She would eventually run the Texas ranch founded by Charles Goodnight and her husband, John Adair. But her transformation from Eastern aristocrat into Western cattle baron began with her first trip west in 1874.
Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair, destined to own one of Texas’ most famous ranches, described western Nebraska in a trip journal she kept in 1874: “Camped at riverside, traveled by compass, shooting antelope. On the prairie every evening, one seemed to have slept in the same spot where we had rested the evening before, so exactly alike were our camps on the Platte….On each side, as far as one could see, the yellow treeless prairie, like a great ocean with yellow waves, stretched away without a landmark of any sort, not even a bush or shrub, only the short yellow buffalo grass.” Cornelia was glad to be there, though; she and her husband, John, were on their first western excursion, a buffalo hunt. Although not a Westerner by birth, Cornelia was born to the saddle and took to the wide-open spaces— first in Nebraska and later in the Texas Panhandle—like a prairie pronghorn.
The trip occurred before a fortuitous meeting Cornelia and her Irish-born husband had with pioneer cattleman Charles Goodnight in Denver. She was from upstate New York’s aristocratic Wadsworth family, and John owned an Irish estate, but that didn’t stop them from seeking adventure and business opportunity in the American West. “Cornelia grew up in an atmosphere completely foreign to the cattle country of the Panhandle of Texas,” wrote Montague K. Brown, who knew her when he worked as assistant manager of the JA Ranch, “yet her spirit and broad vision were as truly Western as if she had lived here her entire life.” Cornelia’s “spirit and broad vision” were already in evidence in the journal she kept on that first trip west—written between August 30 and November 5, 1874, and published in 1918 as My Diary. In it she described Mississippi steamboat dances, cavalry-escorted rides and hunts on the Nebraska plains, parlays with the Sioux, rail travel, drifters, antelope, buffalo and prairie dogs. Even when things didn’t go exactly right—such as the time her husband accidentally shot his own horse during a hunt—she remained plucky and observant. Such qualities would serve Cornelia well when John died and the partnership with Goodnight ended in the mid-1880s, as she became sole boss of the JA’s million-plus acres and 100,000-plus head of cattle.
Cornelia Wadsworth was born in Philadelphia on April 6, 1837, but grew up at Hartford House, the family estate near Geneseo, N.Y. Although western New York was a far cry from the frontier, she did plenty of riding and fox hunting there. In 1857 she married Montgomery Ritchie, the grandson of Harrison Gray Otis, third mayor of Boston. She gave birth to two sons before Montgomery and her father, Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth, went off to fight in the Civil War. Wadsworth, who served with distinction at Gettysburg, died in a Confederate field hospital on May 8, 1864, two days after falling wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness. Ritchie retrieved the general’s body and brought it home to Geneseo, then returned to the front lines. Within weeks Ritchie himself died of disease.
Three years later the widow Ritchie met Scotch-Irish landowner John George Adair at a ball in New York City. They married in 1869, honeymooned at John’s County Donegal estate and then returned to New York, where he ran a brokerage. It was after the firm’s failure in 1874 that he ventured west in search of new investment opportunities. That was fine with Cornelia, who accompanied her husband for more than just the ride. For whatever reason, her engaging account of the journey west is Cornelia’s only known diary. The Adairs and their traveling party took two private railcars to Chicago, where they stayed at the Palmer House. Cornelia commented on the beautiful carpets but added, “Western men had the odious habit of spitting on them.” Lieutenant General Phil Sheridan, on whose staff Cornelia’s brother Craig had served during the Civil War, took the Adairs for a buggy ride. When they told Sheridan of their desire to hunt buffalo on the prairie, the general advised them to remain north of the Republican River, due to Indian troubles. He further arranged a cavalry escort to guide and protect them.
Back in their railcars, the Adair party passed through Michigan, marveling at the devastation wrought by forest fires, and continued north to the iron mills on the Upper Peninsula. The clear northern air was “like taking a glass of champagne,” Cornelia wrote. Some of the party split off as the Adairs spent two late September days and nights crossing Lake Superior from Marquette, Mich., to Duluth, Minn., on the steamboat Metropolis. Cornelia found the food poor and the crew “uncivil” but loved the sunsets. “[They] were the most beautiful I ever saw or imagined,” she wrote, “all reflected in the perfectly smooth lake, while on the other side was the great contrast of the dark, still unchanging, mournful line of the forest coming down to the water’s edge—so still and mysterious as night came on and gloom settled over it.” From Duluth, they traveled by train along the St. Louis River past Minnesota settlements “that were only little clearings in the forest” before arriving in St. Paul and gazing on the Mississippi River for the first time.
From St. Paul, the party traveled downriver by steam- ship. The Adairs lounged on an upper deck during the day and at night took in dances, as well as concerts “played uncommonly well” by the waiters. The ship stopped at several small settlements along the Mississippi before they arrived at Clinton, Iowa. From there, the party again traveled by train to Omaha. “Throughout the car,” Cornelia wrote, “over every two seats was a little box with a Bible stuck in it, and I noticed a great many people reading them.”
In Omaha they met Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge, whom Sheridan had dispatched to accompany them. “Today,” she wrote, “my eyes beheld for the first time the prairie. And we begin to see the frontiersmen, riding about in fringed leather leggings on rough-looking horses.” Dodge accompanied the Adairs by train to Sydney Barracks, in western Nebraska about 200 miles from the Rocky Mountains. Along the way, Cornelia noted “the dreadful havoc committed by the locusts; wherever there was the least cultivation around the settlers’ houses, only the bare yellow stalks of the corn were left.”
She also voiced appreciation for their escort. “[Dodge] kept us enthralled with wild, thrilling stories of the scenes enacted here during the making of the railway, which the Indians had determined they would not allow to be made. The first trains that ran were continually stopped by Indians, and it is only since they have stationed military posts all along the line that the attacks have ceased.”
At Sydney, which Cornelia called “an oasis in the desert, with its rows of young green cottonwood trees and neat houses,” the party was met by Lt. Col. Henry A. Morrow. He had commanded a regiment under Cornelia’s father at the Battle of the Wilderness and had also been wounded there. Morrow now made all the necessary arrangements for the party’s proposed buffalo hunt.
The next morning at the fort, Cornelia was pleased to meet the Sioux Chief Two Lance, whom she called “a natural gentleman” and who greeted her as the “daughter of a great chief,” in deference to her late father. She wrote that he “was dressed in leather shirt and leggings beautifully embroidered in beads, having a handsome dark blue blanket thrown around him.” They shook hands, and she noted his hand felt “soft and small—the long, thin, slight fingers like the soft, hairy paw of an animal.”
On October 7, the buffalo- hunting party left the bar- racks, with Cornelia riding “a charming little chestnut [with] a good mouth and a nice canter.” They weren’t exactly roughing it. Accompanying them were 50 cavalry troops, wagons for the gear, a couple of servants, a dog and an ambulance that served as a “refuge” for anyone tired of riding. The ambulance, she wrote, “was painted bright green, has a white canvas top and sides and is drawn by four white mules with scarlet collars….It is very roomy inside, with seats for four; the backs of the seats are moveable, so that they can be made into a bed.” An orderly named Dillon tended to Cornelia’s needs. He kept her parasol tucked in his belt beside his pistol.
“A few miles only from the fort,” Cornelia continued, “we came upon the carcasses of buffalo, some whitened from two or three years’ exposure and others quite fresh, and we were never out of sight.” Among the living creatures she recorded were antelope, prairie dogs, wolves and sandhill cranes, which darkened the sky. That night she listened to howling coyotes as they all sat around a fire fueled by buffalo chips.
The next day, in sight of the Platte River, Two Lance and his men arrived, dressed in “a strange mixture of picturesque Indian costume and odds and ends from civilization.” They led the hunting party to a Sioux village. “The wigwams were literally swarming with children,” Cornelia wrote. “The buffalo robes being tanned were stretched on the ground by pins in every direction, and the stench from them and these dirty people, dogs and swarms of ponies was something fearful.” In a council tent where “a white buffalo robe full of fleas was spread for us to sit on,” they feasted on boiled beans and bits of meat, “which might have been anything—dogs, skunks or buffalo meat.” The Indians, however, did not want to take Cornelia’s party on a hunt. Instead, the chiefs pleaded with the soldiers to do something about the white buffalo hunters.
The next day, according to Cornelia, the party headed up the Platte on the old emigrant road, repeatedly passing “the graves of emigrants who had fallen by the way on their march across this Great Desert.” The party soon encountered buffalo hunters, all of whom reported fewer buffalo and more hunters than the previous year. “This looks badly for our prospects of sport,” she wrote. Farther on, the Adairs and company passed several ranch houses, including one in ruins from an Indian fight three years earlier. Catching sight of wolves, rattlesnakes and antelope, the party finally spotted a herd of buffalo. The mostly novice hunters charged the herd, but things did not go smoothly. In the confusion, John Adair somehow managed to shoot his own horse in the head and become trapped beneath the dead animal. His fellows pulled him out with nothing more than a strained shoulder. But Cornelia’s orderly, Dillon, wasn’t as lucky. He was seriously injured when his horse tripped in a hole and threw him. Returning to camp, the hunters sent the ambulance to fetch Dillon.
Eight days later, the party returned to Sydney Barracks. From there Cornelia and John went by rail to Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, and on to Denver. They visited Pikes Peak and looked into several mining ventures in the area. At some point during this leg of the trip, they met Charles Goodnight—a meeting that led the Adairs to finance the celebrated Texas cattleman who earlier had helped blaze the Goodnight-Loving Trail. Two years later the Adairs would return to begin ranching with Goodnight.
In 1876 Goodnight drove 1,600 Longhorns south from Pueblo, Colorado Territory, to winter grazing grounds at Palo Duro Canyon near the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River in Armstrong County, Texas. Goodnight then headed to Denver to meet with the Adairs, who had returned west to work out the details of their partnership with him. John Adair would finance Goodnight’s cattle venture in return for two-thirds of the profits. In May 1877, Charles and Mary Goodnight, the Adairs and four cowboys brought 100 Durham bulls and four wagonloads of provisions to the new ranch in the panhandle. The JA Ranch, bearing John Adair’s initials and often referred to as “the JAs,” had come into being.
Goodnight began buying up acreage around Palo Duro Canyon, making sure the tracts were good for grazing and had enough water. The following year he drove the first JA herd north to the railhead at Dodge City, Kan. By 1882 the ranch had grown to 93,000 acres and had realized a profit of $512,000. Just three years later, the JA comprised 1,325,000 acres. Cornelia, according to researcher David W. Parish, was a “hands-on manager.” She was on horseback every day and tried with Goodnight to launch a cattle-buffalo breeding program. The resulting meat turned out to be too tough, however.
John Adair died in 1885, and Cornelia continued her partnership with Goodnight for a while. They are said to have gotten along better than Goodnight and John ever had. Still, within a few years, Goodnight had sold his interest to her, and Cornelia was in sole charge of 1,035,202 acres and 101,023 head of cattle. At the end of 1887, Goodnight and his wife left the JAs to move to the small panhandle town named in his honor. Cornelia consolidated the ranch to 450,000 acres, but she remained in charge (spending part of each year in Ireland) until her death in 1921. She was buried in Ireland beside John. Adair heirs continue to run the JAs, which is the oldest privately owned cattle operation in the panhandle (the “big house” was designated a national historic landmark in 1960).
The JA Ranch calls to mind Goodnight and his backer with the famous initials, but Cornelia Adair’s role in the enterprise should not be for gotten. “She grew from being a daughter of Eastern privilege to become a woman of the West,” says Parish. Cornelia’s diary traces the birth of her transformation during that long trip west in 1874.
Chuck Lyons writes from Rochester, N.Y. For further reading, see A History of the JA Ranch, by Harley True Burton.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.