Mary Ann Dyer Goodnight had a mother’s heart, though she had no children of her own.
When she and her husband, pioneer rancher Charles Goodnight, established their home on the newly formed JA Ranch in 1877, she found a land in need of a mother’s touch. She answered the call by caring for the young cowboys, patching their worn clothing and crowding out their loneliness as only a mother could. She ministered to the few impoverished Native Americans who lingered after the Indian wars. And as a witness to one of humanity’s most senseless crimes against nature, she took quick action to preserve an icon of the Plains for the wonderment of generations to come.
A decade earlier, millions of bison—more commonly known as buffalo—still roamed the grasslands that had evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to sustain these hardy animals. But a few short years of hunting on an industrial scale had virtually annihilated a species once believed to be innumerable.
By the time Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight settled in the Texas Panhandle, almost all the native people had been forced to reservations in Oklahoma. Taking their place was a mix of Anglo, Hispanic and Black cowboys. But by all accounts Mary Ann (known to her friends as Molly) bore the isolation as the region’s lone female inhabitant gracefully. The vastness must’ve seemed overwhelming, and the slaughter of the buffalo, so often relegated to footnotes in sugar-coated narratives of pioneer history, was likely an inescapable and disturbing distraction with decomposing carcasses found in all directions.
It’s left to our imaginations to reconstruct Mrs. Goodnight’s thoughts when she first heard the sorrowful bawl of bison calves wandering in the darkness in search of their slain mothers. Perhaps her loneliness played a role in her response, or maybe she simply acted on instinct. What we do know is she urged her husband to do something about it. Within a year of their arrival on the JA, Charles Goodnight brought his wife two orphaned bison calves, which she fed with bottles of milk until they were old enough to fend for themselves. Thus began the famous Goodnight buffalo herd.
Colorado-based sculptor Veryl Goodnight, a relative of Charles Goodnight, clearly identifies Mary Ann Goodnight as the instigator of this conservation effort. She memorialized Mary Ann’s devotion in a bronze sculpture titled Back From The Brink that depicts her bottle feeding the two original calves. A copy of this sculpture can be seen at the Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch State Historic Site at Goodnight.
Other sources corroborate Mary Ann Goodnight’s role in saving the buffalo, including the National Park Service. Once the Goodnight herd became sustainable, three purebred bulls were moved to Yellowstone to supplement a small herd struggling in a shallow gene pool. Today, the Yellowstone bison population is nearing 5,500 animals.
The Goodnights took their buffalo with them after Charles Goodnight left the JA Ranch partnership in 1887 and formed the Goodnight Ranch. In the ensuing years, husband and wife carefully managed the growing herd. Though preserving the species was the ultimate goal, Charles Goodnight continued to be intrigued by the notion that buffalo might have a commercial benefit. He bred some of them with polled Angus cattle to create an odd-looking beast known as a cattalo, but the drawbacks—the mixed progeny were infertile—prevented cattalo from becoming a viable commercial breed at the time.
Both Charles and Mary Ann passed away in the 1920s, and new ranch owners had little interest in maintaining a buffalo herd. According to a 1931 plan, they intended to give some of the animals to zoos and then stage an elaborate buffalo hunt to eliminate the rest. Worse, the press reported that “eastern sportsmen” would be doing the killing.
After a public outcry, fomented in part by Panhandle women affiliated with the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Texas Legislature took action to protect the animals from slaughter, asking locals to find a permanent home for the Goodnight herd. Nothing came of it at first—remnants of the herd continued to pasture on the Goodnight Ranch—but eventually the neighboring JA Ranch took responsibility for the buffalo. In 1996, JA owners Montie Ritchie and Ninia Bivins donated the herd to Texas Parks & Wildlife, which resettled the buffalo at Caprock Canyons State Park the next year as part of the Texas State Bison Herd.
Upon examining the Goodnight buffalo, state officials discovered the animals were genetically distinct from any other bison in North America, a testament to Mary Ann Goodnight’s mothering 145 years ago—efforts which not only rescued the species from oblivion, but ensured the long-term survivability of all American bison through genetic diversity.