From Irish Immigrant to Cattle Queen

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

Margaret Heffernan Borland

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 at the outbreak of the war, Margaret’s mother fled with her four children to the presidio at Goliad, and they were spared the massacre because they were so fluent in Spanish that they were thought to be Mexicans. I suppose that story must be true since I know of no record of women and children (Texan or Mexican) being massacred at Goliad.

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. 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 this flowery comment about 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 maidenhood.”

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 widow and owner of the 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 trails 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 was called both “trail fever” and “congestion of the brain.” She died on July 5, 1873, before she had time to sell her cattle

Margaret Borland,
Collection of Library of Congress on deposit at Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth.

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.

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TALES ABOUT JOHN WESLEY HARDIN

John Wesley Hardin
Wikipedia

The handsome and gentlemanly John Wesley Hardin, son of a Methodist preacher, was named after the founder of the Methodist Church. Perhaps his proper upbringing caused “Wes” to view himself as a pillar of society who claimed he never killed a man who didn’t need killing. The number of dead differ, as do the stories about his escapades, but John Wesley Hardin managed in his forty-two years to kill at least thirty men. Some accounts claim forty.

Born in Bonham in 1853, Hardin at age fourteen stabbed a fellow student in a schoolyard fight. He might have been expelled for the incident except his father founded and ran the school. Like many men too young to fight in the Civil War, Hardin became the product of the hatred generated by the conflict. The restrictive policies and draconian laws of the Reconstruction government fueled anger, which encouraged citizens, especially impressionable young men, to lash out at freed slaves and at black members of the Union army sent to enforce the new order. A year after the stabbing, Hardin met a black man, got into an argument, and shot the man dead.

His relatives, sure that Wes could not receive a fair trial from the Reconstruction government, encouraged him to flee, which began a pattern of relatives and friends hiding Hardin from the law. When Hardin heard that three Union soldiers were headed for his hideout at his brother’s house, he later wrote: “I waylaid them, as I had no mercy on men whom I knew only wanted to get my body to torture and kill. It was war to the knife for me, and I brought it on by opening the fight with a double-barreled shotgun and ended it with a cap and ball six-shooter. Thus it was by the fall of 1868 I had killed four men and was myself wounded in the arm.”

Some accounts say within a year he killed another soldier. All stories agree that Wes Hardin served at age 17 as trail boss for a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. One account says he got into an argument with Mexican cowboys who tried cutting their herd in front of his. All the stories about the cattle drive agree that John Wesley Hardin killed six or seven men on that trip to Abilene, Kansas.

Some say Hardin became friends with city marshal Wild Bill Hickok whom he admired. Others say he forced Hickok to stand down. Whatever really happened, Hardin left Abilene in a hurry. He wrote regarding the episode, “They tell lots of lies about me.  They said I killed six or seven men for snoring. Well, it ain’t true, I only killed one man for snoring.” The gentleman to whom he refers slept in the next hotel room and Hardin shot through the wall to stop the snoring.

Wild Bill Hickok
Wikipedia

Hardin returned to Central Texas, married Jane Bowen a beautiful cultured girl from a respectable family who had been his childhood sweetheart. He did not, however, settle down. Despite constant absences, while he ran from the law, Jane remained loyal.  After being arrested, breaking out of jail, and taking sides in a major Central Texas feud, Hardin finally killed a deputy sheriff. Finding himself under constant pursuit, Hardin fled with Jane and their three children to Florida where they lived for two years under an alias. Some accounts claim he killed as many as six men while he was on the run.

Finally caught in 1877, Hardin stood trial in Austin and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for killing the deputy. While in prison, he made repeated escape attempts, read theology, served as superintendent of the prison Sunday school, wrote his autobiography, and studied law. He received a pardon from the governor in 1894 and was admitted to the Texas bar.

After raising their three children, Jane died while Hardin served his prison term.  Upon his release, he headed to El Paso where he opened a law practice, became involved with a client’s wife, and hired several law enforcement officers to assassinate the husband. One of the hires, Constable John Selman, possibly angry over not being paid for killing the husband, found Hardin in the Acme Saloon and shot him in the back of the head. Hardin died instantly. The career of one of Texas’ most notorious killers came to an end on August 19, 1895, but the legends and legacy continue to stir imaginations.

Waco’s Bridge Over the Brazos

After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River. No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas. During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river. Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time. Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning. Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000. The investors continued to issue new stock offerings. The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads. The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed. Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each. It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls. Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach fords on the river. The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing. Today shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker. In 2008 sculptor Robert Summers created “Branding Brazos,” the first of several bronze figures on the south side of the bridge that depict a trail boss driving longhorns on the Chisholm Trail.

Lady Trail Driver

Margaret Heffernan Borland

Margaret Heffernan Borland

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.

Backstory of Historical Fiction

In the early 1970s, while living on the Texas coast, I interviewed a ninety-four-year-old woman about her German ancestors who had come into Texas through the thriving seaport of Indianola.  Her family did not travel inland as so many other Germans had done.  Instead, they stayed and helped build the farming and cattle region along the central Texas coast.

My old black tape recorder made her nervous, which forced me to scribble notes as I listened to her account of those long-ago days.  She shared her memory of the 1886 storm that totally destroyed the thriving seaport of Indianola.  She was six years old when the hurricane hit, and fortunately her family lived several miles from Indianola.  She recalled her parents lowering her into a dry cistern during the storm.  She remembered her father climbing a ladder to the top of the cistern, lifting the lid and saying, “there goes the barn.”  Finally, he said, “there goes the house.”

Her stories kept stirring my imagination over the years as I delved deeper into the history of Indianola, which had become a ghost town as the result of that storm.  On Sunday afternoons, when we joined other families at the Indianola Beach to water ski and sail, I was captured by the desolate, flat shoreline where a lone shellcrete cistern weathered among the weeds, and the foundation of the old courthouse peeked above the waves just beyond the shore.

When I wrote Legacy, a coming-of-age novel set in a small Texas town during the last year of World War II, some of the imagery I captured from that long-ago interview became the words that Miranda, the young girl in Legacy, loved to hear about her grandpappy’s experiences on the Chisholm Trail:  “So many cattle being driven north that one trail almost ran into the next.  At night, when the cowboys settled down, they could see off ahead and way behind, little firefly flickers of other campfires dotting the countryside.

“Indians lined the way.  Never bothered them except to slip away with a loose cow or one of the extra horses.  Sometimes they rode past swarms of Indians standing along the trail like they were watching to see if the men might look away, give them a chance to pick up a meal for their whole outfit.

“When storms came and lightning flashed, the herds got scared and started to run.  They had to ride hard, turn the herd back onto itself.  Grandpappy said he never let himself think of the prairie dog holes his horses might step in as he rode.  He always laughed real husky and whispered, “if I’d thought of it, I’d a shook out of my boots right there in those stirrups.  No sir, a man’s got to do some things without thinking.”

She also told me that when she was a young woman, back before there was a causeway, she sailed her sloop across the bay to teach school all week.  If the weather was good on Friday afternoons, she sailed back for the weekend at her parent’s home.  Mrs. Watkins, one of the characters in Legacy, shared that story about her own girlhood.

But the one story I heard in that interview that haunted me all these years was something she mentioned only in passing:  A German woman and her children arrived in Indianola after watching her husband and their papa, who was drunk, leap back and forth from the ship to the dock.  As the ship pulled away, he fell to his death in the river.  That story filled my imagination and finally developed into Stein House, my latest historical novel, a family saga set in Indianola between 1853 and 1886. Helga Heinrich became that German widow who operates Dr. Stein’s boarding house overlooking the road to Texas’ interior and the fickle waves of Matagorda Bay. The colorful characters that live in the Stein House are entwined with the turmoil of the Civil War, the threats of yellow fever and the horror of the infamous 1886 hurricane. Stein House is a tale about Texas history that evolved from an afternoon interview almost forty years ago.  It is in production, and I will let you know when it’s published.  In the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the amazing history that took place on the Central Texas Coast.

Diorama created by Jeff Underwood, photograph by Philip Thomae from the Collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

Diorama of Indianola in 1875, created by Jeff Underwood, photograph by Philip Thomae from the Collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

Waco’s Suspension Bridge

Slide49After the Civil War, Waco was a struggling little town of 1,500 nestled on the west bank of the Brazos River.  No bridges crossed the Brazos, the longest body of water in Texas.  During floods, days and even weeks passed before travelers as well as cattle on the Shawnee and Chisholm trails could safely cross the river.  Although money was scarce and times were hard during recovery from the war, a group of businessmen formed Waco Bridge Company and secured a twenty-five-year contract to construct and operate the only toll bridge for five miles up and down the river.

John A. Roebling and Son of New York designed the 475-foot structure, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world at that time.  Waco’s bridge served as the prototype for Roebling’s much-longer Brooklyn Bridge completed in 1883.

The fledgling Waco company ran into problems from the beginning.  Work started in the fall of 1868 with costs, originally estimated at $40,000, growing to $140,000 as the investors continued to issue new stock offerings.  The nearest railroad stopped at Millican, over 100 miles away, which meant that coils of wire and cable, steel trusses, and custom-made bolts and nuts had to be hauled to Waco by ox wagon over rutted, sandy roads.  The contractor floated cedar trees down the Brazos for shoring up the foundation in the unstable riverbed.  Local businesses made the woodwork and the bricks.

Slide50The bridge opened to traffic in January 1870 with tolls of ten cents for each animal and rider; loose animals and foot passengers crossed for five cents each; and sheep, hogs, or goats crossed for three cents each.  It was not long until residents on the far side of the river began complaining about the tolls.  Businessmen who used the facility joined them in their protests.

Landowners along the river began allowing cattlemen, travelers, and local citizens to cut across their property to reach the fords on the river.  The uproar increased for the next nineteen years, until September 1889, when the Waco Bridge Company sold the structure to McLennan County for $75,000 and the county gave the bridge to the city.

Vehicles continued using the bridge, without paying a toll, until 1971 when it was converted to a pedestrian crossing.  Today lovely, shaded parkland edges both sides of the river and the bridge enjoys a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and designation by a Texas Historical marker.  Slide51

SHANGHAI PIERCE, A FAIR LIKENESS

It is unusual for a cattleman to come to Texas as a stowaway on a ship.  But that is exactly how 19-year-old Abel Head Pierce made his way to Port Lavaca in 1854.  Discovered when the ship reached the high seas, he earned his passage by mopping the deck and hauling cargo at ports-of-call along the six-month journey.

Soon after landing with only the clothes on his back and seventy-five cents in the pocket of his too-short britches, Pierce met William Bradford Grimes, “the most important cattleman in the region.”  Grimes hired the greenhorn to split rails, apparently thinking the six foot-four giant with the booming Yankee accent needed to learn some lessons about the cattle business.  Immediately Pierce informed his new employer that he wanted to be paid at the end of the year in cows and calves because he planned to go into the cattle business.

Pierce set about his work on the ranch with industry, rising early, and quickly taking on other responsibilities.  In his eagerness to prepare for his future as a cattleman, Pierce hired a blacksmith to forge his own brand and then proudly showed the “AP” to Grimes.  Chris Emmett in his delightful book, Shanghai Pierce: A Fair Likeness, says at the end of the year, when time came for payment, Grimes “cut four old cows and three scrawny calves from the run of range cattle….” As winter set it, the cows died, leaving Pierce with only the calves to show for a year of work.  Grimes bragged that he gave Pierce his “first degree in the cattle business.”

The origin of the moniker “Shanghai,” claims an unclear pedigree.  Glorying in his self-appointed image as a storyteller and entertainer, he relished an audience whether gathered around a campfire among cowboys or in later years among dignitaries.  At times he alluded to school days in Rhode Island when “Shanghai” was a fighting word.  Then he claimed it became a “brand of distinction.”  He said, “I do not have time to fight everybody who wants to fight me.  If I take that much time off I will not have time to take their money away from them.” His nephew said in later years that he “looked so much like the long-necked, long-legged rooster from Shanghai that they named him after his counterpart.”  Chris Emmett tells of another version, usually whispered, “came because he ‘shanghaied’ so many people out of their property.”  He often made fun of his size by claiming he was born in Rhode Island, but the state got too small for him. When he lay down, his head landed in the lap of somebody in Massachusetts and his feet bothered someone in Connecticut.

Shanghai did not leave Grimes’ employ when Grimes cheated him out of his first year’s pay.  Instead, he stayed on to work for the richest cattlemen in South Texas.  Shanghai rounded up mavericks and branded them for Grimes at $1 a head.  He told a fellow cowboy at the end of the year, “I’m damn glad he [Grimes] didn’t ask me whose branding iron I used this year.”  That spelled the beginning of Shanghai Pierce’s cattle acquisitions.

At the end of the Civil War, when some of the men bragged about their accomplishments and tried to tease Shanghai about being the regimental butcher, he boasted:  “By God, Sir; I was all the same as a major general: always in the rear on advance, always in the lead on retreat.”

After the war, when the only profit from beef lay in hides and tallow (the carcasses were fed to the hogs or thrown away), he went into the slaughter business. Finally, Shanghai Pierce became one of the first to drive a herd along the Chisholm Trail to market in Abilene, Kansas.  He quickly proved to be a cunning and able businessman, eventually acquiring up to 35,000 head of cattle and 250,000 south Texas acres.

In 1881, when the railroad came through his land Shanghai dreamed of Pierce’s Station becoming the county seat.  He did not get his wish, but he found another interest.  He wrote the railroad asking that two cars of lumber be deadheaded at Pierce because: “I am pioneering in another matter.  I am trying to introduce religion in the community.”  He ordered pews and a pulpit.  Shanghai proudly showed the new facility to all visitors.  One gentleman asked, “Colonel Pierce, do you belong to that church?”  “Hell, no!” Pierce shouted.  “The church belongs to me.”

Shanghai believed ticks caused fever in cattle and, after touring Europe, he decided Brahman cattle were immune to ticks because “’Bremmers’ sweated and the ticks fell off, and the cattle got fat thereafter.”  After his death in 1900, his estate imported Brahmans from India, beginning a new cattle industry for Texas.

During Shanghai’s European tour, the fine statuary caught his attention, and upon his return he commissioned a marble statue of himself created by sculptor Frank Teich.  They agreed on payment of the $2,250 commission only if Shanghai felt satisfied that the statue represented a fair likeness of himself.  As workmen placed the life-size marble statue atop a ten-foot granite pilaster, mounted on another ten-foot piece of gray granite, Pierce sat with a friend watching the finishing touches.  A small black boy approached the statue and after walking round and round the figure and looking again and again at Shanghai, the boy said, “Mr. Shanghai, that sure does look like you up there.”

“Ugh, by God.” Shanghai snorted.  “I’ll take it.”

Shanghai Pierce died on December 26, 1900, from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried beneath his massive likeness.