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The Tiny Woman Who Saved the Buffalo

During the buffalo slaughter, a tiny frontier woman sheltered buffalo calves and saved the breed.

Mary Ann Dyer (known as Molly) was born in Tennessee. However, her lawyer father moved the family to Fort Belknap, Texas in 1854, when Molly was 14. Both her parents died shortly after the move and young Molly assumed responsibility for the care of her five brothers, teaching school to provide support. Molly was tiny—a mere five feet tall— but she proved to be tough, dedicated, and ready to take on a challenge.

Molly met cattleman Charles Goodnight at Fort Belknap about 1864  and shortly thereafter moved to Weatherford, Texas to teach school. In July of 1870, she married Charles Goodnight, who was already building a strong reputation as a cattleman. He was the only person who called her Mary rather than by her nickname, Molly.

The newlyweds settled down to ranching on the spread Goodnight had already established near Pueblo, Colorado. Drought conditions and the Panic of 1873 provided the impetus for them to move back to Texas, which Molly thought more civilized than Colorado.

In 1877, Goodnight formed a partnership with Scots-Irishman John George Adair, who participating in a Kansas buffalo hunt, became so enamored with the West, he moved his brokerage business from New York to Denver. In 1877, hearing Goodnight’s glowing description of Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle as an ideal site for a ranch, Adair agreed to finance a ranch there, ultimately agreeing to hold two-thirds ownership himself and give one-third ownership to Goodnight. Goodnight suggested using Adair’s initials to name the Palo Duro Canyon ranch the JA. Flattered, Adair agreed.

Adair and his wife, Cornelia, the Goodnights, Molly’s brother Albert Dyer, and several cowhands, moved 100 top Durham bulls to the new JA ranch, along with four wagons filled with six months worth of provisions and equipment. Molly drove one of the wagons while Cornelia Adair traveled on horseback. A previously built two-room cabin housed the couples in the canyon. After a brief visit, the Adairs returned home, leaving Goodnight to manage the ranch.

Steep rock cliffs lined the canyon edges plunging 1500 feet down to the floor below. Red with sandstone, the faces of the cliffs looked like swirling Spanish skirts. Grass was dense. Creeks bubbled through the canyon, which stretched for almost 100 miles and was 10 miles wide. It was a paradise for cattle, but it offered a lonely life to a woman.The nearest neighbors were 75 miles away. Molly’s days centered around the chores of the ranch. At one point she made pets of three chickens she’d been given for Sunday dinner. Her social interactions included hosting parties for the cowhands, teaching them to read, and occasionally entertaining curious Indians. She rode the floor of the canyon on a two-horned side saddle designed for her by Goodnight.

In 1887, after building a  luxurious 2900 square foot, two-story home, less than a mile from the rim of the canyon, Molly and Goodnight opened their doors to occasional guests including heads of state, other cattle barons, and  Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs.

The ranch prospered, but on the flat prairie stretching in all directions from the canyon edges,  buffalo slaughter went on at a frantic pace while Molly lay in bed listening to the cries of orphaned bison calves. From vast herds of Southern Plains buffalo numbering in the tens of millions, the slaughter ultimately reduced the number of buffalo to an estimated 300 animals. The killing was a government policy designed to force the Indians—who were dependent upon them—into reservations and to meet demand for buffalo tongues, hides, and bones.

In 1878, Molly convinced Goodnight to start a buffalo herd to try to save the breed. He gathered seven buffalo calves and placed them on Texas cows for feeding. While the Goodnights were growing their buffalo herd, Goodnight also tried cross breeding buffalo and cattle to create “cattalo.” The cattalo breeding experiment was in Goodnight’s opinion successful. He is quoted, when comparing cattalo to beef, “They (cattalo) are immune from all diseases as far as I have tested them. They are much greater in weight, eat much less and hold their flesh better under adverse conditions. They have a better meat, clear of fiber, and it never gets tough like beef. They have long and deep backs, enabling them, to cut at least 150 pounds more meat than other cattle. More of them can be grazed on a given area. They do not run from heel flies nor drift in storms, but like the buffalo, face the blizzards. They rise on their fore feet instead of their hind feet. This enables them to rise when in a weakened condition. They never lie down with their backs downhill, so they are able to rise quickly and easily. This habit is reversed in cattle.”

The Goodnights’ breeding of a herd composed of the last of the pure buffalo was successful, and the couple donated or sold part of the herd to help save the species. Some of their buffalo went to start the Yellowstone National Park buffalo herd, to the New York Zoo, and to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The legacy of these bison lives on.

After 10 years ranching in the canyon, Goodnight took his one third interest in the ranch, and ended the Adair partnership.The remainder of the JA Ranch reverted to John Adair’s widow and heirs who continue to manage it today, and have donated the ranch’s Southern Plains bison herd to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division. The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma hosts bison that are direct descendants of Goodnight’s bison from the NewYork/Bronx Zoo breeding program. Today there are about 500,000 bison in North America.

As a footnote to the Cattalo breeding efforts. Although there have continued to be some small successes, it seems infertility keeps the Cattalo population quite small. Back to the Goodnights . . . After the sale of their portion of the JA ranch, The Goodnight’s moved to Armstrong County, Texas. Molly, known as “The Mother of the Panhandle” died in 1926. Charles Goodnight, died in 1929.

Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight—known as Molly—was a strong woman determined to save the buffalo from extinction. With the expert help of her husband, the legendary cattleman, Charles Goodnight, she succeeded. This has been Laurie Moore-Moore with Texas Brave and Strong—Tidbits of Texas History you didn’t learn in School. Ya’ll come back.