I Accepted a Challenge: Researching and Writing Mary Ann Goodnight’s Story

During a visit to the Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch House Museum several years ago, I inquired if there were any books on Mary Ann Goodnight. The docent in charge quipped, “No one has written a biography on Molly Goodnight, and besides, there is only a smidgeon of information!” Then she squeezed her index finger and thumb together, not realizing that her response to me would become a years-long challenge.

Mary’s story has never been told, though it was she, not her famous husband, whose continuing actions preserved the Southern American Bison herd from extinction. Charles Goodnight ordered the extermination of 15,000 bison within Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, in late 1877. 

Several authors previously produced biographies on Charles Goodnight, including the most successful and accurate telling by J. Evetts Haley, a classic in western history and especially Texas history. In J. Evetts Haley’s Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman (1936), now a University of Oklahoma Press property, Mary Ann Goodnight’s portrait is sketched, albeit marginally. Not surprising if one considers the decade in which Haley’s famous biography was written. Biopics of women were uncommon, and, besides, Charles Goodnight’s interview answers and essays for Haley focused mostly on anecdotal information and his well-known accomplishments on cattle trails and with the Texas Rangers—historically, masculine endeavors. 

For today’s western history lovers and serious historians alike, Haley’s biography enthralls while significantly contributing to the deep pool of recorded Texas history. Though in his early life Goodnight abhorred attention and adulation, his elder voice, slightly self-aggrandizing at times, colorfully repeats the same tales that tantalized those who once sat around the famous Goodnight dining table—right down to his capturing orphan bison calves that would eventually renew the American southern bison herd. 

Haley only witnessed a shadow of Mary Ann Goodnight in 1925, a woman suffering from late-stage dementia, her obsession with saving the bison and charitable endeavors hidden from his first interviews with the old man at the Goodnight Ranch. Within Haley’s biography, Mary’s only mention relating to the origins of the famous Goodnight herd is that she had been “distressed by the slaughter” of 1878—Charles Goodnight’s words. But for me, a 21st century researcher, Charles Goodnight’s deliberate omissions to J. Evetts Haley clearly stand out and will be remedied within my upcoming biography on Mary Ann Goodnight—The Breath of a Buffalo

Despite the Goodnights’ diverse philosophical views—beginning with saving four bison calves—their marriage was a fifty-six-year partnership in business enterprises, educational endeavors, and community service. Research also reveals a life-long love story between a prickly, illiterate, and foul-mouthed trail driver and a fun-loving but refined, petite schoolteacher who respected each other’s differences and shortcomings. 

To understand how the Goodnights’ personal relationship evolved, this biography will scrutinize Mary’s life, beginning with her roots in Dyer County, Tennessee; her family’s move to Texas because of a pledge to Senator Sam Houston; and the chaotic setting that was northeast Texas before and after the Civil War. The narrative follows Mary when she gave Charles Goodnight an ultimatum demanding marriage, even as he mourned the loss of Oliver Loving, his partner. It discusses relationships among her Dyer brothers and other family members; Native Americans, and specifically Quanah Parker; the couple’s unsuccessful business adventures in Pueblo, Colorado; their forced move to free grass in the Palo Duro Canyon, where Mary first heard the cries of orphan bison calves. More business disappointments resulted in a new move to a site above the Palo Duro Canyon, where the historic Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch House stands today. Thus, the biography reveals a story of successes offset by failures, borne out of a marriage between two distinctly opposite personalities. Though Charles Goodnight famously said that he was never lost and needed no compass, clearly Mary Ann Goodnight became his lodestone.

Meanwhile, Mary’s bison continued to flourish, now at the new Goodnight Ranch situated on a mesa overlooking the Palo Duro Canyon in Armstrong County, Texas. From the beginning, Mary’s concern was for her bison, while her husband ventured toward novel ways to market them, at the same time reducing his cattle operation. Obviously, the Old West had transformed into a New West. Mary began working toward the establishment of a national park to home them, and when those attempts failed, she later campaigned for a state park.

Much like Buffalo Bill, Charles Goodnight took advantage of America’s new fascination with the romance of the Old West and its accompanying guilt for the destruction of the bison and the Native American‘s way of life. Three attempts at making movies—two for Hollywood—and his and second wife Corinne Goodnight’s later memoir project illustrate this. 

Mary continued her philanthropy despite her husband’s various risky business ventures. She taught the first school on the Goodnight Ranch; and, along with Charles, financed the creation and support of Goodnight College. She helped found an orphanage and financed yet another new church as the new town of Goodnight (an unincorporated community in the Texas Panhandle today) grew. The cowboys on the JA Ranch and later at the Goodnight Ranch were expected to go to church, even if the service was held in a cabin or outdoors, and single men were expected to eat at her table in the main ranch house so that they would be well fed. Barefoot children were provided shoes and local families received turkeys at Christmas. 

Mary was energetic, one contemporary writer calling her “elfish” in her quickness and appearance. She loved to entertain and hosted parties for the college students from Goodnight. She played her piano, donned Charles’s hat with pink chiffon wrapped around the crown, and played with her nieces and nephews. “Aunt Mary” became a favorite within her home, on the ranch, and in town.

Despite several family members’ untimely deaths, Mary made certain that survivors had income and supplied cattle from her own herd to help their finances. She gave advice on raising and selling cattle, including to her nine-year-old nephew, Samuel G. Dyer, Jr..

Charles once expressed his fear of being on the ‘brink of ruin” and he did, indeed, live his life this way until his death. Yet, over half a century, Mary Ann Goodnight provided stability, yanking him back to solid ground repeatedly. Readers will discover that theirs (the Goodnight’s) was a love story, and after Mary died, Charles Goodnight hung up his Mexican silver rowel spurs. He became despondent and “lost” after her death, which caused him to make some hasty decisions that left him living in a ranch house he did not own anymore. 

Though Charles always spoke warmly of his wife, her role in his successes is easily overshadowed by the extraordinary early adventures that he experienced and which Haley describes in detail and often in Goodnight’s words. Clearly, Charles, late in his own life, was fully aware of the legacy he wanted to leave.

By the time Charles Goodnight, aged ninety-three, began dictating various “essays” for Haley in 1929, he was remarried to a new, ambitious Mrs. Goodnight, aged twenty-eight. Corinne Goodnight typed Goodnight’s papers and together they first worked to get their own book on Charles’s adventures published before eventually coming to an agreement with J. Evetts Haley. Haley contracted with Charles, promising the Goodnights one-third royalties of Charles Goodnight, Cowman and Plainsman.

It is no surprise that Mary was almost erased from history, her personal effects and letters disappearing from the old ranch house, leaving future Mary Ann Goodnight researchers at a disadvantage. 

In the decades since Mary’s and Charles’s deaths, Americans—and Texans, in particular—nourished myths about the Goodnights as Charles Goodnight became an American icon in Western lore and on the big screen (think Lonesome Dove). Only recently has Mary’s prominent role in saving America’s southern bison herd become better known. 

I’m pleased to say that Mary Ann Goodnight’s biography reveals much added information, and I am gratified to make my own contribution to the deep pool of Texas history. Though The Breath of a Buffalo will likely not be released until 2026, I am available to speak on Mary Ann Goodnight to interested groups.

Jane Little Botkin


  1. Jan on March 13, 2024 at 4:26 pm

    Nice essay Jane. I look forward to the book!

    • pwsadmin on March 13, 2024 at 4:45 pm

      Thank you, Jan!