The Colonel, the Calf Wagon and the Chuckwagon

I’ve heard it said that you learn something new every day … and today was certainly one of them.  To my surprise, when I was reviewing my research for today’s blog, I discovered something new … the chuckwagon wasn’t named for its inventor, Colonel Charles Goodnight!

Colonel Goodnight was the first permanent rancher in the Texas Panhandle. Although he wasn’t a native Texan, he got here as quick as he could. At the age of nine, Charlie traveled with his family 800 miles from his home in Illinois to Waco, Texas, riding bareback on a mare called Blaze. As a youth he was a fairly good horse jockey, bull whacker, rail splitter and herded cattle.  He served during the Civil War and was a Scout and Guide with the infamous Texas Rangers. After the war, he devoted his career almost exclusively to cattle. 

At the age of thirty, he blazed his first famous cattle trail … the Goodnight-Loving Trail. He was one of the first cattlemen who recognized that the same head worth $4.00 in the Texas Panhandle was worth ten times that in the markets farther north.  Goodnight also was the first to recognize that calves born on the trail were money at the end of the drive…but only if they survived and gained weight. The early practice was to kill calves because they could not keep up with the herd on their own.  Cattleman Goodnight resolved that issue by contracting to have special wagons made that held 30 to 40 calves.  Any calves born on the trail werepicked up by the drovers and put on the “calf wagon” for the day’s drive.  When nightfall came, the calves were turned out with their mothers to nurse.

Goodnight soon discovered he had another problem on his hands. A cow knows her own calf by its smell and The Colonel found that when he put different calves together in the “calf wagon” during the day, their scents mixed. Thus, they were rejected by their mamas and would eventually starve to death. He then ordered his drovers to place each calf in its own separate sack, leaving the calf’s head out and tying the sack around its neck. The sacks were numbered so that the same calf went into the same sack each morning after being with its mother at night. The calves rode safely in the calf wagon during the day and spend the night with their mamas. The calves arrived at market healthy and in good shape. That meant increased profits at the end of the drive. I can only imagine what his cattle drives looked like. 

Cattle typically follow a lead steer and for many of his drives, Goodnight’s lead steer was “Old Blue”. According to legend, this famous steer helped lead a thousand head 250 miles up to Dodge City. That accomplished, Old Blue then turned around and trotted back home with the cowboys.

Known as the “Pulse of the Panhandle,” Goodnight helped organize the Panhandle Stock Association of Texas to fight rustling.   In the 1870’s when it became apparent that the hide hunters would eventually exterminate the buffalo, with the encouragement of his wife, he started his own herd of domestic buffalo.  When buffalo products became exceedingly scarce such things as hides, robes, mounted heads and horns became a hot commodity. Buffalo meat was a high-priced luxury.

As time went on, friends began to comment that Goodnight with his mop of shaggy hair over bright dark eyes topped a massive, strong body, which with age, showed a hump rounding his shoulders … became increasing likened to his beloved buffalo.  You can decide for yourself from the undoctored, certainly not Photoshopped, picture of Goodnight and a buffalo. He attracted international attention with his breed of “cattalo”, a crossbreed with a buffalo bull and Angus heifer. They could handle the high altitude and sever winters of a buffalo and resulted in a meatier animal.  For me personally, a hundred and fifty years later, I’d say they had a buffalo body with the face and horns of a longhorn.

Up to this point, I could have written most of this with very little research. I was born and raised in the Texas Panhandle, so I’ve spent all of my life knowing about Goodnight and his innovative ways of ranching. I’ve visited the town named after him. My upcoming novella in “Give Me a Texas Outlaw” is set in his dugout in Palo Duro Canyon, and I’ve visited his grave many times.  But, the one thing he created that I presumed was named from him … the chuckwagon, wasn’t!

Prior to the chuckwagon, Cowboys often relied on eating what they carried in their saddle bags such as dried beef, corn fitters or biscuits. It didn’t take Goodnight long to discover that a well-fed cowboy is a happy one. 

Traveling the trail everyday carrying minimal baggage in hot, uncomfortable weather was tough on a cowboy.  In 1866, Charles saw his opportunity and began on his new invention – the chuckwagon.  He basically redesigned a Studebaker wagon to fit a cowboy’s needs.  The Studebaker was a tough Army surplus wagon that could last months of hard driving on the trails.  Goodnight designed his very own chuck box, containing a number of shelves and drawers.  He fitted this to the back of the wagon and it served to keep the cook’s things in order.  The box had a hinged lid, and when the cook (nicknamed “cookie”) shut it, he would have a perfect surface to fix meals on.  A water barrel holding a two days’ water supply was also attached to the wagon alongside a row of hooks, boxes, brackets, and a coffee grinder.  Goodnight also hung hammock-style canvas under the wagon to carry wood and kindling, which was scarce on the prairies.  An additional wagon box was used to carry the cowboys’ bedrolls, personal items, and food supplies.  Goodnight’s genius invention is used in cattle drives to this day. By 1880, Studebaker had created a model called the “Round – Up” wagon.

The chuckwagon was equipped with all kinds of supplies needed along the trail.  We typically think of a chuckwagon being used for food and cooking gear, but the supplies would also include ferrier and blacksmith tools for horseshoeing or making repairs to the wagon and horse tack. Sewing needles for mending clothing or saddles, first aid and alcohol tonics used for medicinal purposes. Bedrolls and rain slickers for the drovers. One side was equipped with a large wooden barrel to carry a two day supply of water. The other side often had a tool box, as well a smaller attached wooden box in front called the jockey box. Additionally, the wagon would have a canvas cover called a bonnet that had been treated in linseed oil to repel rain keeping items in the wagon dry. To allow headroom in the wagon, bows where added raising the canvas and providing securing points.

Now you know why I figured the chuckwagon was named for Chuck Goodnight, although I have to admit I’ve heard him called “The Colonel”, Charles, and Charlie, but never Chuck.

To my surprise, the name chuckwagon wasn’t derived from Goodnight’s given name, but came from 17th Century England as meat merchants who referred to their lower priced goods as “Chuck”. By the 18th Century, the term “chuck” was communicated towards good hearty food. It is of no wonder to take the name chuck for Goodnight’s simple creativity that revolutionized the cattle industry. I’m presuming here but figure that’s where a Chuck Roast and Ground Chuck got its name.

I couldn’t talk about Charles Goodnight without showing you all a picture of his gravesite as it is today.  Some of my writer friends, and my coauthors, never miss an opportunity to visit his grave when we’re near it. The Goodnight Cemetery is on the edge of the Caprock about five miles off the beaten track. It overlooks what was his land and it’s truly one of the most beautiful sights one could imagine.  You’d really have to know what you’re looking for to find it. 

On a visit about two years ago, we discovered that there were bandanas tied all over the fence surrounding his grave.  All kinds, some we could recognize by the markings; commemorative bandanas and organizations, but most were just plain everyday bandanas like those worn by cowboys for centuries, so those who have gone there to tie a bandana to honor the “Father of the Texas Panhandle” didn’t drop in by accident. I’ve tried to research how the practice got started, but could find little about who started it, but thank them.

Do you have any traditions that you’ve observed, but don’t know its origin?  I’d love to have you share them with everyone.  When the day is done, I’ll pick a reader to receive a copy of our latest anthology, “Give Me a Texas Ranger”.

 Give Me A Texas Ranger

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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35 thoughts on “The Colonel, the Calf Wagon and the Chuckwagon”

  1. What a interesting post,at first when I saw that picture,I thought someone had hung laundry there!too funny

  2. Phyliss, what an interesting blog! I knew very little about the calf wagon so that part fascinated me. I’ve never read a trail drive story where the author used that bit of information. Sure makes sense though. They had to do something with the calves born along the way and like you said they were money in the owner’s pocket.

    Charles Goodnight was an amazing, forward thinker. I loved visiting his grave with you and Jodi. I got a lump in my throat seeing the bandanas. I think it’s a great way to honor a great man.

    Wishing you luck with your Christmas story!

  3. Phyliss,

    I wrote you a long response to this wonderful blog and when I pushed submit, it went away. ARGGG!!! Anyhow, loved the post–as always, it was informative and interesting and I learned things I didn’t know before. Here at Ft. Sill, OK, where Geronimo is buried, they leave all kinds of things on his grave–money, cigarettes, sage, etc. At the site of the Murrah Bombing, people bring stuffed animals and leave those and other things on the fence there.

    Good luck with your Christmas story–I’m sure it is wonderful!


  4. Vickie, thanks for dropping by so early. I’ve seen pictures that looked like the cowpokes had clothes hanging on lines beside the chuck wagon, but I bet is was the pioneers. I’m think’ the cowboys probably washed clothes (when they did) and hung them on a bush to dry. That’s the way I’ve always visualized what I’ve read. Have a great day.

  5. Good to hear from you today, Linda. Has all of your “company” gone? Been thinkin’ about you. I had a fantastic picture of Goodnight’s grave with you and Jodi in it, but it was windy (duh, we’re in the Panhandle and it’s on top of a butt) and I know personally I would kill you dead away if you posted a picture with my hair going every which way but loose!!! It was a really cute picture though. I have to agree that the cemetery will absolutely take your breath away, not because it’s so well groomed with pretty flowers around because it isn’t … it’s our prairie at its finest. Have a great day. Hugs, P

  6. Hi Cheryl, doesn’t that just make you crazy? The very first blog I posted here by myself, I warted around, bothered everyone and then got it finished. I was so proud of myself and I was all prepared to hit publish until that cute little “red” trash key caught my eye and I hit it before I even thought about it. Well, it was good experience! I try never, never to look at it again.

    I’ve not spent any time in Fort Sill, but understand it is a wonderful place to visit. You make me want to go even more. I’ve visited the Murrah site many times. If I hadn’t been up in North Carolina having my first grandbaby, I would have been right there at for a convention. As a matter of fact, my boss and a coworker helped get people out of the building. I’m so thankful for not being there and for Emma, too.

    Some of us are wanting to get a group together to go back to Mobeetie (the oldest town in the Panhandle) and Fort Sill would be a great extension of the trip; however, it’d be like driving round trip between Amarillo and OKC in one day, so we’d have to break it up a little bit. Thanks for the good wishes on my novella. Gotta get back to work. Hugs, P

  7. Thank you for the wonderful trip back in time. Charles Goodnight was truly a symbol of the pioneer spirit, the kind of spirit that drives mankind to overcome the most difficult situations.

  8. Phyliss, you say you knew almost all of this already? I’ve read about Charles Goodnight many times and almost ALL of this is news to me. I guess I’ve read about the Goodnight Loving Trail more than the man. I love this.

    He domesticated buffalo? How did that work? Aren’t they pretty mean?

    You need to write another blog on this.

    Or I suppose I could go look it up myself. 🙂 Thanks for a great post.

  9. Very interesting, Phyliss. I love the Amarillo pageant which focuses on Charles Goodnight settling in the panhandle. I never knew that about calves & their mamas & learning about the chuckwagon was an interesting tidbit. Thanks for wonderful research as usual.

  10. always you never seem to amaze me with your writings and research that makes it a joy to be enlightened by facts. I loved this article!
    I never knew about the calves and the chuck wagon!

  11. Janet, although I’d read the story about the mama and their her calf before and did a lot of research on artificial mavericks and the things they’d do to separate the mama and her calf for “Give Me a Cowboy”, I learned more than all of it put together on a show Linda put me onto last season. “Great American Cowboy” (I think) and in one of the episodes they showed how a rancher handles a lactating mama who lost her calf (froze to death, I think) and get her to accept an orphan calf. It was very interesting. They actually take the hide from the dead calf and tie it onto the orphan to fool the mama into thinkin’ it is her calf, so she’ll let him nurse. It was really interesting. Thanks for dropping by. Hugs, P

  12. Hi Craig and Vicky, thanks for dropping by. I love to research the men and women who made us what we are today. I just love research, and typically don’t know when enough is enough. My first book (under the bed where it’ll stay), I thought I had to use every tidbit I learned. I wrote two books (contemporary) and I believe each was somewhere around 800 pages! Yep, one romance and one storyline over two decades. Hum, no wonder it’s holding up my bedsprings. Thanks for coming by. Hugs, P

  13. This was a very interesting post!! I was interested in the chuckwagon for the cook. One of my favorite television series was Rawhide which usually always showed Wishbone and his chuckwagon form cooking.

  14. Phyliss,
    Thank you for a hugely interesting post. Not being a Texan, I knew little of Mr. Goodnight although I have heard of him (probably here). I hadn’t realized that cross breeding with buffalo had been tried so long ago. In the 1960’s, a big deal was made about a “new” program experimenting with such cross breeding to develop the beefalo. Do you know if anyone else out west continued the practice after Goodnight? I did know the origin of the chuck wagon name. Hadn’t thought about the chuck roast and ground chuck connection, but it is very possible.
    I now have another place to visit when we get back to Texas. I’ll be looking for GIVE ME A TEXAS OUTLAW. No need to enter me in the drawing. I already have GIVE ME A TEXAS RANGER and enjoyed it.

  15. FABULOUS blog, Phyliss. I knew who Charles Goodnight was, but had no idea about the innovations he made in ranching and cattle driving. What a man!
    P.S., I’d love to know what’s in that 800-page manuscript under your bed. Maybe you could divide it into a series.

  16. Great post. I learned things about Charles Goodnight that I didn’t know. My daughter was on two horse drives and one long ride this last summer where she was a cook on a chuckwagon. Although this wasn’t a Studebaker ranch wagon, it was the modern one. Propane gas for the stoves and a regular horse trailer converted into a kitchen. Very innovative. She will return this next summer and do it all over again–Spring drive and Fall drive, plus a ride to Bodie. Some old cowboys still call food “chuck”. Our old cowboys are dying off, but we all have the memories.

  17. Thanks, Mary. You’re too funny … the key word is “almost” could have written the blog. LOL I think you probably hit the nail on the head about most people knowing Goodnight as a bigger than life figure, instead of as the man he was. We have a lot of historians in this area (like most areas of the country), so there’s a lot written about him. Now how much is fact and how much is fiction, I’m not sure, but one thing certain, most people don’t realize that this part of Texas was only settled about 130 years ago, so much of our history wasn’t all that long ago … when you’re my age, I guess! I probably erroneously used the word domesticated the buffalo because I’m sure they didn’t come eat out of his hand, but he kept them breeding and fenced in. One of the best sights I’ve ever seen was not too many months ago when we were coming back from Red River and up around Springer, NM, there was a pretty good herd of buffalo of all sizes in a pasture right up against the road (fenced in, of course). It was awesome, and to think if Goodnight hadn’t had the forethought that they’d become distinct, they wouldn’t be here today or at least not grazing in open range. Another thing of interest about the Colonel, he was one of the first ranchers to figure out exactly how many cattle he could put on a specific acreage of land, so as not to overgraze it, while making sure his cattle were fat and happy. Thanks for the idea about a part two to my blog. Might just do that. Hugs, P

  18. Hi Goldie, I loved Rawhide, too. And, such sexy cowboys … wow. Jodi, thanks for stopping by. I learned a lot of this from you. Oh, Patricia, there’s a ton of things to see in this part of Texas, if you make it out this way. I’m not sure how much crossbreeding with buffalo and cattle is done today. One of our big steakhouses, the famous “Big Texan” serves buffalo (and rattlesnake, too). Got to admit, I haven’t tried either of them. Now, do you think Goodnight looked like his beloved buffalo? Hugs, P

  19. Oh Elizabeth, you don’t want to know what I have in those 800 pages … a whole bunch of purple prose, for sure. I only wish I knew then what I know now about writing, so those pages would be more than a big bone pile of words. But then some day they might be the skeleton I need for a book. “Beneath the Texas Sky”, which was Jodi Thomas’ “under the bed” book, is being reissued for the third time. The cover is absolutely gorgeous. She kept it under the bed until one day her editor said “gotta have something … NOW” and now it’s being rereleased. Even at that, I still doubt mine will see the light of day. LOL

  20. That was all very fascinating. I really had never heard about him (being a Yankee from up North lol). He sounded like quite an innovative fellow. I love the part about the calves and how he came up with the individual bags.

  21. That was a very interesting post… I did not know alot of that info… I love the little history lessons I get by coming here to visit… 😀
    As for traditions, I can not think of any at the moment… Thanks for sharing!

  22. Mary Jo, what an interesting story about your daughters. I know absolutely nothing about a horse drive, but do horses spread out (kinda like the buffalo did) or do they trail out like cattle? I’ve read accounts that the buffalo herds were something like ten or more miles wide and that many again over long. I can only imagine. Also, I checked for myself a minute ago, and there are something like 200K buffalo on preserves and ranches today. Thanks for your comment. I bet it was interesting for your daughter to be “cookie” on the drive. Hugs, P

  23. HI Phyliss, what a terrific post. I’m a Texas fan for real now since my visit last spring, and this info is just fantastic. I knew Goodnight had started breeding longhorn with other domestic cattle to improve the meat but had no idea of his buffalo efforts. What a scourge on our history that slaughter is. How I appreciate his love for those grand beasts.

    The bagging of the baby calves just evokes incredible images in my mind.

    Thanks for the wonderful information. And just so you know, I totally LOVE Give me a Texas Ranger. All the stories are keepers. oxoxo

  24. That is so interesting, Phyllis. I thought I knew who Charles Goodnight was, but I hadn’t heard half of that. The photo of the gravesite was so touching – to think that he still commands so much respect today. Your post also made me wonder what his wife was like.
    No need to enter me in the drawing, as I have your book in my TBR stack.

  25. Mina and Colleen, thanks for your comments. I’m glad I gave you some insight to Col. Goodnight. Have a great day.

    Judy, I’m so happy the emotion of the bandanas around Goodnight’s grave come through on the picture. I wasn’t kidding about it being a little piece of Heaven, up so high and overlooking his land. Thanks for dropping by. Let us know what you think about “Texas Ranger” when you’re finished. She really enjoyed writing it, and one of the goals I personally had was not to write a story where the hero was a Texas Ranger, but a story about a Texas Ranger who fell in love. Let me know if I go near my goal. Hugs, P

  26. Phyllis . . . What a great post! I knew a lot about Goodnight (wasn’t the film Red River inspired byGoodnight?) but I’d never heard about the calves.

  27. Thanks Tanya. I’m so glad you like Texas Ranger. We really enjoyed writing it. Tracy, I think he does look like the buffalo, too. This pix has been around long before photoshop, etc., so I know it wasn’t retouched (very much LOL). Thanks, Pat. Dang, not sure about Red River story, but it sounds like a possibility. I’ll check it out and might well do a second installment about Goodnight next blog spot. There was so much I didn’t have time or space to write about. He was certainly a colorful figure. Hugs to you all, P

  28. What an interesyting post. Surprisingly I had heard about the calf wagons before but did not know the origin. Funny but the movies never seem to show the calves on a cattle drive. I wonder why?

  29. Hi Connie, I didn’t know about the calf wagons until I began writing a few years back and did a lot of research. I’m going to presume that to be historically accurate in movies there would be no calves along, since they killed them in order to keep the drive moving along. I’m bettin’ that a calf wagon in a movie would lose some of the western flair, but sure could be a funny scene. I’m thinkin’ about one now, if I ever wrote about a trail drive (ain’t gonna happen) but what if the heroine for whatever reason had to be hidden in the calf wagon on the drive? Probably been done…about everything has been. Thanks for dropping by. Hugs, P

  30. Hi Harvey, what a nice surprise to see you. Now tell me something I wrote about you didn’t already know … ’cause you’re one smart cookie…I mean writer, not cook. Hugs, P

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