, as an alternative to shipping them by rail to market. The trail tracked west to the San Angelo area, then connected to the Pecos River where it ran roughly due north to Wyoming. Goodnight and Loving would make three drives together before Loving would die on the third drive near Ft. Sumner, New Mexico from injuries sustained in a fight with Indians.
It is unknown exactly how Molly and Charles met, but the two were married on July 26, 1870 and moved to the Pueblo, Colorado area to run a ranch started by Goodnight and Molly’s brother Leigh. They were joined by Molly’s two younger brothers, Samuel and Walter. The couple would live there for about six years before relocating to the Palo Duro Canyon area in the Texas Panhandle after a downturn in the cattle business. The couple resided first in a dugout while Charles built a log house. It was around this time that Charles became acquainted with the Irish born John George Adair in Colorado who would go on to become partners with him in the Texas spread.
The Adairs and Goodnights drove their herd from Colorado to Palo Duro in the summer of 1877. Molly had initially resisted the move but was quickly drawn in by the natural beauty of the canyon. The ranch brand was JA using Adair’s initials, but the ranch was successful and soon Adair received his investment back plus a generous rate of interest. Once this occurred, the assets were divided 1/3 to Goodnight and 2/3 to Adair and the partnership was dissolved. Other brands included Molly’s own PATM brand and with brother Walter, the Flying T brand.
Molly was one of the only women in the area and was well known for her kindness and generosity to the cowhands. One of them even gave her three chickens who became her pets and would follow her around the ranch. Molly served the role of ranch doctor, as there were no actual physicians in the area, using a combination of actual and folk medicine until such time as a donation could be taken to bring a doctor to the Panhandle.
Molly also took in orphaned buffalo calves which eventually developed into the Goodnight buffalo herd. Some buffalo were also crossbred with the ranch cattle to create and produce animals they called cattalo (or beefalo as it is now known). The JA Ranch continued to prosper and Goodnight would go on to drive his herds for the next 10 years to Dodge City, Kansas. Molly reportedly accompanied Charles on the cattle drives and ran the herd while Charles was scouting for water. During this period the Adair and and Goodnight partnership was renewed until Adair’s death about 1885. The Goodnights eventually moved to a smaller ranch near the present town of Goodnight, Texas. After his many years in ranching, the cyclical nature of the beef market and health had convinced Charles to reduce his operation. The couple founded Goodnight College which was in operation from 1898 to 1917 and ceased operation with the establishment of West Texas State Normal College in Canyon, Texas and Clarendon College in nearby Clarendon, Texas.
More easily than some, Molly Goodnight seemed to be comfortable and bridge the two centuries that saw Texas go from a sparsely inhabited land to one served by rail and peppered with communities. She lived through the Indian wars, personally knew Quanah Parker and had other Native Americans who camped on the ranch. She was highly regarded because of her concern for others. Molly was known by many complimentary titles such as “Darling of the Plains” and “Mother of the Panhandle” and she was clearly one of the most beloved women of the West. Molly died April 11, 1926 and she is buried in Goodnight, Texas. Her headstone reads “One who spent her whole life in the service of others.” It is hard to imagine a better epitaph.
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