Oliver Loving's Last Ride
Loving was . . . one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution.
Oliver Loving is the Dean of Texas Trail Drivers. His partner, Charles Goodnight, is better known, but Loving was one of the first men to trail cattle to northern markets when in 1858 he took a herd to Illinois. In an elegy for his friend and partner, Goodnight claimed, “Oliver Loving . . . is undoubtedly the first man who ever trailed cattle from Texas.” That’s high praise. But whether Goodnight knew it or not, Loving wasn’t the first man to trail cattle from Texas. Twelve years earlier, in 1846, in the first documented cattle drive, Edward Piper took a thousand head to Ohio, going up what would later be called the Shawnee Trail. But that doesn’t diminish Loving’s reputation as an intrepid cattleman, as short-lived as it was.
Loving’s time raising and herding only lasted about a decade, and not all that time was devoted to the cattle business. Born in 1812 in Kentucky, Loving migrated to Texas in 1843. By 1855 he had settled in what would become Palo Pinto County, where he ran a store and ranched on the side. But in 1866 he heard about the need for beef in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where eight thousand Indians had recently been ensconced on a reservation. He gathered a herd and along with Goodnight set out on June 6 to trail their cattle over what famously became known as the Goodnight-Loving Trail.
The most direct route from Loving’s north central Texas ranch to Fort Sumner was due west across the Llano Estacado—the heart of the Comanche kingdom. However, Comancheria was a no man’s land; water was chancy and miles apart, and no man, white or black, wanted to cross it with a slow moving herd of longhorn cattle. Instead, Loving and Goodnight took their herd southwest until they met up with the Butterfield Stagecoach line. They followed that route until it intersected with the Pecos River, which they shadowed northward into New Mexico. The route was longer but safer.
From that first drive in 1866, Loving and Goodnight trailed thousands of longhorns up the Goodnight-Loving Trail for markets in Fort Sumner and Denver. A year later, on their third drive, Loving and another cowman, W. J. “Bill” Wilson, were attacked by Comanches. Loving was wounded in the melee and later lost his life. The exploits of Loving and Wilson, before the former’s death, as well as the events after Loving’s death, are the stuff of legend and formed the heart of the concluding chapters in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove.
What follows is the story of Loving and Wilson, told by Wilson and Goodnight. Except for the first few paragraphs, which serve as sort of prologue, I’ve consolidated both accounts into one, as if Wilson were tell the whole story. I’ve placed Goodnight’s words in italics.
In 1867 we started [a] herd west over the [Goodnight-Loving] trail and struck the Pecos the latter part of June. After we had gone up this river about one hundred miles it was decided that Mr. Loving should go ahead on horseback in order to reach New Mexico and Colorado in time to bid on the contracts which were to be let in July, to use the cattle we then had on trail, for we knew that there were no other cattle in the west to take their place.
Loving was a man of religious instincts and one of the coolest and bravest men I have ever known, but devoid of caution. Since the journey was to be made with a one-man escort I selected Bill Wilson, the clearest headed man in the outfit, as his companion.
Knowing the dangers of traveling through an Indian infested country I endeavored to impress on these men the fact that only by traveling by night could they hope to make the trip in safety.
The first two nights after the journey was begun they followed my instructions. But Loving, who detested night riding, persuaded Wilson that I had been overcautious and one fine morning they changed their tactics and proceeded by daylight.
We stopped on a stream we called Black River [Rio Sule, or Blue River], and stayed there two or three hours, rested up our horses, then concluded to go on to the point of a mountain where the road ran between the mountain and the [Pecos] river, and stay there that night. As we neared this mountain [at about 2 o’clock that afternoon] we discovered several [Comanche] Indians. They saw us about the same time, and we knew we were in for trouble, but we reached the [Pecos] river all right which was about four miles to the northwest and was the nearest place . . . to find shelter. One hundred and fifty feet from the bank of the Pecos this bank drops abruptly some one hundred feet. [We] scrambled down this bluff and dismounted. [We] hitched [our] horses (which the Indians captured at once) and crossed the river [and] hid [ourselves] among the sand dunes and brakes of the river. Meantime the Indians were hot on [our] tracks, some of them halted on the bluff and others crossed the river and surrounded [us]. A brake of carrca, or Spanish cane, which grew was soon filled with them. Since this cane was from five to six feet tall these Indians were easily concealed from view; they dared not advance [on us] as they knew [us] to be armed.
I picked out a little mound next to the river where I could see all around me, except one little spot where the polecat brush had grown up about three feet high, and that brush obscured my view of the river for a distance of about 100 yards. I told Mr. Loving if he would stay down at that little clump of bushes and keep the Indians from crawling up on us from the river I would keep them off from above. The Indian[s] on the bluff, speaking in Spanish, begged [us] to come out for a consultation. [They] had increased in numbers until there were over a hundred [five or six hundred] of the red rascals. I think they had been hunting south of the river and were going back to their old ground.
After staying in the brush a little while Mr. Loving came to where I was, and I urged him to go back there and prevent the Indians from coming in on us from the river. He started back down there carrying a pair of holster pistols over his left arm. The bushes were about forty yards from where I was standing, and I kept my eyes on this spot for I knew if a demonstration was made from that direction the Indians would charge us from the hill. When Mr. Loving had almost reached the bushes an Indian rose up and I shot him, but not before he had fired on Mr. Loving. The Indian’s shot went through Loving’s holsters, passed through his wrist and entered his side. He came running back to me, tossed his gun to me and said he was killed and for me to do the best I could. 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. There was some brush, only a few inches high, not very far from where I was, and the Indians would run to it, crawl on their bellies, and I could not see them. I managed to get Mr. Loving down to the river and concealed him in a sandy depression, where the smart weeds grew about two feet high and laid down beside him. The Indians knew we were down there somewhere, and used all sorts of ruses to find our exact location. They would shoot their arrows up and some came very near striking us. Finally an Indian with a long lance came crawling along parting the weeds with his lance as he came, and just about the time I had determined to pull the trigger, he scared up a big rattlesnake. The snake came out rolling, looking back at the Indian, and coiled up right near us. The Indian, who still had not seen us, evidently got scared at the rattlesnake and turned back.
We lay there until night. Mr. Loving’s wounds had thrown him into a high fever, and I managed to bring up some water from the river in his boot, which seemed to relieve him somewhat. About midnight the moon went down, but the Indians were still around us. We could hear them on all sides. Mr. Loving begged me to leave him and make my escape so I could tell his folks what had become of him. He said he felt sure he could not last until morning, and if I stayed there I would be killed too. He wished his family to know that rather than be captured and tortured by the Indians, he would kill himself. But in case he survived and was able to stand them off [I] would find him two miles down the river. He insisted that I take his gun [a Henry rifle], as it used metallic [or waterproof] cartridges and I could carry it through the water and not dampen the powder. Leaving with him all of my pistols and my [six-shooting] rifle, I took his gun and with a handclap told him goodbye, and started to the river. The river was quite sandy and difficult to swim in, so I had to pull off of my clothes except my hat, shirt and breeches. [I] hid [my] trousers in one place, [my] boots in another and [my] knife in another all under water. The gun nearly drowned me, and I decided to get along without it, so I got out and leaned it up against the bank of the river, under the water, where the Indians would not find it. Then I went down the river about a hundred yards, and saw an Indian sitting on his horse out in the river, with the water almost over the horse’s back. He was sitting there splashing the water with his foot, just playing. I got under some smart weeds and drifted by until I got far enough below the Indian where I could get out. Then I made a three days’ march barefooted over ground that was covered with prickly pear, mesquite and other thorny plants. Everything in that country had stickers in it. On my way I picked up the small end of a tepee pole which I used for a walking stick. The last night of this painful journey the wolves followed me all night. I would give out, just like a horse, and lay down in the road and drop off to sleep and when I would awaken the wolves would be all around me, snapping and snarling. I would take up that stick, knock the wolves away, get started again and the wolves would follow behind. I kept that up until daylight, when the wolves quit me.
About 12 o’clock on that last day I crossed a little mountain and knew the boys out to be right in there somewhere with the cattle. I found a little place, a sort of cave [I] had located on a prior trip. This cave extended back into the hill some fifteen or twenty feet and [I] took refuge from the scorching sun to rest; I could go no further. After a short time the boys came along with the cattle and found me.
Charles Goodnight took a party of about fourteen men and pulled out to see about Mr. Loving. After riding about twenty-four hours they came to the spot where I had left him, but he was not there. They supposed the Indians had killed him and thrown his body into the river. They found the gun I had concealed in the water, and came back to camp.
About two weeks after this we met a party coming from Ft. Sumner and they told us Loving was at Ft. Sumner. The bullet which had penetrated his side did not prove fatal and the next night after I had left him he got into the river and drifted by the Indians as I had done, crawled out and lay in the weeds all the next day. The following night he made his way to the road where it struck the river, hoping to find somebody traveling that way. He remained there for five days, being without anything to eat for seven days. Finally some Mexicans came along and he hired them to take him to Ft. Sumner and I believe he would have fully recovered if the doctor at that point had been a competent surgeon. But that doctor had never amputated any limbs and did not want to undertake such work. When we heard Mr. Loving was at Ft. Sumner, Mr. Goodnight and I hastened there. As soon as we behold his condition we realized the arm would have to be amputated. The doctor was trying to cure it without cutting it off. Goodnight started a man to Santa Fe after a surgeon, but before he could get back mortification [gangrene] set in, and we were satisfied something had to be done at once and we prevailed upon the doctor to cut off the affected limb. But too late. Mortification went into his body and killed him. Thus ended the career of one of the best men I ever knew. Mr. Goodnight had the body of Mr. Loving prepared for the long journey and carried it to Weatherford, Texas, where interment was made with Masonic honors.
Though neither Wilson nor Goodnight recount what was said between them and Loving after finding him in Fort Sumner, apparently at some point Loving asked Goodnight to take his body back to Texas for burial. Loving died on September 25, 1867.
After burying his friend and partner temporarily in a Fort Sumner cemetery, Goodnight delivered their herd to Denver. On his return to Fort Sumner, Goodnight had Loving’s body exhumed and carried him home, where he was reburied in Greenwood Cemetery in Weatherford on March 4, 1868.
W. J. “Bill” Wilson was a remarkable man in his own right and, because of his skill and toughness, was greatly admired by Goodnight. Though Wilson had written (with humility) that Goodnight and the other men who went in search of Loving “found the gun I had concealed in the water,” the truth was more incredible. Goodnight writes:
Wilson instructed me how to find his things. He told me to go down where the bank is perpendicular and the water appeared to be swimming but was not. “Your legs will strike the rifle,” he said. I searched for his things as he directed and found them every one, even the pocket knife. His remarkable coolness in deliberately hiding these things, when the loss of a moment might mean his life, is to me the most wonderful occurrence I have ever known, and I have experienced many unusual phases of frontier life.
And then, almost offhandedly, Goodnight says of Wilson, while he was swimming the river with Loving’s Henry rifle, “How he expected to cross the river with the gun I have never comprehended for Wilson was a one armed man. But it shows what lengths a person will attempt in extreme emergencies.”
The story of Oliver Loving and W. J. Wilson is told in The Trail Drivers of Texas, comp. and ed. J. Marvin Hunter, reprint (1925; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 903–13.