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Chisholm 150 feature: Women played significant role on the Chisholm Trail

by Amber Schmitz, Sumner Newscow — Women played many roles in helping the old west develop. During the Civil War, when husbands and older sons left to fight, traditional family roles changed significantly. Women learned to take care of their farms and ranches, as well as continuing to raise their children. Many times husbands and sons were killed in the war.

Once the war was over, many women developed roles as ranch owners. Some even had their own herds. And there were those who traveled the Chisholm Trail to take their herds from Texas to the railroads in Kansas so that their cattle would reach the northern markets.

It took courage for women to spend two months of battling hardships such as weather, thieves, and Indians. But they could sell their cattle for up to 10 times more per head in Kansas than Texas. Many dangers were often encountered along the way, and sometimes travelers could become lost. Four women who risked their lives to drive cattle up the Chisholm Trail were Amanda Burks, Margaret Borland, Lizzie Johnson, and Mollie Bunton.

Estelle Amanda Nite Burks

Amanda Burks accompanied her husband, W.F. Burks, on the Chisholm Trail herding their cattle in 1871. Being newlyweds, they couldn’t stand being apart, so he sent back for Amanda just a few miles out.

She fit the role of a cattle baron wife, riding in a buggy drawn by two horses, and having servants cook for her and put her up in a tent at night. Other than that, she lived like any of the cowboys.

After W.F.’s death, Amanda remained active managing La Motta, her ranch, branching out to sheep ranching, and eventually growing one of the largest ranches in the her county. She was known as a good rancher and even better businesswoman.

She was elected Queen of the Old Trail Drivers Association in 1923 and died in 1931. At the age of 90, she died in 1931, outliving her husband by 54 years. Many believe that Burks was the model for the female leading role in the movie “North of 36” an early silent film later redone in 1938 as “The Texans.”

Margaret Heffernon Dunbar Handy Borland

In 1867, after losing her third husband, Margaret Borland began managing her ranch by herself. By 1872, the railroads had reached Wichita, which was 100 miles closer to Texas than Abilene on the Chisholm Trail.

Borland is more than likely the only woman to run her cattle drive all the way from Texas to Kansas, and was the first female trail boss. In 1873, she decided to take a herd of 1,000 cattle from Victoria, Texas to Wichita, Kan. up the trail. She was accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, 14 and 16 year old sons, a six year old granddaughter, some hired hands and a cook.

Only three of her children were survivors of the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, leaving no one to take care of her three younger children, giving her no choice but to take them along.

Having survived the perils of traveling on the Chisholm Trail for two months, she made it to Wichita, then died two months later, at age 49, still trying to sell her herd of cattle.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Williams

Although Lizzie may not have been the first woman to travel the Chisholm Trail, she earned the title Cattle Queen by making the trip at least twice between 1887 and 1889. She is known for being the first female to travel with her own purchased herd of cattle. Her sister, Emily Jones Shelton, described her as a woman who involved herself in all aspects of the cattle business for most of her life.

Lizzie was a former school teacher who established her own primary school in Austin, Texas, and later learned the profits that could be made in the cattle business, after keeping books for many prominent cattlemen.

In 1879, Lizzie married Hezekiah Williams, but kept her herd separate from his as they traveled the Chisholm Trail together. Her brand was registered in Travis County in 1871 and his was registered in 1881. She often had to help her husband get out of debt, requiring that he pay back the money that he owed her.

After Texas won its independence from Mexico, they continued the Spanish practice of giving rights to married women, which included the right to own separate property. When Lizzie married Hezekiah, she made him sign a property agreement.

Once her husband died, Lizzie lived the remainder of her life in a small apartment building she owned on Austin’s Congress Avenue. It is said that she lived an eccentric, miserly life, mostly keeping to herself.

Lizzie provided valuable accounting services to many other cattle owners, in addition to having her own cattle business. She died at age 84 in 1924 leaving a large estate, including a large collection of diamonds, jewelry and cash.

Harriet “Hattie” Standifer Cluck

Hattie Cluck is believed to be the first woman to ever travel on the Chisholm Trail. While pregnant, she rode in a wagon with her two young children.

A story recalling her time spent on the trail says that Harriet crossed a flooding Red River on horseback as the wagons were floated across the river. In 1930, and for several years following, newspapers and magazines interviewed her for articles. She even had one book interview, which cements her legend as a true cowgirl and Chisholm Trail pioneer.

Eventually, Hattie returned to Texas with her family, and became a postmistress. In 1938, she died at her daughter’s home in Waco. In 2003, Round Rock, Texas dedicated a park commemorating the trail, and included a sculpture of Hattie.

Mary “Mollie” O. Taylor Bunton

In 1886, Mollie Bunton made the trip up the Chisholm Trail as a new bride. During that trip, over 5,000 head of cattle were driven up the trail, combining herds of several owners making the trip. Prior to her trip up the trail, ranch hands were shocked by her wearing the new breeches and boots her mother gave her to ride astride her horse.

As railroads reached west, the Chisholm Trail ended closer and closer to Texas, including Abilene, Ellsworth and Dodge City. In 1889, the U.S. Government closed the trail, as railroads were reaching Texas, and land making up the Chisholm Trail was fenced off and turned into farmland.

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