The Texas Ranch with Donegal Connections

The JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon in Armstrong County, Texas is one of the largest cattle ranches in Texas and a United States National historic landmark. It also has links with Donegal and one of Ireland's most notorious landlords. This was John George Adair the builder of Glenveagh Castle in county Donegal and the mastermind of the infamous Derryveagh evictions of forty-seven families of 1861.

The history of the Ranch was forged by three individuals, Charles Goodnight the legendary cattleman, the Irish land owner John George Adair known by Donegal locals as Black Jack and his wife Cordelia a New York socialite and daughter of a Civil War Union general.

Charles Goodnight was an American rancher, cattle driver, and pioneer of the ranching industry in Texas. He was born on March 5th, 1836, in Macoupin County, Illinois. Goodnight started his career in ranching at an early age and moved to Texas in 1857 to work as a cowboy and later became a Texas Ranger.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he joined the Confederate States Army. He spent most of his war years as a scout in a frontier regiment engaging in conflict with native American tribes.

After the war, he saw an opportunity to round up cattle that had roamed freely during the years of the conflict.

In 1866, along with his partner, Oliver Loving, Goodnight established the Goodnight-Loving Trail, a cattle drive from Texas to Colorado. This trail became one of the major routes used to transport cattle from the southern Plains to northern markets to feed the growing population of the US. The partnership ended tragically when Loving was killed by Native Americans during a cattle drive in 1867.

Goodnight continued to expand his cattle business now in partnership with another legendary cattle man John Chisum an ex-confederate colonel to supply the United States Army with beef.

In April 1874 on a guided buffalo hunt, In eastern Colorado, near Pueblo Goodnight met Jack Adair and his wife Cordelia.

During the hunt, Goodnight regaled the couple with stories of the Palo Duro Country southeast of Amarillo, Texas. He described land that was ideal for grazing cattle on the open range. The cattle had ample grass in summer and could then over winter in mild conditions protected by canyon walls. The land also had flowing rivers as well as outstanding natural beauty.

Goodnight was not just passing time with his wealthy clients on the Buffalo hunt, he was trying to attract a partner to help him establish a cattle ranch in Palo Duro.

Adair and his wife were intrigued and looking for investment opportunities, but they were not so stupid as to buy land they had not seen. They decided that they would travel with Goodnight and his wife to see the proposed ranch for themselves.

In May 1877, Charles and Mary Goodnight, the Adair’s and four cowboys, 100 Durham bulls and four wagonloads of provisions set off for the Texas panhandle.

The journey took twelve days and was not without adventure. Local outlaws had heard of the wealthy investors from the east and decided to kidnap the Adair’s. They even went so far as to have a hideout established to hold them prisoner. Goodnight who was a man with many friends heard rumours of the plot and arranged for an escort for the party from the US cavalry. The kidnappers decided to end their scheme and the danger was averted.

Adair’s legendary ill temper hampered the trip as he fell out with the cowboys who resented his high-handed treatment of them. Again, Goodnight came to the rescue intervening to ensure the cowboys did not beat up his potential partner. Goodnight would later reflect that sometimes he regretted not fighting Adair himself!  In contrast, while Adair was making enemies Cornelia was making friends and enjoying the spectacular beauty of the West. When the Adair’s came to the Palo Duro, they realised Goodnight was not exaggerating and they immediately realised the potential the land offered and decided to establish a cattle ranch.

It was Cornelia Adair who picked out the site for the ranch house and so it is her rather than Jack who can be regarded as the true founder of the ranch.

Goodnight and Jack now talked about how the ranch would be established and financed. Adair saw the enormous potential and was keen to invest. Adair proposed that he would provide two-thirds of the capital and Goodnight the remainder. Adair offered Goodnight a shrewd deal.

He would borrow his one-third share at 10 percent interest from Adair. Goodnight would be the daily manager of the ranch and supply the starting cattle. He would also draw an annual salary of $2,500. 

It was Goodnight’s suggestion that the ranch be named the “JA” for the initials of his financial partner, Jack Adair. Goodnight began buying up additional land around Palo Duro Canyon, making sure the tracts were good for grazing and had enough water.

The following year Goodnight drove the first JA herd north to the railhead at Dodge City, Kansas. By 1882 the ranch had grown to 93,000 acres and had realized a profit of $512,000. In its peak year in 1883, the ranch encompassed 1,335,000 acres (5,400 square kilometres) in portions of six Texas counties and boasted 100,000 head of cattle. 

 Jack Adair only visited the ranch 3 times in his life, his real love was his estate in Donegal, and he began to use the profits he had made in Texas to make his dream of a rival to Balmoral in the hills of Donegal a reality, which would become known as Glenveagh Castle.

 Adair died in 1885 whilst on a business trip in Colorado.  His wife Cordelia now took an intense personal interest in the growth and operation of the ranch and continued the partnership with Charles Goodnight. Together they raised Angus, Hereford, and Santa Gertrudis cattle. Goodnight, an innovator in the cattle industry, experimented with crossbreeding techniques to develop better beef cattle suited for the harsh Texas climate.

When the Goodnight-Adair partnership dissolved in 1887, Goodnight took the 140,000-acre Quitaque ranch and 20,000 cattle for his share in the business.

Cordelia passed away in September 1921, and she is buried beside her husband in Killenard, County Laois, Ireland.

To this day the JA Ranch is still run by her descendants.

Cornelia is well remembered in both America and Ireland, while to this day the name ‘Black Jack’ Adair is said with scorn in Donegal and especially around Glenveagh where the name of “Black Jack” Adair is forever a curse in the county of Donegal.

As for Charles Goodnight, sadly, he suffered financial ruin when he lost his life's savings when the Mexican silver mine he invested in was nationalised by the Mexican government. He was forced to sell his ranch in 1919 to an oilman friend, W. J. McAlister, with the provision that Goodnight and his wife could stay in their home until they both died. Goodnight passed away on December 12th, 1929.  

Today, the JA Ranch is still privately owned and operated. While its size has significantly reduced from its original extent, it continues to raise cattle and uphold the traditions of the historic ranching era in Texas. The ranch's historical significance earned it a designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

The JA Ranch played a pivotal role in the development of the cattle industry in Texas, contributing to the state's rich ranching heritage. Its impact on cattle breeding and ranching methods is still highly regarded, solidifying its place in Texas history.

For more on Jack Adair, the Derryveagh evictions, and Glenveagh Castle you can read my book Famine, Murder and Evictions available here