Charles Goodnight and the Great Southern Buffalo Herd

Compiled by Steven Schafersman
2011 August 5

This webpage was created as a result of a mini-debate between Burr Williams and me on his Facebook page on 2011 August 4. I made several claims in a comment in a Facebook posting when Burr wrote that Charles Goodnight was "the fellow that saved the American bison," something I knew was not true. Goodnight's efforts did save one small subpopulation of the American bison--the southern bison herd--and that was due only to his wife's entreaty, not initially to his own interest. I wrote that his wife Molly (Mary Ann) Goodnight, not Charles, deserved credit for saving what was left of the southern North American buffalo population, and that Charles probably killed more buffalo than his wife saved. Burr challenged my claims and asked me to document my sources, and I do so below.

Charles Goodnight was a cattle rancher but also a bison hunter. He and his men killed bison (buffalo). They were ranchers on the Southern Plains and ranchers believed that the buffalo competed with cattle for limited grass forage, so they routinely killed them. I believe that Charles Goodnight's cowboys probably did the same although I can't point to a citation that documents this. Goodnight also killed many of the buffalo he raised in his commercial herd (see below). Charles Goodnight commercially raised the buffalo herd that grew after Molly asked him to save the remaining 10-20 individuals of the southern buffalo herd that still lived on his ranch property in the Texas Panhandle. Burr also wrote later that Goodnight was a scout and buffalo hunter during the Civil War for his mounted Texas Rifleman company, something I did not know about Goodnight's history when I wrote my comments, so it appears he really once was a buffalo hunter early in his career.

"The building of the railroads through Colorado and Kansas split the bison herd in two parts, the southern herd and the northern herd. The last refuge of the southern herd was in the Texas Panhandle." (Adobe Walls: The History and Archaeology of the 1874 Trading Post, Dr. T. Lindsay Baker, Billy R. Harrison, B. Byron Price, TAMU Press, 2001, p. 9). This division of the wild Bison population into northern and southern herds is well known. Buffalo slaughter was most intense along the route of the transcontinental railroad which offered easy shipment of meat and hides to markets, so the vast North American Plains Bison herd became permanently divided into two populations separated by the railroad late in the nineteenth century.


The dark numbers (black on left map, red on second map) indicate the number of individual bison that were still living at that location in 1889. Bison extermination continued at a slower pace until less than 1000 individuals were left in North America. At that point, bison conservation began and commercial bison herds were established on fenced ranches (third map from left). From an estimated 60-70 million bison in the mid-nineteenth century, today there are 350,000-500,000 bison in dozens of captive commercial populations. These are primarily raised for meat and hides, and most contain hybrid genes of cattle with which they have been crossbred. Few purebred bison still exist. The only wild population today is in Yellowstone National Park and this is descended from the Wood Bison subspecies that originally lived solely in Canada, not the Plains Bison subspecies that once occupied the United States. Some state parks contain small herds of buffalo that are used as tourist attractions. (Click on any map to enlarge it.)

The most famous map here (far right) is the American Bison Extermination Map created in 1889 by William Temple Hornaday, chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. See (history) and (map) from which the data to produce the first two maps were taken. The full text of his historical treasure, The Extermination of the American Bison, is available at (also here). Hornaday was appalled at the decimation of this noble American Plains ungulate and he wanted to historically document its deliberate destruction by white European-derived Americans. Only a later public outcry saved the American Bison from the same fate as the American Passenger Pigeon. Also see here for the effort to obtain mounted specimens from the few bison left (apparently no one had thought to do this before).

The Texas State Bison Herd is kept fenced in Caprock Canyons State Park in the Texas Panhandle. These buffalo all descend from the Goodnight herd, the last descendants of the great southern buffalo herd (see below). Several of these contain genes from Longhorn cattle. Goodnight experimented with crossbreeding Longhorns and Bison but the experiment failed and he abandoned the effort after several generations. Genetic studies have been conducted on this herd (see below), and the scientific journal articles that document the genetic studies are available on the web. See

Caprock Canyons State Park, Home of the Official Texas State Bison Herd. Left: The herd of heifers and their calves move
along the ten-foot fence surrounding the pen. Right: Several bulls graze in the bull pen.

Molly Goodnight . . . The Darling of the Plains [excerpt]

Texas U.S. Senator John Cornyn
Winkler Post
July 29, 2011

Molly [Goodnight] also extended her compassion to orphaned buffalo calves who were left to die after commercial hunters killed their mothers on the range. By rescuing the orphaned buffalo and bottle–feeding them, Molly established an impressive buffalo herd, soon known around the world as the Goodnight Herd. Many credit her efforts with helping to prevent the extinction of the southern buffalo.

Last Free-Roaming Buffalo Herd In Texas Now Behind Stout Fence [May 27, 1999] [excerpts]

The last free-roaming buffalo of the Great Southern Herd have been penned.

About 1878, Charles Goodnight's wife encouraged him to preserve some of the remaining buffalo in the Panhandle.

Goodnight was also in the buffalo meat business. He usually slaughtered the animals around Christmas and shipped them as far as Arizona, Oklahoma and Kansas. He sold hides, skulls and trophies.

Goodnight's was one of five foundation herds in the United States that preserved the species from extinction.

"At that time, in order to determine just how significant this herd was, we sampled five animals by darting them," Swepston says. "We drew blood and took hair samples."

These were submitted to a researcher at the Texas A&M veterinary school who had worked with buffalo genetics. He found through [mitochondrial] DNA work that two of the animals still contained traces of cattle left over from Goodnight's experiments. Three of the animals were considered pure buffalo, and they were found to be unique.

"We now know that this herd is like no other in the world," Swepston continues. "It's the last truly pure wild buffalo herd of the great southern herd."

The Bison 

by Steven Schafersman, 2003

[Extract from an essay I wrote in 2003 about the animals of the Great Plains for the Sibley Nature Center, never published]

Before human settlement, Bison were once found as far east as the Appalachians, but the few numbers here and on the tallgrass prairie quickly disappeared with the onslaught of settlers. The true home of the buffalo is the Great Plains, the midgrass and shortgrass prairies. Accounts of the enormous numbers of Bison are well-founded: 200,000-500,000-1 million individuals in a single herd. Most herds were smaller: several tens of thousands of Bison in a herd was more typical, the larger herds forming during seasonal movements. Bison had to move around the prairie, since their enormous numbers in concentrated herds soon consumed the available forage. The animals’ grazing, trampling, and habit of creating wallows (bare areas in which the buffalo liked to roll, accumulating a thick coating of dust on their fur to discourage parasites), greatly modified the landscape wherever they traveled. Other animals took advantage of this: prairie dogs liked to live in areas evacuated by the bison, since the grass is short and increase visibility; later, pronghorns ate the shrubs that became established in the grazed areas.

Bison played an important role in American history because it formed the base of subsistence for the Plains Indians. At first hunter-gathers, then primarily farmers, the Plains Indians consumed few buffalo until the horse was re-introduced by the Spanish. (Actually re-introduced, because the horse evolved in North America, spread across the Bering Land Bridge to Eurasia, became extinct in North America, then was re-introduced in North America during Spanish colonization.) By the early 1700’s, the Indians were making more use of the horse, following the herds and having an easier time hunting the buffalo. In a relatively short time, the Plains Indians became completely dependent on the Bison; it provided them with everything: food, clothing, and shelter. Native-American predation on the Bison did not depopulate the herds. To the contrary, the relationship quickly established a new and stable ecosystem that amazingly led to thriving of the buffalo. The Indians depended on the Bison, the Bison depended on the grass, and the grass depended on fire. Indians set prairie fires more frequently than could occur naturally, and the abundant fresh growths of new short, green grass attracted the buffalo, allowing them to be taken more easily, but also sustaining them and allowing population size to remain constant.

This cycle perpetuated itself for over a century until white settlers moved onto the plains. Their cattle cropped the grass more closely, so there was less food for fire or consumption. Fires threatened settlements, so the settlers controlled them. They cleared large areas for agriculture, creating effective firebreaks. They fenced the land. They subdued the Plains Indians and confined them to reservations. And most notoriously, the white man deliberately and systematically exterminated the Bison. Buffalo were easy to eliminate using modern weapons. They were large and formed large herds, making them easy to find and shoot. Once the onslaught started, their low reproductive rate made it impossible for the populations to keep up with the losses. The reason for the extermination by the European-Americans was non-regulated over-hunting, of course, but even more was the official vicious federal government policy of deliberately killing the Bison to deprive the Native-Americans of their food source, thus making it possible to subdue them more easily.

The maximum number of Bison on the North American Prairie before 1870 has been authoritatively calculated—using historical and scientific methods—to be between 60 and 70 million. This number fluctuated, of course, because especially bad winters and long years of drought would kill buffalo by the millions, due to lack of winter or summer feed. By 1880, this number had shrunk to less than 1,000. Yes, that is less than one thousand individual Bison remaining in all of North America, that is, in the world. The entire southern herd of Bison had been reduced to less than twenty individuals—they had almost all been exterminated. The thousand or so remaining bison were found in Montana and Canada; these included both the Plains and Wood Bison subspecies. Were it not for the efforts of the very earliest conservationists, the species would certainly have become extinct (as happened to another social species of animal whose population survival structure required that it live in huge concentrations, the Passenger Pigeon). This surreal history of buffalo existence and its decimation is treated in the 1887 report of the U. S. National Museum, The Extermination of the American Bison by naturalist W. T. Hornaday. Present populations of Bison, which exist primarily in national parks, nature preserves, and buffalo ranches, is about 65,000 [the number is larger today in 2011], a stable number for this noble mammal, once the mighty King of the Plains, but now an object mostly of tourist curiosity.

Bison played an important role in the ecology of the Plains that cannot be replaced with the introduction of cattle. Cattle are grazers similar to Bison, but are more selective and less efficient in their feeding. Cattle must eat more forage to produce the same amount of flesh. Cattle herds, even those on open range, were not able to roam as completely as the Bison, and later cattle were fenced. Bison carcasses returned nutrients to the prairie soil. The prairie will never be the same as it once was without the multitudinous Bison migrating freely across the endless prairie grasslands.

Compiled by Steven Schafersman
Last updated: 2011 August 9