Molly Goodnight: Mother of the Plains


Courtesy of the Texas State Historical Society

Molly Goodnight heard the boom of the buffalo hunters’ loud guns and it must’ve sounded like the rattle of doom over the plains. She was a rare female witness to the slaughter of the giant beasts.

In 1878 when the guns finally fell silent, fewer than one hundred buffalo survived in Texas. One day from her home on the J.A. Ranch she heard the pitiful cries of the babies. She found them huddling with their dead mothers and heart ached for them.

Something had to be done. She rode out over the range to find her husband. At first, Charles said to let nature take her course. But Molly couldn’t accept that. She was a very persuasive woman. Before long, they had those babies at the house and she bottle-fed them.

charlesgoodnightMolly was born Mary Ann Dyer in Tennessee in 1839. She was followed by five brothers. When she was fourteen, her parents moved to Texas. She became a schoolteacher and was traveling with an escort of soldiers when Charles Goodnight rode from the brush. He already was a well-respected rancher and fearless Indian fighter. Before long, he was a regular caller.

Charles was drawn to Molly’s grace, intelligence, and smile that lit up her eyes. He courted her for five years before saving up enough money to ask her to marry him. Life wasn’t easy and she lived in dugouts and rough places where she didn’t see another woman for months and months at a time. But she never complained. Where Charles was, that’s where she wanted to be also. Her place was at his side.

Despite the solitude, she loved the wildlife and enjoyed riding over the land and seeing what was there. She studied plants and learned which made the right teas, tonics, salves, and compresses. Keeping her mind occupied was what helped her survive the lonely rigors of life on the desolate prairie.


Replica of their dugout in Palo Duro Canyon

And when they moved to their last home, a ranch in a town named for Charles—Goodnight, Texas—she threw wide the doors to the poor and rich alike. Their castle on the prairie saw a constant flow of the poor and the rich. The home became a center for cultural and social life and Molly saw her dream of opening a college finally realized.


Restored House in Goodnight, Texas

Sadly, they never had any children of their own, but raised several others. Molly died in 1926. Charles followed in 1929 and was laid to rest beside his darling Molly. I love visiting that cemetery. To honor her as much as Charles, visitors tie colorful bandanas to the fence. The sight always puts a lump in my throat and my eyes fill with tears.

Goodnight Graves

Goodnight Graves

Generations of those orphaned baby buffaloes that Molly raised, are still at the Goodnight homestead today. All because of one woman whose gentle heart refused to let them die.

Can you think of anyone else (past or present-man or woman) who played such a huge role in saving animals from extinction?


Molly Goodnight: Mother of the Plains — 10 Comments

  1. What a wonderful article about a wonderful couple. We have some friends up here in Kansas who raise buffalo in the next county, by whete my pig farms were located. One of my feedyards have wild horses from Arizona up to Montana that were save by Actor Ted Turner and the horses, plus buffalo are what’s in the feedyard. Ted then finds good homes (pastureland) for both the horses & buffalo, after they are well fed and healthy again, to live their final days out on. The Bureau of Wildlife Management helps to doctor & get them back in health.

    • Hi Tonya……I’m really glad you enjoyed my post. I love sharing history. How interesting about Ted Turner! I’m really glad he’s doing that. I read something about ten years or so back about his big Montana ranch and his work with saving the buffalo but I figured the new would wear off and he’d grow tired of it and hightail it back to Hollywood or wherever. Glad to know he’s continuing his work.

      Big hugs, sister friend!

  2. I really enjoyed this blog Linda it was very interesting!! I have always thought the buffalo to be such majestic animals. To me they always have such a sad look in their eyes and I wonder could it be because of their near extinction and they literally feel the sadness of their near demise. Yes I am one of those nutz that believe animals feel emotions too

    • Hi Glenda……Thank you for coming! I’m glad you enjoyed my article about Molly. She was an amazing woman and doesn’t get the credit she deserves. Charles Goodnight overshadowed her. Yes, I too, believe animals have emotion. You can look into their eyes and see it. You are not a nut!!

      Love you, lady!

  3. This is a great blog. I was so drawn to Molly when we visited the Goodnight home. She had to be one very special lady. Willie Nelson has always been very active in protecting wild horses and keeping them in their natural habitat. I didn’t know Ted Turner was also an advocate for the wild horses. Such noble animals. They deserve protection. The attempts by the American government to eradicate the Buffalo have left scars that run deep.

    • Hi Jan……Glad you could come, sister! I remember how you were drawn to Molly when we went there. She was truly a wonderful lady. Not many women would’ve lived in dugouts and worse, not seeing another woman for months and months. I heard about Ted Turner running a big herd of buffalo on his Montana ranch quite a while back. I’m glad he and Willie are very active in saving the wild horses. They deserve medals. You’re right about the deep, deep scars where the buffalo are concerned. That was the worst tragedy in American history. Thank God, we do have some herds left today.

      Big, big love, sister!

  4. Great story, Linda. Molly Goodnight sounds like a lady I would have loved to spend time with. There’s a movie scene that gets to me everytime and that’s the field of slaughtered buffalo left behind after they’ve been killed for their hides in the movie Dances with Wolves. The look on the faces of the Sioux warriors always makes me want to cry.

    • Hi Edwina……I’m so happy you could stop by. Thank you. I’m glad you liked reading about Molly. Dances With Wolves is one of my favorite movies and I remember that horrific scene. It always makes me flat angry. I’m sure Molly Goodnight might’ve felt angry and she I’m sure she cried when she found all those babies needing their mothers. So sad. That time was truly one of this country’s most shameful.