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Buffalos, Who Saved Them from Extinction?

Historians estimate that by the late 1700s, somewhere between 30 to 60 million buffalo drifted over the U.S. prairies providing food and clothing for Plains Indian Tribes. A century later, the buffalo was almost extinct. The buffalo’s official name is American bison.

Keeping our buffalo alive and thriving was the collective effort of several factions. A man named James “Scotty” Philip in South Dakota, William Temple Hornaday, a Smithsonian taxidermist, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, and Mary Ann Goodnight of Texas and wife of famed cattleman, Charles Goodnight, helped to save our U.S. National Mammal. 

Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving forged the Goodnight-Loving Trail which ran from Young County, Texas, 88 miles slightly northwest of downtown Ft. Worth, Texas, through Colorado and into Wyoming, first blazed in 1866. The Goodnight-Loving Trail eventually crossed into New Mexico. Cattle drovers from Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado pushed many a cattle herd over all or parts of the Goodnight-Loving Trail. (1)

Charles married Mary Ann “Molly” Dyer, his longtime love who taught school in Weatherford, Texas, on July 26, 1870, in a Kentucky home of relatives. Molly’s parents moved to Belknap, Texas, in 1854. When Molly’s parents died sometime after that, she supported her five brothers as a schoolteacher. Molly was known as the “Mother of the Panhandle” after she married Charles.

Charles Goodnight and John Adair established the JA Ranch on the rim of the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle. Charles and Molly did not have any children. Molly was the only woman on the JA ranch for quite some time. She was doctor, nurse, homemaker, spiritual comforter, sister, and mother to the cowboys who worked for her husband. They called her the “Mother of the Panhandle”. So, it will not surprise us that Molly wholeheartedly joined in the effort to save the buffalo from disappearing forever. (2)

Where Did the Buffalo Go?

Men slaughtered buffalo in extremely high numbers for a few decades in the late 1800s during and after the Civil War. Today, the buffalo is the U.S. National Mammal.

As it was a collective effort to save the buffalo, so it was a collective effort to almost kill them off of the prairie forever. Wars with Indians, guns, railroads, horses, hiders*, sport hunters, commercial hunters, and the U.S. government all worked together over time to destroy the magnificent beast of the plains called the buffalo.

In the late 1800s, buffalo hides sold for $3.00, and a full-length buffalo hide coat sold for $50.00 in Europe. Buffalo leather was used to run pulleys in factories and powered steam engines. (3) When the railroads crisscrossed the American West, buffalo hunting became an easily accessible popular sport. As train cars rolled across the prairies, men would kill the buffalo from their train car windows. Buffalo Bill Cody, famous frontiersman and showman, personally counted his buffalo kill at 4,280.

Outfitted with wranglers, gun loaders, cleaners, skinners, cooks, blacksmiths, guards, and teamsters with horses and wagons formed commercial enterprises that swarmed the prairies in pursuit of the valuable buffalo hide. Hundreds of these teams roamed the prairies. They could easily slaughter 100,000 buffalo a day. In a factory-like process, these teams took the buffalo hides, cleaned them, stacked them, and shipped them to the northeastern U.S. first by wagons, and then by rail. (3)

The U.S. government was eager to force Native Americans off of their homelands and onto reservations. This task fell under the orders of Major-General Phillip Sheridan, who saw the extinction of the buffalo as the end to the Indian Wars on the plains. By the 1860s, 175,000 pioneers had trekked across the plains on their way to a new life. (4) From the time the collective buffalo slaughter began during and after the Civil War, a Smithsonian taxidermist, William Temple Hornaday, estimated there were only 15 million buffalo left in the wild in 1886. (3)

President Ulysses S. Grant also agreed that the extinction of the buffalo would solve the U.S.’s “Indian Problem”. Colonel Richard Irving Dodge told a wealthy sport hunter who had just killed 30 buffalo at one time, “"Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” sometime in the 1860s. (3) The hiders scalped the hides from the dead buffalo and left their carcasses to rot on the prairie floors. The buffalo hunters would steal the buffalo mothers from their babies leaving the calves to bellow in pain for their slaughtered mamas.

Enter “The Mother of the Panhandle”, Molly Goodnight

“At the Medicine Lodge Treaty Council of 1867 [at Medicine Lodge, Kansas], the great Kiowa chief, Satanta, notes, “A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers but when I go up to the river I see a camp of soldiers, and they are cutting my wood down, or killing my buffalo. I don’t like that, and when I see it my heart feels like bursting with sorrow” (6)

Although Charles called his wife by her given name, Mary, everyone else called her Molly. She cared for every living thing on her ranch, human, animal, and bird. Molly and Charles hosted parties for heads of state and hungry cattlemen and entertained Comanche leader Quanah Parker.

In the 1870s, Molly would cringe in dire emotional pain nights as she listened to the bawling buffalo calves crying for their slaughtered mamas. Although the Goodnight’s house was a sprawling Victorian home, the harsh wild of the Texas panhandle was right outside their front door. Molly persuaded her husband to keep some orphaned buffalo calves and raise them.

Charles looked at Molly’s buffalo babies as a business enterprise, and that it would become, but even greater, Molly’s baby buffalos would turn into a legacy that lives on today. But at that time, Molly simply wanted to save those buffalo babies. It is not clear whether Charles brought her orphaned calves or he cut them away from their mothers. Evidence shows that Charles may have only told Molly that he brought her orphaned calves…

From Charles Goodnight Cowman and Plainsman, By J. Evetts Haley, page 438:

“The first time I went out to get buffalo calves [Charles Goodnight wrote], I moved them up a little until three of the calves fell behind. I cut them off and they followed the home and into the corrals. When night came I roped them and put them to their foster mothers, Texas cows. Later I went and cut out two more in the same way. I wanted six, so I went out again and found one about twenty-four hours old. I scared the cow off some distance, [and] put the calf on my horse. The cow returned and attacked me so viciously that I had to kill her to save my horse. I felt badly over it then, and the older I get [Charles Goodnight wrote, sixty-two years later], the worse I feel about having to kill that cow”.

Molly’s buffalo babies eventually became a herd of 200 head. Molly and Charles discovered that buffalo conservation movements were taking place in other regions of the U.S. and Canada and donated some of their buffalos to other buffalo conservation herds to help save the species from extinction. They donated their buffalo to Yellowstone National Park and the New York Zoological Park. Some of their buffalo toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West.

Molly’s bison became known as the JA Herd. Her buffalo herd, one of the last pure species of American bison, roamed throughout the Palo Duro Canyon. Charles, ever the businessman, bred them with cattle, and he called his new breed cattalo.

Cattalo or Beefalo

Today this crossbreed of cattle and buffalo is also called beefalo. Other bison conservationists in the U.S. and Canada were also crossbreeding cattle with bison, but this breed posed a problem. What came out of the two specie’s progeny was a wild and wooly buffalo-like cow that could withstand more drought and cold, survive on shorter grass, and paw off snow to eat grass like horses do. Early cross breeders thought that cattalo could possibly be important to the agra economy of arid and semi-arid regions.

Molly Goodnight’s Legacy

Molly Goodnight died in 1926 and Charles Goodnight in 1929 leaving behind a Texas legend that is highly valued and continually researched to this day. (7,8) The JA Ranch is one of the most famous ranches in American Western Heritage and still in operation and the oldest privately owned ranch in the Texas Panhandle.

After the Goodnights passed away, the JA Ranch passed on to several owners, but stayed in the original owner’s family. John Adair and Charles Goodnight established the JA Ranch, and John married Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie. John died in 1885, and Cornelia became a partner with Charles of the JA Ranch. It is reported that Charles had a better relationship with Cornelia than he did with John. Today, visitors to Charles Goodnight’s grave leave bandanas there in honor of the man known as the father of modern cattle ranching.

Charles eventually sold his interest in the JA Ranch to Cornelia leaving her as the sole owner of 1,035,202 acres of land and 101,023 head of cattle. The JA Ranch continues to operate under the ownership of Cornelia’s descendants. (9) In 1996, the JA Ranch owned one of the last pure breed bison herds in the U.S. The owners of the JA Ranch donated their buffalo herd to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division (today’s Texas Parks and Wildlife Department).

Collective Buffalo Conservation Efforts Saved the Buffalo from Extinction

The owners of the JA Ranch agreed to donate the animals to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division for posterity’s sake. In Caprock Canyon State Park, north of Lubbock, Texas, 15,000 acres give the buffalo there a gracious lifestyle along with the San Angelo State Park near San Angelo, Texas.

William Temple Hornaday was a Smithsonian Institute taxidermist and the founder of the American conservation movement. William went to Montana to collect specimens of buffalo in 1886 because buffalo were assumed to be extinct in a short period of time. William was shocked when he witnessed how few buffalo had survived the great slaughters.

William dedicated the rest of his life to preserving the buffalo upon returning from Montana. Originally, William wanted to display stuffed buffalo, but he brought back some live ones, which became a hugely popular exhibit for the National Museum (today’s Smithsonian Institute). The live buffalo exhibit morphed into the founding of the National Zoological Park of the Smithsonian in 1888. William served as its first director. William ended up as the first director of the Bronx Zoo in 1896 for 30 years.

The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, a few miles northwest of Lawton, Oklahoma, gives a home to buffalos that are direct descendants of bison who were bred at the Bronx Zoo in a bison breeding program and sent to Oklahoma in 1907, Oklahoma’s year of statehood. The Wildlife Conservation Society and President Theodore Roosevelt created the American Bison Society which established the bison breeding programs. James “Scotty” Philip of South Dakota independently followed in Molly and Charles Goodnight’s path, as did a few bison conservationists in Canada.

An estimated 500,000 buffalo call North America home today.

* Hiders were a motely crew performing a highly disrepected job. They killed the buffalo and took their hides, but left the buffalo carcasses to rot. 


  • Spotlight: Native American Buffalo Kill
  • 1923 Post Card from Afton Oklahoma Ranch
  • Modern Buffalo Cow and Calf
  • Pure Breed Buffalo Bulls


  1. T. C. Richardson, “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 10, 2021,
  6. Smits, David. The Frontier Army and The Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865-1883 The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 312-338 p. 321

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