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Susan Shelby Magoffin
by Denise Damico
Eighteen-year-old Susan Shelby Magoffin left Independence, Missouri, to travel “Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico” in June, 1846, accompanied by her husband, Samuel Magoffin, a variety of servants and employees, and her dog, Ring. She was one of the first Anglo-American women to travel the Trail and enter New Mexico. Her trip coincided with that of the US invasion and occupation of New Mexico. Most importantly, Magoffin kept a detailed journal of her day‑to‑day activities giving modern readers insight into what daily life was like along the Trail and in New Mexico.
Born to a wealthy Kentucky family on July 20, 1827, Susan Shelby spent her childhood on her family's plantation, in a sheltered upbringing. Just a few decades earlier, however, Kentucky itself had been considered the “frontier.” The Shelby family had established a history of moving from the known to the unknown, from settlement to frontier. They moved from Pennsylvania to Tennessee and finally to Kentucky where Susan met and married Samuel Magoffin on November 25, 1845. Samuel Magoffin, also from a wealthy Kentucky family, was much older than Susan, and had known life on the frontier. By the time of Susan's trip in 1846, Samuel Magoffin and his brother James had been involved in the Santa Fe trade, which linked the United States (through Missouri) and Mexico (through Santa Fe), for almost two decades. The Magoffins, like other Anglo-American merchants, had economic ties that spread northeast to New York, where Samuel and Susan honeymooned, and south to Chihuahua and Saltillo, where the couple planned to travel.
Susan kept her journal to share her experiences with her family back home. Early entries in the diary reflect the enthusiasm of a young bride, sharing a “pioneer” experience with her husband. Susan Shelby Magoffin clearly adored Samuel Magoffin and referred to him as mi alma throughout. “My journal tells a story tonight different from what it has ever done before,” gushes Magoffin in her first entry. Her life on the trail would be radically different than what she had experienced in Kentucky though it would also be somewhat eased by the amenities of wealth. She noted early on in her travels that her tent was “a grand affair indeed,” and was the first house she kept as a married woman. Indeed, she called herself a “wandering princess” and traveled in relative comfort on the trail, with her tent, servants, and Ring, the dog.
The first part of her journal resembles that of Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies, of which Magoffin was clearly familiar. The journal recounts the people, animals, and plants that she encountered on the plains of present-day Kansas: “Passed a great many buffalo (some thousands),” she wrote, describing the creatures as “very ugly, ill-shapen things with their long shaggy hair over their heads and the great hump on their backs...,” but her unique point of view as a woman is obvious in her concern with the mule driver’s language, saying that they “scarcely... need be so profane” and by her many stops to gather flowers – at one point asking her servant, Jane, to do so for her. Susan and Samuel Magoffin and their entourage arrived at Bent's Fort on July 26, 1846, some six weeks after they left Independence. Bent's Fort, the trading center in present-day southeastern Colorado, was also the launching point of the American invasion force, the “Army of the West,” into New Mexico. The Army was at the Fort when the Magoffins arrived. Susan noted the prevalence of gambling by the soldiers and other male denizens of the Fort, including the presence of “a regular race track,” “the cackling of chickens” for cock-fighting, and “a regularly established billiard room!” There were other women at the Fort as well. Susan recounted socializing with “las senoritas,” including Native American and Hispanic women. Susan suffered a miscarriage while at the Fort, delaying the Magoffins' departure. She lamented: “In a few short months I should have been a happy mother and made the heart of a father glad.” She called the miscarriage the work of “the ruling hand of a mighty Providence” but noted that “he does not leave us comfortless!” often invoking religious sentiments in her journal.
At the time of Susan’s miscarriage, an Indian woman at the fort “gave birth to a fine healthy baby.” Susan’s description of the new mother's actions provides insight into the ethnocentric assumptions of many Anglo Americans in the mid-nineteenth century but also shows that Magoffin was also somewhat empathetic. She states in her journal that the woman “went to the River and bathed herself and it [the baby]” only half an hour after giving birth, and then goes on to say: “No doubt many ladies in civilized life are ruined by too careful treatments during childbirth, for this custom of the heathen is not known to be disadvantageous, but it is a 'heathenish custom.'”
The Magoffins left Bent's Fort on August 7, 1846. After the difficult journey through “the Raton” [Raton Pass], they arrived at the first New Mexican town along the Santa Fe Trail, “Mora creek and settlement,” on August 25th. Susan's first impression of the New Mexicans she encountered reflected common Anglo stereotypes of the time. She described the houses she encountered as “genteel pigstys in the States,” but tempers her initial response by saying that “within these places of apparent misery there dwells that 'peace of mind' and contentment which princes and kings have oft desired but never found!”
Magoffin's journal detailed the ways in which she both mimicked and transcended her society's stereotypes of New Mexicans. The day after reaching Mora, the Magoffins arrived in “the Vegas” [Las Vegas]. Susan was shocked to see children “in a perfect state of nudity,” and women “clad in camisas and petticoats only; oh, yes, and their far famed rabosas,” and some women breastfeeding babies in public. Just a few days later, and in the context of her new surroundings, her opinion had changed. She confided, “I did think the Mexicans were as void of refinement, judgement & c.[ulture] as the dumb animals till I heard one of them say “bonita muchachita” [pretty little girl]! And now I have reason and certainly a good one for changing my opinion; they are certainly a very quick and intelligent people.” This quick change of perspective was often the case with newcomers. Interaction with fellow settlers was often an equalizing and humbling experience.
The Magoffins reached Santa Fe not long after General Kearny and the Army of the West, on August 31, 1846. The Army had faced little organized military opposition at the time of their invasion of New Mexico. James Magoffin (brother of Samuel and brother-in-law of Susan) had arrived in Santa Fe not long before the Army and may have bribed New Mexico's governor, Manuel Armijo, to not organize the New Mexican militia in resistance to the U.S. takeover.
Susan quickly became part of Santa Fe's high society, which in the months following the US invasion consisted of an eclectic mix of American Army officers, wealthy Anglo traders, elite Hispanos, and some Native American visitors. She met Doña Gertrudes Barcelo, also known as Doña Tules, who Magoffin described as “the principal monte-bank keeper [monte was a card game on which people gambled] in Santa Fé, 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 hall of final ruin.” Josiah Gregg, in his book Commerce Of The Prairies, is more magnanimous when he says: “She is openly received in the first circles of society: I doubt, in truth, whether there is to be found in the city a lady of more fashionable reputation than this same Tules, now known as Dona Gertrudes Barcelo.”
Magoffin’s descriptions of New Mexican culture are at once dismissive yet at times reflective as when she describes a priest’s style or lack thereof at a Catholic Church service she attended. She says that he “neither preached nor prayed, leaving each one to pray for himself; he repeated some Latin neither understood by himself or his hearers.” She then acknowledges that her observations are influenced by her Protestant religious background.
Many of the observations and descriptions of New Mexico and its people are unique to Magoffin’s journal. Her descriptions of her daily activities in Santa Fe, for example, centered on housekeeping, particularly managing servants and shopping for household goods but also on her daily interactions with locals. She befriended a young girl of “not more than six years old” who sold produce near the Magoffin household. She called the girl “my little protégé” and shows her attachment to her by saying “she is quite conversant in all things... Just to see the true politeness and ease displayed by that child is truly [amazing], 'twould put many a mother in the U.S. to a blush.” She also made the acquaintance of “Dona Juliana” who helped her speak Spanish, and introduced here to “an Indian chief” from the “tribe known as Comanche.”
The Magoffins left Santa Fe on October 7, 1846, about ten days after the Army of the West also moved on. Though she had been excited to set up housekeeping in an actual house, instead of a tent, Susan now reported that she was “impatient to leave.” On the journey south (down the Camino Real), Magoffin encountered “the Pueblos or descendants of the original inhabitants – the principal cultivators of the soil...” including people from Sandia pueblo. She also became privy to the ways of commerce on the trail. At “an Indian village,” she reported, there was a ready market for empty glass bottles. “We can buy in the States the filled bottles for three or four dollars a dozen, drink the liquor, and then sell the empty bottles for six dollars per doz.”
The Magoffins stayed for some time at San Gabriel, where Susan fell ill with a fever. While there, she learned some of the traditional New Mexican ways of “housekeeping,” again affording a perspective lacking in male accounts of life in New Mexico. She learned to make tortillas in San Gabriel, commenting that the work was “a deal of trouble” and which she had expected to be only “half the work” it turned out to be. The same “old lady” who taught her tortilla making also showed Susan her knitting techniques. Susan shared her own knitting technique which she termed “the much easier mode of the U.S.”
Although the Mexican War ran like a thread through the Magoffin’s time on the trail, Susan mentioned it only occasionally, spending more time on domestic concerns and describing the new people and sights she encountered. The month of December, 1846, was particularly stressful for the Magoffins because of constant rumors that James, Samuel's brother and business partner, had been arrested and/or killed.
In late January, 1847, the Magoffins left San Gabriel and again headed south. They had heard news of the rebellion at Taos, which Susan called “a perfect revolution.” Rumor held that the population of New Mexico was “rising between us and Santa Fe...and in truth we are flying before them.” On February 1, 1847, Susan wondered if she would “ever get home again?” The Magoffins traveled in a state of constant fear, of not only an uprising against Americans, but also of nature itself: they were now traveling south through the Jornada del Muerto (journey of death), a hostile and waterless stretch of desert.
The Magoffins reached Doña Ana on February 9, 1847 and then continued to head south. The rigors of travel began to take their toll on Susan and she began to regret having come on the journey. They reached El Paso and continued south to Chihuahua and Saltillo, following the route of the American army under General Doniphan. Her journal ends on September 8, 1847 though it is known that she became sick with yellow fever and at the same time, gave birth to a son in Matamoros, Mexico. The child did not survive.
Bad health plagued Susan on her trip down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico and throughout the rest of her short life. Following their journey to Mexico, Samuel Magoffin retired from the Santa Fe trade and moved the family to St. Louis. Susan gave birth to a daughter, Jane, in 1851, but soon after the birth of a second daughter, Susan, in 1855, Susan Shelby Magoffin died. Though she did not survive to see her thirtieth birthday, Susan's words live on in her diary and provide a unique perspective on life and travel from Missouri to New Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico during the mid 1800s.
July 30, 1827: Susan Shelby born near Danville, Kentucky.
November 25, 1845: Susan Shelby and Samuel Magoffin marry.
June 10, 1846: Magoffins leave Independence, Missouri, to travel “Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico.”
July 26, 1846: Magoffins arrive at Bent's Fort.
July 31, 1846: Susan Magoffin suffers miscarriage.
August 7, 1846: Magoffins leave Bent's Fort.
August 31, 1846: Magoffins arrive in Santa Fe.
October 7, 1846: Magoffins leave Santa Fe.
November 1846: Magoffins arrive in San Gabriel.
January 1847: Magoffins leave San Gabriel.
September 8, 1847: Susan Shelby Magoffin's journal ends.
1855: Susan Shelby Magoffin dies.
Manuel Alvarez Papers, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.
Women in New Mexico Collection, Center for Southwest Research, General Library, University of New Mexico.
Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, ed. Stella M. Drumm (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies. 1844. Reprint. Ed. Max Moorhead. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970.
Howard Lamar, “Foreword,” Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico, ed. Stella M. Drumm (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962).
Shannon Orr, “Susan Shelby Magoffin,” Encyclopedia of Women in the American West (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), 195-196.
Virginia Scharff, Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).