<BGSOUND SRC="sounds/gallop.wav"" ALT="" LOOP=1>
A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove (Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography Series) (Hardcover)

The Real Lonesome Dove Story

For many years I knew the story of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry was loosely based on true accounts involving Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, however, I did not know how close the similarities were. It wasn't until I went on a six week business trip to the Dallas/Ft. Worth area in 1997 that I had the opportunity to learn the real story. I did some research and a lot of driving and ended up writing an article about what I had learned.

The following article was published in the May 1999 issue of Trail's End magazine.


Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, first published in 1985, garnered numerous literary awards. Among these awards were a Pulitzer Prize, the Spin Award for Best Western Novel of 1985, the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse Jones Award for Best Fictional Book, and spent 20 weeks on the New York Times best sellers list. The story was originally a script that McMurtry wrote in 1971 for Peter Bogdanovich to direct John Wayne as Call, Jimmy Stewart as Gus, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon.

Like the novel, the mini-series which first aired on 5 February 1989, was another monumental achievement. The mini-series received eighteen Emmy nominations that resulted in seven Emmy awards. It received the D. W. Griffith Award for Best Television Miniseries of 1989, the National Cowboy Hall of Fame 1989 Wrangler Award for the Best Western Television Feature, as well as the Golden Globe Award for best Television Miniseries and Best Actor (Robert Duvall) in a Miniseries.

While the characters in the story Lonesome Dove are uniquely McMurtry, many of their adventures are unquestionably based on varying historical accounts. It is evident that the basic premise of the original Lonesome Dove story by Larry McMurtry is loosely based on true accounts involving Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight.

Oliver Loving (1812-1867) is buried in the City Greenwood Cemetery, Weatherford, Texas. Weatherford is located 30 miles west of Ft. Worth and is the Parker County seat. The Texas Historical Commission sign over Oliver Loving’s headstone calls him "The Dean of Texas Trail Drivers." Loving, the founder of three major cattle trails, came to Texas from Kentucky in 1845, where he farmed, raised cattle and ran a small shipping business. Oliver Loving took a herd through the Indian Nation, eastern Kansas and Northwest Missouri to Illinois in 1858. In 1859 he drove a thousand head of steers to Denver -- the first herd of Texas longhorn cattle to reach Colorado. Oliver Loving did seemingly well during the Civil War by supplying beef to the Confederate Army. However, at the end of the Civil War he had reportedly amassed one-hundred and fifty thousand dollars of worthless Confederate script.

Charles Goodnight (1836-1929) was born in Illinois. At the age of ten young Charles moved to Texas with his mother and stepfather. Early on in his life Goodnight had been a noted plainsman and Indian fighter serving with the local militia, and in 1857 joining the Texas Rangers. During the Civil War, he remained with the Texas Rangers protecting the frontier from Indians, outlaws, and Mexican bandits. Goodnight also participated in the battle that "rescued" Cynthia Ann Parker from the Comanches. Later, he would form a lasting friendship with her Comanche son, Quanah.

It was after the Civil War that Goodnight decided to round up his free roaming cattle and move them out Texas to better markets in New Mexico and Colorado, across an arid and hostile west Texas plain. In 1865, in his first attempt to move his cattle to other markets, Charles Goodnight’s herd was stolen by Indians who stampeded his cattle.

The following year Goodnight met up Oliver Loving. Goodnight was working on a bold plan to move his herd west and south below the main Comanche territory, across the Pecos into New Mexico and then north to Denver. Oliver Loving’s camp was nearby and he asked Goodnight about the plan. The more experienced Loving explained to Goodnight the daunting task he faced. Seeing Goodnight still determined to go forward Loving offered his services. Goodnight replied "I will not only let you, but it is the most desirable thing of my life. I not only need the assistance of your force, but I need your advice." The partnership was a good match, Oliver Loving, the experienced trail driver, and Charles Goodnight the former ranger and Indian fighter who knew west Texas well.

With eighteen men and two-thousand head of cattle they set out on 6 June 1866 to blaze a trail from Belknap, Texas, to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This trail became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight faced many hardships as they crossed 80 waterless miles across the Llano Estacado. During this trip they lost many head that either stampeded over cliffs at the Pecos or became mired in the quicksand banks of the same river. Goodnight said later that the Pecos was "the graveyard of a cowman's hopes -- I hated it!". Even so, this trip was considered a success, earning them more than $12,000.

The events leading up to Lovings’ death brings us to another link in the Lonesome Dove story. In 1867 Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving decided to make a second trip driving cattle to Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. By this time word was out amongst everyone of their plans, increasing the chances of the herd being stolen. As Goodnight found out two years before, Indians as well as outlaws knew that it only took a well-timed stampede to steal a herd. As they trailed up the Pecos the two partners worried that they would not be the first to reach the Army and as a result would not win the lucrative beef contract that was to be let in August.

Charles Goodnight agreed that Oliver Loving should scout ahead, traveling only at night. Goodnight later wrote of Loving, "…one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution…I selected Bill Wilson, the clearest headed man in the outfit as his companion." Loving detested riding at night and felt that it only slowed them down. After three nights Oliver Loving persuaded Wilson to travel during the day. Comanches spotted Loving and Wilson the next afternoon and once the two men were alerted they high tailed it back to the Pecos where they hid in the bank under an overhang. The two white men held off the Comanches into the night. Loving was severely wounded. Bill Wilson later recalled, "The Indians at this time made a desperate charge, and after I had emptied my five-shooting Yarger, I picked up Mr. Loving's gun and continued firing". Loving knew he was seriously wounded and begged Wilson to escape down river and tell his family of his fate. Later in the narrative Wilson stated, "He insisted I take his gun (a Henry rifle according to Charles Goodnight), as it used metallic cartridges and I could carry it through water and not dampen the powder." Wilson gave Loving all the pistols --five- and his six-shooting rifle. Goodnight later wondered how Wilson expected to cross the river with the Henry, as Wilson only had one arm. After some debate about his leaving, Bill Wilson slipped into the river. The one-armed Wilson eventually had to abandon the Henry rifle as it nearly drowned him. He made it past the Indians losing almost everything but his underwear and his hat. A few days later Wilson, delirious and in very poor physical shape, located Charles Goodnight.

While Bill Wilson was making his way back to Goodnight, Loving was able to make it past the Comanches. For two days and nights Loving hid in the gully. On the third day he figured Wilson had been killed. Oliver Loving slipped into the river and went upstream to a crossing where he hoped to find some passerby’s. Here he lay under a tree for two nights, hungry and weak. Some Mexicans with a wagon found him and he hired them to take him to Fort Sumner.

By the time Goodnight found his partner in Ft. Sumner the wounds in Loving’s side had healed but gangrene set in on Lovings wrist. The Post doctor wanted to amputate, but Loving would not let him unless Goodnight was with him. However, after Goodnight’s arrival the doctor at Fort Sumner felt the trauma from the amputation would kill Loving. The doctor kept postponing the surgery for several days while he attempted to "cure" the wound by "other means". Charles Goodnight sent a rider to Santa Fe in search of another doctor. Eventually, however, Goodnight had to physically threaten the doctor in to doing the surgery. Charles Goodnight felt that the delay was due to their being "rebels". The arm was finally removed above the elbow. While Oliver Loving initially seemed to improve, complications developed as a result of the amputation. Oliver Loving died twenty-two days later on 25 September, 1867.

Before Oliver Loving died he asked that Charles Goodnight continue their partnership for two more years in order that his family could get out of debt. He also requested that his body be returned to Texas, he did not want to be buried in a "foreign land." The following year Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving’s son, Joseph, brought a metal casket containing the remains of Oliver Loving 600 miles back to Texas.

The final link connecting Lonesome Dove to the Goodnight-Loving story is also buried in the City Greenwood Cemetery, a black cowboy by the name of Bose Ikard. In 1866 Bose Ikard joined the cattle drive to Colorado led by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving. Ikard became one of Goodnights best cowboys and a trusted friend to both Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.

The marker placed by the Texas Historical Commission identifies the grave of this former slave as a friend of Charles Goodnight. According to the Texas Historical Commission sign Bose lived from 1843 until1929 (note: the date dates on the headstone erected by Charles Goodnight are different). The headstone, which was erected by Charles Goodnight, reads:

"Served with me four years on Goodnight-Loving trail. never shirked a duty or disobeyed an order. rode with me in many stampedes. participated in three engagements with Comanches. splendid behavior." -- C Goodnight

By tying these events together in his novel and adding his own personal touch, it is clear that Larry McMurtry has helped to rekindle the spirit of the Old West. Ten years after the original TV mini-series, interest in the old west continues to grow, as evidenced by the phenomenal growth of Cowboy Action Shooting, and the growing popularity of Old West re-enacting groups.

End of article

Trail Drives of the Old West Randy is a descendant of Oliver Loving