She buried three husbands and then hit the cattle trail in 1873 with her children and a grandchild in tow. Margaret Heffernan was born in Ireland, and when she was five years old, two Irish empresarios went to New York to recruit newly arrived immigrants to settle on their land grant in South Texas. In 1829 her father, who had been a candle maker in Ireland, became a rancher in the McMullen and McGloin Colony on the prairie outside San Patricio. Stories vary about how Margaret’s father died—either by an Indian attack or by Mexican soldiers in the lead up to the Texas Revolution. Another story claims that with the outbreak of the war for independence, Margaret’s mother fled with her four children to the presidio at Goliad, where they were spared the massacre because they were so fluent in Spanish that they were thought to be Mexicans. (I know of no record of women and children being massacred at Goliad.)
After Texas won its independence from Mexico, the family returned to San Patricio. Margaret married at nineteen, gave birth to a baby girl, and was widowed at twenty when her husband lost a gunfight on the streets of Victoria. A few years later Margaret married again, had two more children, and lost that husband to yellow fever in 1855. Finally about three years later Margaret married Alexander Borland, who was said to be the richest rancher in the county. Margaret bore four more children. One of her sons-in-law, the Victoria Advocate newspaper editor and historian, Victor Rose, wrote of Margaret Borland: “a woman of resolute will, and self-reliance, yet was she not one of the kindest mothers. She had, unaided, acquired a good education, her manners were lady-like, and when fortune smiled upon her at last in a pecuniary sense, she was as perfectly at home in the drawing room of the cultured as if refinement had engulfed its polishing touches upon her mind in maiden-hood.”
Margaret partnered with her husband in the ranching business; however 1867 proved to be another year of tragedy. Alexander Borland died in the spring while on a trip to New Orleans. Later that year a dreadful yellow fever epidemic that swept inland from the Texas coast, killed thousands, including four of Margaret’s children and one infant grandson.
As the sole owner of the Borland ranch, Margaret managed its operations and enlarged her holdings to more than 10,000 cattle. The Chisholm Trail had proved so profitable that in the spring of 1873 Margaret led a cattle drive of about 2,500 head from Victoria to Wichita, Kansas. She took a group of trail hands, two sons who were both under fifteen, a seven-year-old daughter, and an even younger granddaughter. After reaching Wichita, Margaret became ill with what has been called both “trail fever” and “congestion of the brain.” She died on July 5, 1873, before she had time to sell her cattle.
Although at least four women are known as “Cattle Queens” for having taken the cattle trail, it is thought that Margaret Heffernan Borland was the only woman to ride the trail without being accompanied by her husband.