Oliver Loving: The Dean of Texas Trail Drivers

Texas General Land Office
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6 min readMay 21, 2024
Photograph of Oliver Loving. Image via TSHA Handbook of Texas, courtesy of https://www.legendsofamerica.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/OliverLoving-235x300.jpg.

Born in Kentucky but best known in Texas, Oliver Loving (1812–1867) was a pioneering cowboy who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail alongside his partner Charles Goodnight. His death was said to have influenced the ending of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, with one character, Call, promising to return the body of another, Augustus, to Texas. Oliver Loving’s name appears on many maps and documents in the GLO Archives shown below, which record his movements to North Texas before he settled in Palo Pinto.

Initially a farmer, Loving married Susan Doggett Morgan on January 12, 1833, and started a family in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. In 1843, Loving, his brother, and his brother-in-law all moved their families to Texas. As part of the Peters Colony, Loving received a 640-acre land grant, which he split into three surveys in Collin, Dallas, and Parker counties.[1]

[top] Henry O. Hedgcoxe, Map of the Surveyed Part of Peters Colony Texas, Louisville: Milne and Bruder Lithographers, 1852, Map #3155, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [left] Third class headright certificate #80 for Oliver Loving, 3 April 1850, Fannin 3–001103, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [right] Collin, Dallas, and Parker counties highlighted in red on Nancy and Jim Tiller’s Map of The Peters Colony. January 20, 1843, Austin, 2020, Map #96365, Nancy and Jim Tiller Digital Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

The Lovings moved to Lamar County for a year, then to Collin County. In 1855, Loving settled his family in what became Palo Pinto County, where they ran a country store near Keechi Creek and operated a ranch. In 1857, the first assessment roll of Palo Pinto County listed Loving with one thousand acres of land.[2] GLO records reflect how he steadily added to his land holdings from 1857 to 1862, purchasing and receiving patents to scrip grants over that period totaling 895 acres.

[top-left] Cheyenne Betancourt and Beverly Christian, Map of Collin County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1975, Map #95459, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [top-right] Detail showing Oliver Loving’s land grant. [bottom-left] Unlocated balance certificate #3614/3715 for Oliver Loving, 31 August 1854, Nacogdoches 3–002747, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [bottom-right] Unlocated balance certificate #12/6 for Oliver Loving, 22 December 1859, Robertson 3–005488, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

In 1857, Loving began sending his surplus cattle out of Texas, where he could sell them for twice their value. His nineteen-year-old son, William, initially drove his herd up the Shawnee Trail to Illinois. When that proved profitable, Loving drove the herd himself along with John Durkee the next year. In 1860, Loving and John Dawson sent a herd north, crossing the Red River and following the Arkansas River up to Pueblo, Colorado. They stayed the winter then sold the cattle to gold miners in Denver. The outbreak of the Civil War limited the northern extent of Loving’s travels, so he drove cattle up and down the Mississippi River to sell beef to the Confederate Army, which reportedly owed Loving an unpaid balance totaling as much as $250,000.[3]

[left] Eltea Armstrong, Map of Palo Pinto County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1941, Map #73256, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [right] Detail from Armstrong’s map showing Oliver Loving’s land grant and other patented lands in his name.

Over the course of the Civil War, what began as a free-roaming herd of thousands of cattle ballooned into the millions. After the war, this excess stock saturated local beef markets, compelling ranchers to find alternative ways to sell their cattle. Attempting to reverse his losses from his dealings with the Confederate Army, Loving turned to supplying the U.S. Army during its campaigns against western Indigenous groups after learning of a need for beef at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The Army fort was adjacent to the Bosque Redondo Indian Reservation. This was the terminus of the Long Walk of the Navajo, where soldiers had forcibly interned eight thousand Native Americans after marching them hundreds of miles from their ancestral homelands.[4]

On the trail, Loving met Charles Goodnight in a supply store and together they drove both of their herds west to Fort Sumner. They mainly followed the Butterfield Overland Mail route and turned north at Pecos. After they sold beef to the soldiers at Fort Sumner, Loving moved the rest of the herd to Denver. Soon, Goodnight and Loving met up again and established a ranch forty miles south of Fort Sumner at Bosque Grande. They spent the winter of 1866–1867 selling beef to Fort Sumner and Santa Fe.[5]

Goodnight-Loving Cattle Trail highlighted in red. Hoffman and Walker’s Pictorial, Historical Map of Texas, [1960s], Map #2122, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Later in 1867, Loving and Goodnight returned to Texas to begin another drive back to Fort Sumner. This time, the drive proceeded slowly due to heavy rains, which potentially could have cost them the sale. Loving went ahead of the herd with their most trusted cowboy, Bill Wilson, to negotiate with the Army on a contract for the herd. In a rush, Loving traveled during the day despite the threat of Comanche attack. The threat became a reality near the banks of the Pecos River, where Loving suffered a severe injury.

Loving became convinced that he would not survive the night and asked Wilson to return to the herd and tell Goodnight where to find his body. In his escape, Wilson undressed and hid his clothes near the shoreline before he floated downriver to safety. He climbed the bank and escaped barefoot across ground covered with prickly pear and other thorny plants. After two days of travelling mostly by night, Wilson’s brother discovered him while running point leading Goodnight’s herd.

As for Loving, after five days without food or water, Mexican traders discovered him and brought him back to Fort Sumner. During this time, Goodnight took a party of fourteen men to search for Loving, though they only found a gun he had left behind. Goodnight moved on and led the herd to Fort Sumner, where he discovered that Loving had survived but was suffering from infection. Before Loving died of gangrene on September 25, 1867, he made Charles Goodnight promise that he would bring his body back to Weatherford to be reburied in Greenwood Cemetery. [6]

Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, composite image, Date Unknown; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth1139431/: accessed March 8, 2024), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Cattle Raisers Museum.

Modern interpretations may find fault with some of Oliver Loving’s business partnerships, but his historical impact is clear. His experiences on the frontier led the way for hundreds of cowboys who came later. Both he and Goodnight established the famous Goodnight-Loving Trail west to New Mexico and north past Colorado. Loving first led the northern extension of the trail alone in the fall of 1866. Though he only used the new trail for one year before his death, cattle drovers followed all or portions of the Goodnight-Loving Trail extensively until the early 1880s when railroads reached the area. [7] In 1887, the Texas Legislature created Loving County, which included the area where Oliver Loving was mortally wounded, and named it in his honor. [8] Goodnight later called Oliver Loving the “first man who ever trailed cattle from Texas” and “one of the coolest and bravest men [he has] ever known.” [9]

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  1. Julia Cauble Smith, “Loving, Oliver,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 4, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/loving-oliver; Harry E. Wade, “Peters Colony,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 4, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/peters-colony.
  2. Smith, “Loving, Oliver.”
  3. Ibid.
  4. The Long Walk is comparable for the Navajo to what the Cherokee and other southeastern U.S. tribes faced over three decades earlier in the Trail of Tears, where the U.S. Army forcibly relocated as many as 100,000 Indigenous people to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. New Mexico Historic Sites, “Bosque Redondo Memorial at Fort Sumner Historic Site,” https://nmhistoricsites.org/bosque-redondo; Elizabeth Prine Pauls, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, “Trail of Tears,” accessed May 15, 2024, https://www.britannica.com/event/Trail-of-Tears.
  5. Smith, “Loving, Oliver.”
  6. J. Marvin Hunter, The Trail Drivers of Texas: Interesting Sketches of Early Cowboys (Dover, NH: Arcadia Press, 2016), 380–383.
  7. T. C. Richardson, “Goodnight-Loving Trail,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 28, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/goodnight-loving-trail.
  8. Julia Cauble Smith, “Loving County,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 28, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/loving-county.
  9. Hunter, The Trail Drivers of Texas, 380.



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