Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Margaret Borland, Trail-driving Cattle Queen

Margaret Borland was a gutsy woman. A widow three times over, she ran a huge ranch in South Texas and, in 1873, she shepherded cattle up the Chisholm Trail to Wichita, Kansas, acting as trail boss.

Margaret Borland ca. 1872

I've heard of women who accompanied their husbands up the long trail. I even wrote about a fictional Texas cowgirl who helps drive cattle to Kansas in Dashing Irish. But a woman trail boss? Hard to believe, right? Not after reading about Ms. Borland.


Born on April 3, 1824 in IrelandMargaret Heffernan sailed to America with her parents when she was five. The family spent some time in New York City, then moved to Texas, seeking better opportunities. The government (Mexican at that time) offered incentives to families who supplied their own tools and were able to sustain themselves for a year. At the year's end, the family would be given a yoke of oxen, a cart, ten milk cows and a league of land. The family was required to practice Catholicism and speak Spanish when doing business. Margaret was nine years old when she arrived in Texas.

The Heffernans were part of the McMullen-McGloin colony that intended to bring around 200 families to Texas. They settled on prairie land near San Patricio in South Texas. Margaret's father had been a candle maker, but he became a rancher, faring well in the Texas cattle industry.

Margaret's father died during the Texas Revolution, killed along with several other family members during an attack. The surviving family fled to a fort at Goliad, where legend says Margaret was spared during the massacre by posing as a Mexican child and speaking near perfect Spanish. The family moved several times after that. Margaret's mother never remarried and she died in Victoria, Texas in 1849.

Victoria County, Texas

In August 1843, Margaret married Harrison Dunbar. She gave birth to their daughter Mary in 1844, but Harrison died shortly after her birth from wounds he received in a "pistol duel." Margaret was only 20 years old at the time.

Shortly after, in October 1845, Margaret remarried to a man named Milton Hardy. The 1840 census showed Margaret's second husband had 2,912 acres of land, as well as five additional lots in town. They had two daughters together in the following two years, one of whom did not survive infancy. In 1852, Margaret gave birth to another healthy daughter named Rosa. That same year Milton and their young son William died during a cholera epidemic. Milton left Margaret 1200 cattle to manage.

Margaret married her third husband, Alexander Borland, on February 11, 1856. By the 1860 census, the couple owned 8,000 head of cattle, the largest herd in Victoria. They had twelve slaves, multiple properties, and considerable wealth. They had four children together, 3 boys and a girl named Nellie. By 1867, Alexander was not well. He went to see a surgeon in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sadly, he died there, leaving Margaret a widow for the third time.

The tragedies did not end there. In the summer of the same year, yellow fever swept across Texas. Margaret's daughter Rosa, who was only 15 at the time, caught it and died, followed by Margaret's firstborn Mary. Shortly after Mary passed, her infant son died as well. Margaret's daughter Julia, who was 19 and a new mom, also succumbed to the illness. Julia's husband, Victor Rose, who almost died during the epidemic, left their daughter, Julia Rose, with Margaret for her to raise. By the time the epidemic ended as cooler temperatures set in, Margaret only had three surviving children out of the nine she birthed.

After Alexander's death, Margaret assumed full responsibility for purchasing and selling her cattle, and running her ranch. Slaves, relatives, and farm hands helped with the physical labor required to manage the herd. Her brother James Heffernan stayed with her and her family, assisting his sister during difficult times.

In the winter of 1871-72 a freak blizzard struck Victoria and killed thousands of Margaret's cattle. Despite this, by 1873, she had over 10,000 cattle and decided to sell some of them to raise more money. However, the prices for Texas cattle were about $8 per head, whereas the prices for cattle in Kansas were almost $24 per head. Margaret made the unprecedented decision to be her own trail boss and to drive her cattle over the Chisholm Trail to Kansas.

With no one to watch over her surviving children and young granddaughter, she had to take them with her despite the perils involved. At the age of 49, Margaret headed for Wichita, Kansas with her family and 2,500 cattle. Her bravery as the first woman to undertake this trek as trail boss made the local newspapers and made her famous in the South, as well as the rest of the United States.

187596003 © Daniel Betterman | Dreamstime.com

With half a dozen hired hands to manage the herd of over 2,000 cattle, Margaret undoubtedly had to deal with the men's superstitions, as they often saw women on the trail as a bad omen. It took the group about two months to make it from South Texas to Kansas. They traveled around fifteen miles per day, allowing the cattle to graze as they went. Pushing them too hard would cause them to lose weight and make them harder to sell.

They passed through the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma.) Although Margaret may have sold some of her animals to Indian agents to keep danger at bay or for supplies, when the group arrived in Kansas they still had most of the herd. In 1873, it is believed that around 400,000 Texas cattle were driven to Kansas. Due to this influx, the cattle market crashed in the later part of the year. Consequently, the Borland cattle did not bring the financial gain Margaret had expected.

Sadly, Margaret would not live to see the cattle sold. Toward the end of the journey she was stricken by a serious illness known as trail fever. It has also been called congestion of the brain or meningitis. She passed away in a Wichita boardinghouse. Her two surviving teenage sons arranged the sale of the cattle.

The Wichita Beacon newspaper, now The Wichita Eaglereported the following: "We regret to announce the painful news that Mrs. Borland, the widow lady who came up with her own herd of cattle about two months ago, bringing with her three little children, died at the Planter house Saturday evening with mania, superinduced by her long, tedious journey and over-taxation of the brain."

Margaret Borland was 49 years old when she died. Her body was returned to Texas for burial in the state where she started her family and cattle business.  Margaret's brothers and sons took over running the huge ranch. Her young granddaughter, Julia Rose, was taken in by an aunt and uncle. She later became active in The daughters of the Republic of Texas and Daughters of the Confederacy.

Margaret's sons, Alex and Jesse, bought her a gravestone which reads:

Our Mama
Margaret Heffernan Borland
Born Apr. 3, 1824
Died July 5, 1873
Gone but not forgotten

— Evergreen Cemetery, Victoria

Lyn Horner is a multi-published, award-winning author of western historical romance and paranormal romantic suspense novels, all spiced with sensual romance. She is a former fashion illustrator and art instructor who resides in Fort Worth, Texas – “Where the West Begins” - with her husband and two very spoiled cats. As well as crafting passionate love stories, Lyn enjoys reading, gardening, genealogy, visiting with family and friends, and cuddling her furry, four-legged babies.

 Amazon Author Page: viewAuthor.at/LynHornerAmazon (universal link)  

Website:  Lyn Horner’s Corner 

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  1. I love reading about interesting, strong women. Thanks for your blog post.

    1. Hi, Bea. I also love reading and writing about strong women. They had a lot to do with settling this country. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Lyn, I knew about Margaret Borland, but you added a lot of details new to me. I hadn't realized she died at the end of the trail. How sad when she survived so many trials.

    1. Caroline, Yes it's very sad how she died, but she accomplished so much in her life that resonate for us to this day. I'm glad to know you learned some new details about her from my post. Hugs!


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