Margaret Heffernan Borland: Rancher and Woman Trail Driver

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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.

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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.

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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.

Linda Broday
I live in the Texas Panhandle where we love our cowboys.There's just something about a man in a Stetson that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!
http://petticoatsandpistols.com/sweepstakesrules/
Updated: April 21, 2010 — 1:45 pm

44 Comments

  1. Women trail drivers? Wow! No I hadn’t heard or read about them but figured there had to be at least a few. Remember in Horse Whisperer how the city slicker rode with them – loved it!

    Great post.
    PamT

  2. Loved your post, Linda. I’ve read a few books where a woman were along for a cattle drive, but none where she led it. Margaret Borland was an amazing woman. Her life sure mixed triumph and tragedy.

  3. What a great post. I had never heard of Margaret Borland, but she does embody the spirit of the Western woman.

    I can think of another book about a female rancher on a trail driver. Your very own Mary Connealy and her book The Husband Tree!

  4. What an inspiration lady! The poor woman suffered so much dealth and heartache but had enough pluck to not let it keep her down. Not only am I amazed that she managed that trail drive on her own, but she did it with her children and grandchild with her as well. Amazing!

    How sad that she didn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the profit from her efforts. I hope her children collected the money and carried on the ranch in her honor.

  5. Hi Pamela,

    Thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed Margaret’s story. When I was writing the blog I had tears in my eyes at times. Her struggles really touched me. The amazing part of this story is that she drove 1,000 head of cattle all that way with only her two teenage sons and one other ranch hand. She’s just amazing.

  6. Hi Vicki,

    Glad you enjoyed reading my post. According to the book “Texas Women on the Cattle Trails,” Margaret is the only woman known to have driven a herd up the Chisholm Trail with herself as the trail boss. In fact, I’m astounded that she only had the help of two teenage sons and one ranch hand. What a woman! She definitely embodies the spirit of the West.

  7. Hi Winter Peck,

    I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. Margaret Borland was an amazing woman. She sure had stamina to bounce back from all the tragedy she suffered. I can’t even imagine.

    Thank you for telling me about Mary Connealy’s Husband Tree. I didn’t know it’s about a female rancher on a trail drive. Wow! I’m going to have to get that book.

  8. Hi Karen,

    I’m glad you found Margaret’s story interesting. I touched something deep inside when I read about her. I can’t imagine the heartache she endured. And so many times death came calling.

    Yes, it’s sad that she died before selling her herd. But it’s kinda funny that the doctor said that she died of brain congestion caused by the immense responsibility of trail driving. That’s exactly something a man would say!\

    To continue the story, yes her two teenage sons arranged the sale of the cattle. But the price per head had plummeted and they didn’t get a whole lot. There was a financial panic and the livestock market crashed. Cattle sold for as little as $1.00 a head. Margaret’s brothers and her two teenage sons assumed the running of the huge ranch. The little granddaughter was taken in by an aunt and uncle and later was active in The Daughters of the Republic of Texas and Daughter of the Confederacy.

  9. Great post, very interesting! I have read a few books with women ranchers, names of them I can’t think of right now, but I am not sure the women went on the cattle drive! Great story though!

  10. What an amazing story, Linda! It’s hard to even imagine what that woman endured – and in that photo she looks like a strong wind could blow her away. I’ve never written a book about a female trail driver but Margaret’s story could inspire all sorts of tales – she’s proof that the most incredible stories happen in real life.

  11. Linda, what a strong and fearless woman! I agree totally with Karen that it’s such a shame she died before she recognized what she had accomplished. And, such tragedy she bore. No doubt “Trail Dying Fever” certainly doesn’t sound like any type a of official illness causing a death. I love this story, thanks for sharing.

    I can see Tempest LeDoux (your heroine in “Give Me a Cowboy”) doing exactly what Margaret did.

  12. Hello! What about Mary Connealy’s The Husband Tree? I believe there’s a trail drive led by a woman in it. Wouldn’t you love to be able to sit down and spend an afternoon with Margaret? What a fascinating woman. I love strong heroines too. Makes me feel like my struggles don’t amoount to a hill of beans. Thanks for a great post!

  13. Wow, what a woman. Thanks for sharing, Linda. And The Husband Tree is on my tbr pile–think I’ll move it to the top. 😀

  14. Hi, Linda! Thank you for a wonderful post! I truly enjoyed learning about Margaret, a wonderful “Woman of the West”! I have long admired the strength of pioneer and frontier women. Many of them had to leave their cherished keepsakes along the trail in order for the wagon loads to be lightened. There were also great personal losses along the way, and loved ones were buried where they died. The journey continued for the survivors, and people often had to band together and form new “families” in order to live from day to day.

    A strong fictional woman who comes to mind is not from a book, but from a TV show: The awesome and regal Victoria Barkley from “The Big Valley”. Victoria, played by the amazing Barbara Stanwyck, ruled the ranch as an “Iron Butterfly”. She was a widow, and mother to three sons and a daughter. After her husband’s death, she even accepted his illegitimate son into the family. “The Big Valley” was unusual for a Western progam because a woman was not only the star of the show, but she was powerful and also retained her ladylike bearing. However, I must say that I loved it when Ms. Stanwyck donned her black gaucho outfit with the little cocked cap. When you saw that outfit, you knew Victoria B. was ready to roll and the action would soon get started!

  15. Hi Quilt Lady!

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m thrilled that you found my blog of interest. I sure enjoyed bringing Margaret Borland’s story to you. She really set a high bar for women who came after her. I’m sure she never realized the impact she made. I wish I could’ve known her.

  16. Hi Elizabeth!

    I really love stumbling across these stories of unique women of the West. Yes, I agree. Margaret looks so small and delicate. Bet that fooled a lot of people who tried to take advantage of her each time she lost one of her husbands. She certainly had mettle.

    I hope you do decide to pattern one of your stories after Margaret’s life. It really reads like fiction, doesn’t it?

  17. ah yes… mary connealy’s The Husband Tree is an awesome story about a woman who bury’s three worthless husbands and her, her four girls (one only a baby) and one hand start off driving 1000 cattle through the mountains of montana
    i’m only halfway through but i LOVE it!

    amazing that a woman actually did this
    i am horribly sorry for all the children she lost..i cannot even imagine!
    awful

  18. I love to read about the old frontier, I just am glad I didn’t have to travel in a covered wagon, but I am so glad that our country was settled by all these hard working people

    mat2730(at)charter(dot)net

  19. Hi Phyliss!

    Glad you stopped by. The way things are right now with your grandkids, it’s difficult to find a spare minute. Hope things settle down soon.

    I agree that Tempest LeDoux was a woman of this type of uncommon strength and fortitude. Kinda strange that my fictional woman took on a lot of Margaret’s attributes when I hadn’t even stumbled across this real life heroine. Margaret is certainly a woman to admire and inspire. I’m sure she never guessed the impact she made on others. But her children learned from her example and went on to do amazing things as well.

    Yeah, the doctor must’ve been a chauvinist to try to pin her cause of death on rigors of the trail. I don’t think there’s such a thing in the medical community about trail driving fever. Or brain congestion. How funny.

    Hope you have a great day, my friend!

  20. Hi Judy H,

    Thank you for telling about Mary Conneally’s book. I haven’t read The Husband Tree yet but it’s on my list. I know I’ll love it. Mary is a very special storyteller.

    Glad you enjoyed learning about Margaret Borland. Texas is so full of interesting stories like hers, people who were larger-than-life. I’d love to be able to sit down with her and hear her accounts first hand. I’m sure she had amazing stories to tell. I can’t imagine running a ranch stocked with over 10,000 head of cattle and doing it very well.

  21. Hi Tracy,

    I agree that The Husband Tree is a book to read and enjoy. I need to get busy and buy a copy. I’m ashamed that I haven’t already. Pam Crooks’s was a very good story. It featured a strong woman like Margaret Borland.

  22. Hi Virginia C,

    Big Valley was a favorite western of mine. Barbara Stanwyck played the part of a woman rancher very well. She certainly ran her ranch well and she handled trouble with ease. Even though her three sons were tough men, they didn’t dare cross their mother.

    Glad you enjoyed reading Margaret Borland’s story. I had tears in my eyes when I read about her. She was an uncommon woman who embodied the strength it took to survive in the old West.

  23. Hi Tabitha,

    Wow, everyone is talking about Mary Connealy’s book! I’m going to have to order it. Sounds like a wonderful story. Glad you enjoyed my post. Margaret Borland’s life reads like fiction. It’s just hard to imagine all that she went through. And she was still so young when she died. What other things would she have accomplished if she’d lived longer.

  24. Hi Edna,

    Thanks for stopping by to comment. Glad you found my topic of interest. I agree that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman on the frontier. I doubt I seriously doubt I’d have had the stamina it took. But then, I guess those people just did anything they had to in order to survive. Some I’m sure didn’t know they were making history. Lots of inspiring stories come from the pages of history books. I’m really awed at the people who carved out a place for themselves despite adversity.

  25. Hey Linda, what an amazing woman Margaret was! I can’t imagine enduring such losses as she did in addition to all the incredible physical feats of ranching and cattle-driving. Wow. I agree, “brain congestion” could only come from a male brain. Thanks for this bit of Texas history.

    I am off to Texas next week…a ranch in Bandera near San Antonio..for a writers retreat my publisher is holding. Since I’ve never been there, I absolutely can’t wait. I intend to learn how to ride a horse LOL.

    Even with a first-hand visit, however, I’m sure I’ll continue to bombard you with Texas questions when I need to!

    Thanks for this great post! oxoxoxox

  26. Hi Linda,

    I am always thrilled to see it is you blogging I love to read about the way things use to be.

    I would have loved to lived in the 1800’s I feel I would have fit in good.

    I do not believe I have read a book where there was a woman rancher, have seen movies though

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  27. Hi Tabitha, Judy and Winter. Thanks for mentioning The Husband Tree.
    Yes, the woman and daughters running a cattle drive, I thought it was a pretty outrageous concept and now I find out someone actually did it!!!!

    How cool is that?

  28. All that death in one woman’s life.
    I read somewhere that this is the first time in human history when people expected to die when it’s their turn.
    We think of how devastated people are who lose a child and yet it used to be so common. Being a child was a high risk business. And women who’d give birth to seven or ten or fifteen children might end up with a few adult children. Not to mention how many women died having babies.

    I think I read in a Louis L’Amour book that people who really lived alone out west didn’t die nearly as often of infections and diseases because those things are so often spread by other people. So if you were alone even things like infected sores and tetanus, things like that, didn’t happen much.

  29. Hi Tanya,

    Glad you found Margaret Borland interesting. She was one of the most fascinating women I’ve run across. She’s definitely someone to aspire to like.

    And you’ll find Bandera a wonderful place to visit. So pretty there. By the way, Margaret Borland’s ranch at Victoria was only about 70 miles from San Antonio. Lots of history took place in South Texas. I certainly don’t mind helping you out with questions about Texas. There aren’t very many places I haven’t been to here. Always glad to share what I know.

    Have a great time at the writers retreat. And good luck with the horse-riding!

  30. Hi Melinda,

    Thank you so much for the compliment. I love finding unusual things to blog about. I really felt akin to this woman. I wish I could’ve known her. Sometimes we just know we could’ve made it back then. Most times I feel more at home reading about how life was back then than life today. There are so many things I don’t like about this generation of Americans. A lot of people aren’t appreciative of what they have.

    Have a good day!

  31. Hi Mary,

    Your book is sure drawing lots of conversation about it today. Glad I could help spotlight it. All the talk is really making me want to read it. If it’s anything like Petticoat Ranch and Gingham Mountain it’s a keeper. I know I’ll love it.

    Yes, Margaret Borland really had her share of grief and heartache. That was a lot for one woman to bear. Yet she did it with grace and humility and kept right on going. She’s really an inspiring lady. I think it would’ve been very scary to have lived on the frontier so far away from a doctor. But people knew a lot about treating illness back then. They had lots of homemade remedies because they didn’t have much choice.

    Glad you enjoyed my post!

  32. What an incredible post, Linda. I didn’t know this. Imagine, the woman leading this — I know it happens in one of Mary’s books that I’m in the midst of reading, but I didn’t think it happened in reality. Wow! 🙂

  33. Hi Kay!

    Wow, everyone is talking about Mary’s book. It sounds really good. You’ve piqued my interest for sure. Mary’s a wonderful writer. I really enjoyed her first two books.

    Glad my post was of interest to you. Margaret Borland’s story deeply touched a chord in me. The problems and trials she had to endure. And yet she kept her pioneer spirit. It astounds me what some people have to go through.

  34. What a courageous woman!

  35. Wonderful story! Obviously men didn’t last very
    long back in those days, women had to be strong!
    They were what kept families going! I might not be here today without my hardy female ancestors who came to Texas.

    Pat Cochran

  36. Hi Estella, thank you for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed reading about Margaret Borland. She was truly an amazing woman. Just proves we should never give up when things get too difficult.

  37. Hi Pat C,

    I honestly don’t any of us would be here today without female ancestors who endured all life threw at them and managed to keep going. The human spirit really amazes me. Life is no bed of roses yet we always keep putting one foot in front of the other and trudging onward. Margaret Borland is certainly an inspiration to us all.

  38. Linda,
    Thanks for another interesting and informative post. I have been sharing the PC&P posts with my husband for a long time now and I’ve shared many with the rest of the family. My husband’s comment to this one was how little credit women often get in history. Everyone always acts so surprised when a woman does something like Margaret Borland did. What they fail to realize or acknowledge is that women often did as much, if not more, than the men. Since men were usually around, they got credit for what was happening. The men may have been the “primary caregivers” for the ranch or farm, responsible for the herds and farming. The women often helped with that as well. Then they had their real job caring for the household animals (cows, chicken, pigs, etc), the house, the men, cooking, laundry, the garden, putting food up, having and caring for the children, and acting as nurse and often doctor. She was often responsible for the children’s education. Many were quite capable with a gun and could hunt and defend themselves.

    As my DH facetiously said, “It is really too bad those poor, helpless women needed so much taking care of.” What is really pathetic, is that men perpetuated that myth.
    We need to get back to Texas for another visit. There is so much to see. We barely scratched the surface last year.

  39. Hi Patricia B,

    How neat that you share these posts with your husband! I’m so glad that they’re of interest to him. And to you too of course! I think our varied posts are the secret to P&P’s growth. But back to your husband’s comment. Women get very little recognition in the history books. Yet, this country, especially the state of Texas, wouldn’t have been settled without the strong women who came West with the men. And they didn’t sit around whining or wringing their hands. If there was a problem they worked out a solution and went on to other things.

    Yes, you’re going to have to come back to Texas. We have lots to offer. And there’s so much history it boggles your mind.

    Thanks so much for your comment. I’m thrilled my post interested you.

  40. I found this fascinating. I have always been intrigued by women who do those things men think they should not be doing: Civil War soldiers, becoming doctors and now cattle drivers!

    And I agree, P and P has turned into a wonderful historical resource for me about an era I love. The one thing I remember about watching western movies as a child was that there were not a lot of women in them. I kept thinking about what I would be doing if I was in those movies…and I would not have been a bar girl or damsel in distress.

    Thanks for an informative article.

    Peace, Julie

  41. Great blog. I share your love of stories about strong, independent women. Despite so many tragedies, she just kept on going. There would have been no opening of the west without women, and certainly no civilization. Every one of them were heroines.

  42. Great blog. I share your love of stories about strong, independent women. Despite so many tragedies, she just kept on going. There would have been no opening of the west without women, and certainly no civilization. Every one of them were heroines.

  43. Great blog. I share your love of stories about strong, independent women. Despite so many tragedies, she just kept on going. There would have been no opening of the west without women, and certainly no civilization. Every one of them were heroines.

  44. Linda,
    We don’t experience the kind of do or die events and circumstances as the pioneers did. Thank heaven!

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