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Texas Women On the Chisholm Trail

Texas women served many roles in helping to develop the old west. Their traditional roles in support of family life on the plains, however, underwent a significant transition during the Civil War when their husbands and older sons went off to war. They now had to care for farms and ranches on their own, sometimes getting letters from their husbands with instructions for farming or ranch operation and sometimes not. During the war, unfortunately, many of their husbands and sons were killed and did not return. After the war, many women continued to develop roles as ranch owners with their own herds, some of whom went along to protect their interests when taking their herds from Texas to the railroads in Kansas to get their cattle to the northern markets.

The largely untold stories of women on trail drives surprises many and is the focus of a book edited by Sara R. Massey. Her book tells the stories of 16 women on the cattle trails. That book and two other references are listed at the end of this story. I credit these references for most of the material in my story. I encourage interested readers to go to these original sources for the fascinating material found there. Those in the Fort Worth, Texas area interested in more detail on the Mollie Bunton story introduced below can visit an exhibit devoted to this woman at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. They are hoping to expand that exhibit to include other women on the range. The museum also chronicles the many other roles of women in the old west. The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame website provides information on their collection and programs they offer to the community.

Women on the Chisholm Trail

After the Civil War, the south had plenty of beef, the north needed beef, and railroads had not yet reached Texas. Much could be gained if Texas beef could be taken north to Kansas to get to the railroads. That was the function of the Chisholm Trail.

The Chisholm Trail wound through Texas and the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to Kansas. Those willing to spend two months of hardships battling weather, thieves, and Indians while moving two or more thousand onery critters along the trail could sell their cattle for up to ten times more per head in Kansas than they could in Texas. The dangers along the way also meant that all could be lost. Four women who chose to risk these dangers were Amanda Burks, Margaret Borland, Lizzie Johnson, and Mollie Bunton. All could claim the title of Cattle Queen.

Estelle Amanda Nite Burks

In her chapter in Massey's book, Lisa A. Neely notes that Amanda Burks accompanied her husband and their herd of cattle from Texas to Kansas in 1871. Her husband died early after but, like the stories of many other women in Texas during and after the Civil War, she remained active in successfully managing their ranch and increasing its value. She died in 1931 at the age of 90, outliving her husband by 54 years. She was elected Queen of the Old Trail Drivers Association in their annual meeting in San Antonio in 1923. Neely also reports that some believe Burks was the model for the female lead in the movie "North of 36," an early silent film which was re-done in the 1938 move, "The Texans."

Margaret Heffernon Dunbar Handy Borland

Phyllis A. McKenzie writes in Massey's book that Margaret Borland lost her third husband in 1867 when she took on the task of managing the ranch herself. In 1872 the railroads had reached Witchita, 100 miles closer to Texas than Abilene on the Chisholm Trail and, tempted by the profits that could be made, Borland decided to take a herd of her cattle from Victoria, Texas to Witchita, Kansas in 1873. Accompanying her were her 9 year old daughter, 14 and 16 year old sons, a 6 year old granddaughter, some hired hands and a cook. She survived the perils of the trip to Witchita but died in Wichita two months after getting there, at age 49, still trying to sell her herd.

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Johnson Williams

Sara Massey adds a chapter of her own to her book in describing "Lizzie" Johnson, another Cattle Queen. Lizzie's sister, Emily Jones Shelton, also adds to the story about this remarkable woman. (See reference below). Lizzie may not have been the first woman to make the trip up the Chisholm Trail but clearly earns her Cattle Queen title by making the trip at least twice between 1887 and 1889. Both Massey and Shelton describe Lizzie as a woman who had involved herself in all aspects of the cattle business for most of her life.

Although Lizzie Johnson had married Hezekiah Williams in 1879, they each had their own herds as they traveled the Chisholm Trail together. Her brand had been registered in Travis County in 1871--his in 1881. By all accounts, Lizzie was the more astute business partner of the two. She had to help her husband get out of debt often, requiring that he paid back money he owed her. (Note: After Texas won its independence from Mexico, it continued the Spanish practice of giving rights to married women, including the right to own separate property. When Lizzie Johnson married her husband, she had him sign a separate property agreement.)

In addition to her own cattle business, Lizzie Johnson had provided valued accounting services to many other cattle owners. When she died in 1924 at age 84, her large estate clearly demonstrated her business acumen.

Mary (Mollie) O. Taylor Bunton

Mollie Bunton made the trip up the Chisholm Trail as a new bride in 1886. In that trip, over 5,000 head of cattle were driven up the trail combining the herds of several owners making the trip together. Her story about that trip is written in her own words. (See reference below.) Her narrative gives a delightful account of life on the trail, including encounters with Indians and rattlesnakes. Prior to her trip up the Chisholm Trail, she shocked the ranch hands by wearing the new breeches and boots her mother gave her to ride astride her horse.

The End of the Chisholm Trail...but not the new roles for women

As the railroads reached ever westward, the Chisholm Trail ended closer and closer to Texas including Abilene, Ellsworth, and Dodge City. The U.S. government closed the Chisholm Trail in 1889 as railroads were reaching Texas, and the land making up the Chisholm Trail was fenced and turned into farmland. Although the Trail ended, the diverse contributions of women in the old west continued.

Note: An edited version of this story has been published in The Cowboy Chronicle (the journal of the Single Action Shooting Society--SASS) in its February issue, 2007, p. 16.

References for story:

  • A Bride on the Old Chisholm Trail in 1886 by Mary Taylor Bunton, 1939, Naylor Co: San Antonio, TX.
  • "Lizzie E. Johnson: A Cattle Queen of Texas" by Emily Jones Shelton, Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1947, vol 50, number 3.
  • Texas Women on the Cattle Trails by Sara R. Massey (Ed.) 2006, Texas A&M Univerity Press.