Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair: Rich, adventurous, and a heck of a business woman.

by | November 7, 2013 | 7 comments

Cornelia Wadsworth Ritchie Adair was a woman who lived her life in two distinct worlds—the Wild West of the Texas panhandle and the elegant ballrooms and salons of England and Ireland.

Born into a prominent and wealthy Genesco, New York family in 1837, Cornelia married her first husband, the politically-connected Montgomery Harrison Ritchie, in 1857 and the couple divided their time between Boston and New York social life. Ritchie went off to fight the Civil War and died in 1864 due to complications from inflicted wounds. Jack Ritchie was Cornelia’s only surviving son from that marriage.

 But new adventures awaited her in the arms of a handsome, if explosive, Irish stock trader named John George (Jack) Adair from County Donegal, Ireland whom she met at a New York Republican political reception after returning from Paris where she had gone to educate Jack. They were married in 1867 just three years after her husband’s death.

 Having been educated for the diplomatic corps, John Adair found it didn’t suit and, instead, established a brokerage office in New York where he made a living “borrowing large sums in Ireland at 4% interest and lending small sums [here] at 10% interest.” According to the Wadsworth family, this venture was not totally successful and the Adairs retrenched in Genesco.

 By all accounts, John Adair was “blessed” with an Irish temper. As reported on www.ranches.org, Cornelia’s grandson felt that because of John’s temperament, the Wadsworth side of the family “promoted, perhaps, John’s departure for the wild west”, a place that had intrigued Cornelia from her childhood as evidenced in her diaries. Most likely it didn’t take much for her to approve of the suggestion.

 So, in 1874, the Adairs went west, heading to Colorado and visiting Indian lodges along the Platte River while escorted by the United States Calvary, a courtesy resulting from family connections and one that would continue whenever Cornelia would visit the frontier. A buffalo hunt on the plains brought them in contact with Charles Goodnight, their guide. It would turn out to be a fortuitous meeting.

 Charlie Goodnight had been a very successful cattleman, but he had lost most of his holdings in the panic of 1873. When the Adairs returned to Denver in 1877 looking to invest in the cattle business, they had no further to look than their former guide. Charlie Goodnight had the vision, John Adair had the money. After regaling the Adairs with tales of Palo Duro Canyon in Texas and its fitness for raising cattle, Charles Goodnight convinced them to visit the area he was so sure would make a good cattle ranch. John and Cornelia, riding twelve days and over 400 miles on horseback, accompanied Goodnight, his wife, and 1600 head of cattle to where the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River formed the Palo Duro Canyon. It was the beginning of a mutually beneficial partnership.

 According to http://www.ranches.org/, the partnership had to pay interest to Adair and a $2500 salary to Goodnight (who was supplying the knowledge) before profits were split two-thirds to Adair and one-third to Goodnight.  Besides herding cattle, Charlie was in charge of buying up land to expand with Adair funding the purchases. The enterprise was profitable and the partnership was extended a second time for a total of 10 years but John Adair died in 1885 before the second contract expired. That left Charlie in partnership with Cornelia.

 Cornelia had strong opinions and wasn’t one to hold back. She gave Goodnight orders to pay high salaries for “experienced, law-abiding ranch hands”, which he did. Recognizing the value of the Texas ranch, in 1887 she bartered a second ranch of 140,000 acres, which she owned, for Goodnight’s one third interest in the JA Ranch which was then comprised of 336,000acres, 48,000 cattle, horses, equipment, and the JA brand.

 Goodnight stayed on for another year to manage the ranch and help Cornelia’s son, Jack, learn the cattle business. Jack wasn’t cut out to be a cowpuncher on an isolated ranch and ended up living in Europe but always regarded his time at the ranch as some of the best years of his life. After Charlie Goodnight left, Cornelia hired a series of well-regarded ranch managers to manage and grow the remote JA Ranch which was “100 miles from the nearest neighborhood and 250 miles from the nearest railroad” (Texas Women on the Cattle Trails). These managers helped build up one of the finest herds in the country while consolidating the ranch into 400,000 acres of prime ranch land. 

 Without Adair at her side, Cornelia spent most of her time in Ireland at her country estates, having become a naturalized British citizen. But in the fall of each year, she visited the ranch and oversaw the cattle round-up, taking trail rides across the rugged land of the panhandle so she could survey her holdings. She remained involved in the major decisions of the ranch. “When she discovered that a foreman had stocked part of the ranch with spotted San Simone cattle, she promptly fired him. She had strict preferences for the cattle and horses at the JA. The horses [of the remuda] were to be bays; brown with a black main and tail and preferably black stockings.” (Texas Women on the Cattle Trails)

 To assure her legacy continued, she brought her grandson, Montie, to the ranch instilling in him a desire for the western life. In the 1930’s he took over running the ranch until 1993 when he passed that privilege onto his daughter, also named Cornelia, after her great-grandmother. Ninia, as she is called, continues to run the JA ranch with her son, Andrew Bivins. (You can learn more about this modern day cowgirl and her antecedents from this YouTube video of her induction into the cowgirl hall of fame: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjeJZtTxE4A&feature=youtu.be)

 Cornelia died on September 22, 1921, at the age of eighty-four and is buried in Ireland at the family’s estate called Rathdaire in Ballybrittas. Cornelia could have lived a comfortable life on one of her vast Irish estates, but she literally loved the call of the wild. And so she not only oversaw a vast financial empire, but was in at the beginning of the cattle trade in Texas, heading one of the most successful ranches in the United States. 130 years later her legacy continues with the JA still in family hands. Not bad for a debutante from New York!

 When I come across these inspiring women I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t hear more about them when I was studying history in school! Their stories really make history come alive, don’t you think?



Texas Women on the Cattle Trails Edited by Sara R. Massey, Texas A&M University Press, 2006

http://www.jaranch.org/ (also for historical and current pictures)





Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. You can friend, follow, or find Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , or at the western historical fan site, Love Western Romances.


  1. Ella Quinn

    Great post. I love hearing about amazing women.

  2. Anne Carrole

    Me, too, Ella. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Lyn Horner

    Great article, Anne! Just goes to show how strong women helped build the west. Why we didn’t learn about them in school is a very good Question. Possibly because most of the history books were written by men.

  4. Lana Williams

    Wonderful info, Anne! What a life she must’ve had! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Suzi Love

    Great post. Thanks. Shared.

  6. Levi Z. Wheeler

    Unfortunately, all Texas herds expanded during the war, glutting the market. Instead of taking his cattle to Kansas with the rest of the ranchers, Goodnight decided to head north toward Colorado to ensure a higher profit. In 1866 he teamed up with the more experienced Oliver Loving and formed a solid friendship. Goodnight built the first chuckwagon from an old Studebaker army wagon then he and Loving and their 18 hired cowhands hit the trail with 2000 cattle. They traveled southwest to avoid trouble with the Comanches, then north through Fort Sumner, New Mexico and into Denver. The trip was highly profitable and they made history along the way by establishing the now famous Goodnight-Loving Trail.

  7. Sammie D. Curry

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



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