One of my favorite stories about a woman on the cattle trails is that of Estelle “Amanda” Nite Burks for the very reason she found herself on the dusty, hoof-hardened, dangerous path they called the Chisholm Trail—her husband couldn’t be without her. She relates her adventures in The Trail Drivers of Texas, compiled and edited by J. Marvin Hunter, first released in 1924.
Ready to handle anything, Amanda was tested a number of times but her biggest problem seemed to be playing with fire, literally. As she relates it:
“On one occasion a prairie fire ran us out of camp before breakfast. We escaped by fleeing to a part of the plain which had been burned before, called a “a burn’ by people of that section.
Two days later my ignorance was the cause of an immense prairie fire. I thought I would build a fire in a gulley while the cook had gone for water. Not later than I had struck the match than the grass all around was in a blaze which spread so quickly that the men could not stop it. They succeeded in beating out the flanks of the fires so that it did not spread out on the sides at the beginning. The fire blazed higher than a house and went straight ahead for fifty miles or more. Investigators came next day to find out who the culprit was, and when they learned that it was a woman, nothing was said, except for a remark one of the men made that he was glad that he didn’t strike that match.”
Far from being resented by the cowboys who made the trip, she was beloved. Branch Isbell fondly recalls, in the same book, going up the trail with Amanda in attendance. “Being a ‘tenderfoot,’ I was started in at the rear end of the herd and Mrs. Burks took me under her protecting wing. I verily believe that her business success since her widowhood began, has been given her as a reward for unfailing kindness to myself and others.”
She had many notable experiences from fire, to getting lost, to plunging into creeks and avoiding stampedes. But in the spirit of a true Texan, she summed up her adventures, thus:
“I arrived home in much better health than when I left it nine months before.
Please don’t think now that I’ve finished telling the few stories of my trip over the Old Kansas Trail, that the journey was one of trials and hardships. These incidents served to break the monotony of sameness of such a trip.”
She concluded: “For what woman, youthful and full of spirit and the love of living, needs sympathy because of availing herself of the opportunity of being with her husband while at his chosen work in the great out-of-door world?”
After her husband died, Amanda continued to run the cattle ranch, diversifying to sheep ranching and expanding her ranch and buying others until it was one of the largest in her county. She was known as a good rancher and an even better businesswoman. She was elected Queen of the Old Time Trail Driver’s Association in 1924 and was immortalized in Emerson Hough’s fictional book based on her life, North of 36, which became a film and was later remade as The Texans in 1938. Anyone remember that one?
Some of the film was shot at her ranch, La Motta. She continued to mourn her husband, who she supposedly fell in love with at first sight, for the fifty-one years she outlived him, refusing to wear anything but black or white with only a bit of lavender now and again as an accessory.
Amanda was a woman of spirit and grit but she never forgot she was also a lady.