Borglum was born in a log cabin near Bear Lake, Idaho on March 25, 1867, the son of Danish immigrants. After growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, he was educated in a Jesuit school in Kansas. At age 17 he went with his family to Los Angeles where he worked as a lithographer and in his leisure began sketching cowboys, Indians and western scenes. He studied in San Francisco during 1885-88 with Virgil Williams at the School of Design, Wm Keith, and Elizabeth Jaynes Putnam whom he married in 1889. The couple moved to Paris for further art study at Académie Julian and Ecole des Beaux Arts. In Paris he began studying painting but soon turned to sculpting, and while there was greatly influenced by Rodin. Borglum exhibited both oils and sculpture of western themes at the Paris Salons of 1891 and 1892, and by 1895 had achieved an international reputation.
In 1902, Borglum returned to the U.S. and his white stone bust of Lincoln was placed in the rotunda of the Capitol. He had studios in New York; Raleigh, North Carolina and San Antonio until 1937 when he bought a home in Santa Barbara, California. He died in Chicago on March 6, 1941 while on a speaking tour and was entombed in the Court of Honor at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California. His most famous work, done from 1927 until 1941, is the heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt at Mt Rushmore. Over 60 feet high and blasted out of solid granite, his son, Lincoln, finished the work in 1945.