The History Behind Back from the Brink

By 1878, the millions of bison that once blackened the prairies of West Texas were a thing of the past. During the two years since settling their ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon, Colonel Charles Goodnight and his wife, Mary Ann, had heard the reports of the Sharps buffalo rifles day and night. The hide hunters were mercilessly slaughtering every bison they could find.

It was Mary Ann who first revolted, persuading her husband to protect the small number of bison that had sought refuge in a remote corner of the Palo Duro Canyon. Goodnight's cowboys roped two calves and brought them to Mary Ann to care for. These two calves and a few others that were captured later became the nucleus of the herd that saved the Southern bison herd from complete extinction. Stock from the Goodnight bison herd was vital in bringing both the Nothern and Southern herds "back from the brink" of extinction. Progeny from the Goodnight herd were distributed across the United States to help rebuild other herds including that in Yellowstone National Park.

To create "Back from the Brink", Veryl sent out several letters to buffalo ranches asking for the opportunity to raise an orphan bison calf should one become available. Medicine Lodge Ranch near Dubois, Idaho called her in early June. The post lady had found a newborn calf all alone on her route. Little "Charlie" had become separated from his mother when the herd had been moved the day before and he had survived his first night of life alone. Veryl and her husband, Roger flew to Idaho immediately and brought Charlie home to Santa Fe in their plane. They bottle raised Charlie with the intent of returning him to Idaho as a yearling.

Charlie was weaned at seven months old. A few days later, he was placed in a corral with two female bison calves to begin his education as a bison. Veryl and Roger never intended to keep Charlie, but fate dealt a hand that made Charlie one of the best known and loved bison that has ever lived.

Charlie got frightened on his first night and ran head on into the steel corral, paralyzing all four legs. He spent a month in a sling at Colorado State University, until the inflamed spinal cord in his neck healed enough for him to learn to walk again. While he made significant recovery, Charlie’s ability to move normally was permanently impaired and he could no longer be part of a herd. Roger began hiking with Charlie to help rehabilitate his loving and fast growing friend.

Charlie never missed his life as a bison. Nothing made him happier than being with Roger or greeting the hundreds of people that came to visit him. Charlie became more than a neighborhood icon. For over three years he was an ambassador for his species.

Ultimately Charlie’s weakened neck contributed to his premature death. One day Roger found him cast on his side, struggling to rise. It took the volunteer fire department to get the now 2,000 pound bull back on his feet. Ruminant’s lungs can fill with fluids when they are down for a length of time. Charlie contracted pneumonia and in spite of heroic efforts, he died on August 10, 2003.

Charlie’s memory lives on in bronze. He is also the inspiration for a full-length book. A BUFFALO IN THE HOUSE, The True Story of a Man, His Buffalo and American History, by Richard Rosen. The book was published in 2007 and can be purchased from Goodnight Trail Gallery of Western Art.