I’m constantly amazed at the larger-than-life men and women who settled in Texas and helped the state become a strong symbol of extraordinary strength and courage.
It’s fair to say that Margaret Heffernan didn’t have an easy life. But she didn’t stand around wringing her hands either. She took the bull by the horns and made things happen when adversity came calling.
Margaret was five years old when she arrived on the first ship bringing Irish colonists to Texas in 1829. Her family settled on the wild prairies around San Patricio. Her father died in an Indian attack a few years after they put down roots. Then came the Texas Revolution. Margaret’s mother gathered up her children and fled the advancing armies in search of safety. It’s believed they sought refuge in the fort at Goliad. When the Mexican army won the battle of Goliad, it’s rumored they escaped the massacre by speaking Spanish so fluently that the officers believed them to be native Mexicans.
After the Texas war for independence, the Heffernan family returned to San Patricio where nineteen year old Margaret met Harrison Dunbar and they were married. Shortly after the birth of a daughter, Harrison Dunbar was killed in a pistol duel on the streets of Victoria.
Margaret found herself a widow and single parent at the age of twenty.
A year later, she married again, this time to Milton Hardy and they settled down to ranch on the 2,912 acres of land they owned. Margaret gave birth to a son and three daughters, one of whom died in infancy. Again tragedy struck her marital life and her second husband succumbed of the dreaded cholera. She also lost her young son in the same epidemic.
Margaret’s younger brother came to help her run the ranch until she married for a third time four years later to Alexander Borland. Alexander was one of the richest ranchers in South Texas. She bore this husband four children-three sons and a daughter-to enlarge her brood to seven.
In 1860, Alexander and Margaret Borland owned 8,000 head of cattle. It’s at this time they began to hear about trail drives from Texas to Missouri and beyond. They dreamed of taking a herd to northern markets. But Alexander died in a yellow fever epidemic before they could realize their dream.
Despite Margaret’s best efforts, she was unable to halt the terrible toll yellow fever took on her family. Before it was over, in addition to her third husband, she lost three daughters, a son, and an infant grandson. Only three of her seven children remained alive.
After the devastating loss, she threw herself into the running of the ranch and managing the huge herd of livestock.
But, a great blizzard swept down upon the plains during the winter of 1871-1872 and tens of thousands of Texas cattle froze to death.
When early spring rolled around, Margaret weighed her options and decided to drive 1,000 head of cattle that survived up the Chisholm Trail. The Kansas market was paying $23.80 per head compared to $8.00 in San Antonio.
With no one at home to care for her three remaining children and her six year old granddaughter, she decided they’d go with her. Margaret was 49 years old. It took them two months to reach Wichita, Kansas. Margaret and the children took a room at a boardinghouse. Word quickly spread through town of the amazing feat she’d accomplished. The newspaper wrote articles about her saying she had “pluck and business tact far superior to many male trail drivers.” One article remarked that she had “become endeared to many in town on account of her lady-like character.”
Before Margaret was able to sell her cattle, she took ill. On July 5, 1873, Margaret Borland died.
Speculation had it that she died from “brain congestion” and “trail driving fever.” Doesn’t that sound like it came from a man? And one who was probably jealous of what she did.
The woman who’d once managed over 10,000 head of cattle, and did it quite expertly, became a legend up and down the Chisholm Trail. She overcame despite adversity to be revered for her many accomplishments.
Have you read any western romances that feature a woman rancher and trail driver? Pam Crooks’s UNTAMED COWBOY comes to mind.