Women on the Chisholm Trail
Traditionally, women of the 1800s supported family life on the plains by bearing and taking care of children, maintaining the home and being supportive wives. However, a number of women defied the gender norms of the day and took on the responsibility of managing their ranches and even riding the Chisholm Trail. A few of the most notable include: Margaret Hefferman Borland, Estelle “Amanda” Nite Burks, Harriet “Hattie” Standifer Cluck and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Williams.
Harriet “Hattie” Standifer Cluck
Believed to be the first woman to ever travel the Chisholm Trail, Hattie rode in wagon with her young children while pregnant. A story of Harriet’s time on the trail recalls Harriet crossing a flooding Red River on horseback as the wagons were floated across the river. In 1930, and for the next several years, she was interviewed for newspaper and magazine articles (and one book), cementing her legend as a true cowgirl and Chisholm Trail pioneer.
Hattie would return to Texas with her family, becoming a postmistress. She died in Waco at her daughter’s home in 1938. In 2003, Round Rock, TX dedicated a park to commemorate the trail which included a sculpture of Hattie Clark.
Margaret Hefferman Borland
A widow three times over, Margaret threw herself into the cattle business after her last husband’s death, buying and selling livestock and increasing her herd to 10,000 head. In early spring of 1873, Margaret decided to drive 1,000 cattle up the Chisholm Trail. Only three of her seven children survived the yellow fever epidemic of 1867, leaving no one to take care of her three young children, she had no choice but to take them with her.
Most likely to be the only woman to run her cattle drive all the way from Texas to Kansas, Margaret was the first female trail boss, which gave her both the ultimate authority and responsibility. She reached Wichita, Kansas after two months on the trail. The Wichita Beacon newspaper reported her arrival on June 4, 1873. Sadly, Margaret was stricken by “trail fever” shortly after her arrival and passed away. Despite her tough attitude, a local paper stated that she had "become endeared to many in town on account of her lady-like character." Margaret was returned to Texas and is buried in Victoria, TX.
Estelle “Amanda” Note Burks
Amanda traveled the Chisholm Trail with husband, W.F. Burks after the newlyweds couldn’t stand being apart. Just a few miles out, he sent back for Amanda to travel the trail with him. Traveling in style befitting a cattle baron wife, she rode in a buggy drawn by two horses and had servants that cooked and put up her tent at night. Otherwise, she lived like the other cowboys.
After her husband died, Amanda remained active in managing her ranch, La Mott, diversifying to sheep ranching and eventually growing into one of the largest ranches in the county. She was known as a good rancher, but even better businesswoman. In 1923, she was elected Queen of the Old Trail Drivers Association and died in 1931.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Johnson Williams
Lizzie may not have been the first, but she was known for being first to travel with her own purchased cattle and for making the trip at least twice between 1887 and 1889, earning her the nickname, “The Cattle Queen of Texas. A former school teacher who established her own primary school in Austin, she would later recognize the profits to be made in cattle after keeping books for prominent cattlemen. On June 1, 1871, she registered her trademark cattle brand under the name Elizabeth Johnson and was officially able to purchase her own cattle.
She was a fierce young woman that involved herself in all aspects of the cattle business. Married to Hezekiah Williams in 1879, the couple each had their own herds traveling the Chisholm Trail. Lizzie was the better business partner and often times was responsible for getting her husband out of debt while providing accounting services to many other cattle owners.
Once her husband passed away, Lizzie lived out the rest of her life in a small apartment in a building she owned on Austin’s Congress Avenue. It’s said that she lived an eccentric, miserly life, largely keeping to herself. She died in 1924, leaving a large estate including a large collection diamonds, jewelry and cash. Surprising Austin citizens with a net worth of $250,000 in cash, property and land holdings.
These strong, independent women were a part of the great history of the Chisholm Trail, despite often being overlooked by the history books.