Heroes Among Us Margaret Borland, Trail Boss

By Patti Wilson Contributing Editor

Margaret Borland was a successful cattle rancher and the first woman trail boss to drive a herd north after the Civil War.

I quit reading novels a long time ago. To this writer, nothing can top American history. Its relevancy is pure and its audacity refreshing. As the old adage goes, truth is stranger than fiction. To me, it is far more interesting.

An Irish Heritage

Ireland has always been a harsh land. Poor in natural resources, its hardy inhabitants have struggled mightily with nature and bad politics for hundreds of years.

Margaret Borland’s parents were no exception. Her father, a Mr. Hefferman, was a candlemaker who, seeking a better life, immigrated to America in about 1820 with his wife during the first wave of Irish immigrants. It was at least 20 years prior to the Great Potato Famine. Margaret was born in 1824 in New York City. Showing some spunk, the Heffermans took the advice of a land agent, John McMullen, and joined his party in a move to southern Texas.

According to the History of American Women website, womenhistoryblog.com, Margaret was a mere 5 years old when her family departed aboard a sailing ship down the East Coast, headed for their new home. They landed a ranch on the wild prairies near San Patricio and became successful cattle raisers.

Although the area was a haven for displaced Irish, it was already in political turmoil, with Mexican nationals and newly planted Texans squabbling over land rights. Six years after the Heffermans arrived, the Texas Revolution broke out.

The First Great Tragedy

Margaret’s father was killed by General Jose Urrea’s troops. His fledgling family, however, now included Mrs. Hefferman, Margaret and two sons. They loaded some possessions in a small cart and escaped.

Being raised in Mexican territory, the children spoke Spanish so fluently that, upon being accosted by Mexican troops, they passed as Mexicans themselves and escaped massacre. The four made their way to the fort at Goliad safely, where they remained until the end of the Texas War for Independence in 1836.

Mrs. Hefferman eventually returned to the ranch with her children and continued to raise cattle.

Margaret Reaches Adulthood

Another six years passed and Margaret, now an experienced rancher, met Harrison Dunbar. They were married and soon after produced a daughter. This happy scenario was brief; Dunbar became engaged in a pistol duel on a public street and left Margaret, then 20, a widow with a fatherless child. Margaret’s second marriage came in 1845 and contributed greatly to her later success. She and Milton Hardy put together 2,912 acres of their own land and a herd of cattle.

When tragedy struck her second union, Margaret lost her husband to cholera. By this time she had borne five children. One infant daughter passed away at birth and an infant son succumbed to cholera, leaving her with three children. One may think that multiple marriages were an oddity during that time in history.

It is not so; epidemics of many sorts that are now nonexistent claimed the lives of young people and medicine was a crude practice. The average lifespan of people in the U.S. in this era was 38 to 40 years of age. People remarried quickly simply to survive. As we will see, some did it to great advantage.

A Businesslike Couple

Widowed again, Margaret’s brother arrived to help her run the ranch for three years until she married for a third time in 1858. This time, she caught a man of great wealth, Alexander Borland. Their combined ranches made them the wealthiest ranchers in the Victoria, Texas, area.

According to History of American Women website, Borland was identified in the 1860 census as owning real estate valued at $14,500, a personal estate of $28,000 and 12 slaves. It was one of the largest spreads on the Texas coast, running 8,000 head. It is interesting to note that during the War Between the States, many Texas cattle ranchers drove herds to Kansas and Missouri to help feed the soldiers.

Borland Ranch did not participate in any wartime activities; the outfit stayed home and built their herd of longhorn cattle. Margaret and Alexander had four more children before tragedy struck once again: A yellow fever epidemic in 1867 killed Alexander and three daughters, a son and an infant grandson.

Now, only three of Margaret’s children were alive. Left to her own disgression, she continued to live her ranch life, hiring men to do the heavy work as she bought and sold livestock, increasing the head count to 10,000. She proved to be a fearless entrepreneur, as well. In 1867, close upon the yellow fever tragedy, she paid the U.S. government $9.17 to become a licensed butcher in Victoria, Texas.

Could this have made her, arguably, the nation’s first woman meat packer?

Yet Another Heartbreaker

The winter of 1871-1872 proved brutal. Bitter blizzards ravaged the United States, and reached their cruel hand clear down to Texas. Margaret lost thousands of cattle, unaccustomed to cold weather in the South.

They simply froze to death where they stood. In addition, spring not only broke the cold weather, it also broke the cattle market. Refusing to accept the $8 per head offered in San Antonio, she organized a cattle drive to Kansas City, where, reportedly, prices were $23.80 per head. At the age of 49, Margaret Borland packed up her remaining children and supplies, a group of drovers (some sources say six men) and headed up the Chisolm Trail to Kansas City.

Various websites report anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 head of cattle were on the trail. The children were a 6-year-old granddaughter, 8-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 14 and 15. Typical problems arose along the route, with the party arriving in Kansas City two months later. Nonetheless, the herd was still intact. By that time, the bottom “Margaret Borland was known as a kind and courageous lady who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. ”

Margaret was not well, becoming fatigued late in the drive. She took space at a local boarding house, receiving national notoriety for her remarkable accomplishment. After spending two months in town, she became familiar to the locals, who considered her a fair, honest and lovely lady. She did not, however, recover her health and died July 5, 1873, at the Planter House. Doctors diagnosed her with “trail fever” or “brain congestion.”

Speculators today might call it meningitis. Her sons were left to sell the herd and return her body and remaining family back to Texas.

A Courageous Example

Margaret Borland was known as a kind and courageous lady who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. She demonstrated an ability to succeed in alien and hostile territory and is deserving a special kind of remembrance.