The Tale of the Goodnight-Loving Trail: Branded in the Mind’s Eye

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Tony Maples Photography


For those who were fans of the world-renowned mini-series “Lonesome Dove” which stemmed from Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 novel of the same name, many believe it would be an amazing adventure to do a modern-day trail ride (in period costume, with period food…the whole nine yards) on the same path that was blazed by Woodrow Call and Gus McRae. For a select few that choose this as a pass time, the opportunity is real in group rides that are coordinated by special interest groups – historical and otherwise. But for others, the simple process of retracing the trails of olden days are far more difficult considering private land ownership, interstate highways, and the like. That’s why we have historical accounts, and western novels are still considered best-sellers, and western movies are a genre that continues to make a comeback. Infamous passes such as the Goodnight-Loving Trail have left their mark in our historic fabric, branded in the mind’s eye. And, for those that wish they could trace it, modern-day markers continue to lead the way.

The Tale of the Goodnight-Loving Trail: Branded in the Mind’s Eye

Photo: Facebook/Goodnight Family in America

In the biography titled “Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman” by J. Evetts Haley, it was written, “The trace that led from Texas to Fort Sumner is generally known as the Goodnight Trail, while that which Goodnight later blazed directly to Cheyenne is called the Goodnight and Loving Trail, though sometimes the terms are used interchangeably.” As with many of these trails, over the years the route changed, depending on available grass and water, as well as the fact that Goodnight didn’t want to pay a dime per head at the Wootton toll station (Raton Pass) along the Colorado-New Mexico border.

The Goodnight-Loving trail begins in Newcastle, Texas – the history of which stems from Fort Belknap, which stood sentinel on the Brazos River. Kentucky-born Oliver Loving came to Texas in 1843 at the age of 30. He drove cattle to Denver in 1860 and was later commissioned by the Confederacy to drive cattle to Rebel troops on the Mississippi River. It was rumored that the government owed him somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 at the end of the war. Illinois-born Charles Goodnight was nine when his family moved to Texas in 1845, and by the age of 11, he was working on farms before entering the cattle business as a young man. By 1866, Mescalero Apaches and Navajos were situated at the Bosque Redondo reservation (a place many Native Americans would refer to more as a concentration camp), close in proximity to Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory. Goodnight thought that with this group was a new market for beef and approached Loving with the idea. The elder of the two warned of the dangers, however, Loving found that with Goodnight undeterred, he would rather go with him than not. On June 6, 1866, they joined forces on a drive that would set out with 18 men and 2,000 Longhorns, approximately 25 miles west of Fort Belknap.

The Tale of the Goodnight-Loving Trail: Branded in the Mind’s Eye

Photo: Facebook/Wade Brooks

The all-star cast included “One-Armed” Bill Wilson, “Cross-Eyed” Nath Brauner, a black cowboy by the name of Jim Fowler, and a former slave called Bose Ikard among the men. Ikard’s epitaph was scribed by Goodnight himself upon the death of the loyal cowhand in 1929. It read: “Served with me four years on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order, rode with me in many stampedes, participated in three engagements with Comanches, splendid behavior.” Ikard’s grave can actually still be found in Weatherford, Texas, in the Greenwood Cemetery, close to Loving’s grave. This rough-shod group drove their herd along the Overland Route from Belknap into Upton County through Castle Gap, and then on to the Pecos River which they would follow to Fort Sumner. Goodnight had observed that the east side of the Pecos was “…the most desolate country that I had ever explored.”

The driving crew would leave Butterfield’s road and travel north along the river. Pope’s Crossing, situated just south of New Mexico, was Goodnight and Loving’s choice for fording the Pecos. It had previously been used by those rushing for Gold in California as well as Spanish explorers and was named for Captain John Pope, the leader of an 1854 survey crew. The crossing has since disappeared following the 1936 completion of Red Bluff Dam and Reservoir. If you’re following the route today, take U.S. 285 near the Pecos River and travel to Artesia (once the home of Sallie Chisum, niece of cattleman John S. Chisum.) There you’ll find a gas station on First and Main where stands the 2007 sculpture called “Trail Boss” by Vic Payne. It pays tribute to Goodnight and his legacy in the area.

The Tale of the Goodnight-Loving Trail: Branded in the Mind’s Eye

Photo: Facebook/Graziher

From Artesia, head north to Roswell (yes, that Roswell) and then on to the Fort Sumner Historic Site (located along Route 60), which was also known as the place where Billy the Kid met his end. Goodnight and Loving came here for the fort and reservation, which you can now see preserved at the site as well as the Bosque Redondo Memorial. When they got there, however, government contractors wouldn’t purchase the stock cattle. They paid eight cents per pound for the steers, leaving Goodnight and Loving with seven to eight hundred head of cattle and netted them $12,000. At that point, Goodnight returned to Texas while Loving pushed the cattle on to Denver, Colorado for sale.

The following year, the pair organized a second drive. This time, both the rains and trouble with Indians slowed their journey. Along the Pecos, Loving, together with “One-Armed” Bill Wilson, rode on ahead. Indians attacked and Loving was seriously wounded. He sent Wilson back to the herd (his escape was lauded but still overshadowed by the story of Loving’s final days.) Mexican traders came across Loving and took him to Fort Sumner. On September 25, Oliver Loving died of gangrene. Goodnight drove the cattle north to Trinidad (where the present-day Trinidad History Museum and the A.R. Mitchell Museum of Western Art are great stops) and established a cattle-relay station and ranch approximately 40 miles northeast of the town. In February 1868, Goodnight set out with Loving’s coffin in a wagon, bound for Texas and burial. Haley’s book about Goodnight, he went on to write that it was “…the strangest, and most touching funeral cavalcade in the history of the cow country.”

The Tale of the Goodnight-Loving Trail: Branded in the Mind’s Eye

Photo: Facebook/RanchSeeker

That same year, Goodnight contracted for cattle to be brought from Cheyenne, Wyoming, making the trail even longer, moving from Pueblo to the South Platte River. Haley went on to write that “…By 1870, the trade along the Goodnight and Loving Trail was well established, and the amount of money handled by its Western bankers was noted as enormous.”