Susan Shelby Magoffin
The First American Woman to Travel the Santa Fe Trail
When scholars research history they often use what are called primary sources—original documents like diaries and journals. These first hand sources often provide valuable information and are particularly useful when written by someone involved in an historically important period.
And such was the journal kept by Susan Shelby Magoffin, the first American woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail, in 1846. The diary she maintained on her travels has long been an important source of information for historians. Also, though Susan did not live to an old age, the diary she began as an 18 year old newlywed has provided much insight into a unique period of American history.
Born in 1827, to a prosperous family on a plantation in Kentucky, Susan Shelby had a distinguished American lineage. Her grandfather was an American Revolutionary War hero, and Kentucky’s first governor, and Susan grew up wealthy and well educated.
At age 18 in 1845, she married Samuel Magoffin. He was 27 and a prosperous merchant who with his brother worked as a trader into what is now New Mexico. In addition, they traveled around the U.S. and Mexico, and thus became wealthy. After Susan and Magoffin were married, they lived briefly in New York, but then Susan accompanied her husband on his next journey.
On this trip they left Independence, Missouri—that was the eastern starting point for the Santa Fe Trail—in June, 1846. As usual they traveled in a group of other traders, in a party that consisted of 14 large wagons, pulled by six yokes of oxen each. Smaller mule-drawn carriages provided space for personal property and servants as well as space for riding when they didn’t want to walk. When they camped at night Susan stayed in a carpeted tent complete with bed and mattress and a table and chairs.
Susan began keeping a journal just after they left Independence and as they traveled she wrote most every day, recording her observations of plants, animals, terrain and especially the people they met. Though at the time war was an ongoing threat between U.S. and Mexico, her party encountered no problems, and in fact Susan was excited. In one early entry she described her experience and herself: “It is the life of a wandering princess, mine. When I do not wish to get out [of the carriage] myself to pick flowers, the Mexican servants riding on mules pick them for me…”
Also, since their travels took them across the Kansas prairies they encountered many buffalo and their meat became a menu item. At this time Susan wrote: “Such soup as we have made of the hump ribs, one of the most choice part of the buffalo…And the sweetest butter and most delicate oil I ever tasted ’tis not surpassed by the marrow taken from the thigh bones.” She also described the buffalo: “Passed a great many buffalo (some thousands); they crossed our road frequently within two or three hundred yards. They are very ugly, ill-shapen things with their long shaggy hair over their heads and the great hump on their backs, and they look so droll running.”
Near the end of July the party arrived at Bent’s Fort in Colorado, where they occupied spacious quarters, probably a welcome change from even a “luxurious” wagon. At the time there were American troops soon to head for Mexico during the ongoing hostilities. On July 31 Susan suffered a miscarriage which delayed their travels. They left a few weeks later and traveled on to a settlement in New Mexico where Susan was shocked at what she saw as primitive living conditions of the local residents. During this travel Susan had the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. It was a green chili stew which she disliked. She wrote: “I could not eat a dish so strong and unaccustomed to my palate.”
They arrived at Santa Fe on August 31, but despite some uneasiness in the military conditions of the time and place, they met no opposition. Though she had some difficulty adjusting to the new environment, Susan learned some Spanish, and settled into her adobe housing. Since there were definite economic classes in Santa Fe—poorer vs. the elite—they occupied the latter class and lived comfortably. One factor she had to adjust to was the different type of apparel worn by the local women. One source put it this way: “In her world proper ladies wore skirts covering their ankles and blouses buttoned to the neck. However, the Mexican women wore skirts showing their calves and low-cut blouses.”
Susan particularly noted one local saloon owner, Dona Gertrudes Barcelo who Susan described as “the principal monte-bank keeper in Santa Fe, a stately dame of a certain age, the possessor of a portion of that shrewd sense and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the final ruin.” (Monte Bank was a card game popular in Santa Fe at the time). Though the lady described probably operated a tavern that served as a community social gathering place, to Susan she was guilty of offering dangerous substances to her customers.
In October, 1846 Susan and her party left Santa Fe to travel to Mexico and on the way as they met the Pueblo Native peoples, and Susan became sick with a fever. However, during the time she learned how to make tortillas and some knitting tricks. They left in January, 1847, and made their way further into the territory. Then in February, 1847 the travelers arrived at El Paso Del Norte (possibly the area of what is now El Paso, Texas) where they resided at the home of a local priest, a domicile surrounded by orchards and vineyards.
Along the way Susan often had to adjust her preconceived ideas about the people she met—that Natives and Mexicans were poor and cruel. As she came to know them, she gradually changed her attitudes, especially after she encountered (to her) their unusual and even strange customs. One of these times was when a Native woman gave birth to a healthy child then a half hour later she went to a nearby river to bathe herself and her child. After seeing the woman repeat this daily, Susan wrote, “No doubt many ladies in civilized life are ruined by too careful treatments during childbirth, for this custom of the hethen [sic] is not known to be disadvantageous, but it is a “hethenish” custom.” However, by the time she reached El Paso del Norte she had become impressed with the manners of her Mexican hosts.
As the Magoffins continued to travel into Mexico, Susan acquired yellow fever in Matamoros, and also delivered a stillborn baby boy.
By 1848 the family were ready to leave for the U.S. and set sail from Mexico to New Orleans and then traveled north to stay in Lexington, Kentucky. They had a daughter, and then moved to live near Kirkwood, Missouri. However, Susan’s health had been severely damaged due after their Mexican trip and after a second daughter was born in 1855 the mother died in October of that year.
According to one source, “Her journal remains a valuable record of the development of the West. Unlike many male accounts she notes domestic issues and offers insight into women’s lives during the expansion period. Her journal also gives a detailed account of the war in Mexico and offers insight into how it affected traders like her husband.”
As Susan wrote about her new experiences: “Oh, this is the life I would not exchange for a good deal? There is such independence, so much free uncontaminated air, which impregnates the mind, the feelings, nay every thought, with purity, I breathe free without that oppression and uneasiness felt in the gossiping groups of a settled home.”
One recent version of the book has been published under the title Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico; The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847 and is available online.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.