Susan Shelby Magoffin gazed around the small, white-plastered room in Santa Fe and wondered if she might die there. No one seemed sure where the Mexican army was or how soon a battle might commence, but there was no doubt about the danger to herself and her husband now that her brother-in-law had been taken by the Mexicans as a spy. As she had since the start of her honeymoon journey, Susan recorded the day’s events in her journal:
December 1846, Tuesday 1st. News comes in very ugly today. An Englishman from Chihuahua, direct, says that the three traders, Dr. Conley, Mr. McMannus and brother James, who went on ahead to Chihuahua have been taken prisoners, the two former lodged in the calaboza [jail] while Brother James is on trial for his life.
The messenger who brought the ominous news had gone, but the impact of the latest information from Chihuahua still reverberated like an alarm bell. The fate of everyone associated with James Magoffin hung in the balance. What if her own dear husband, Samuel, left her behind to ride to his brother’s aid? They had been married less than a year, and, despite their strange honeymoon, she could not bear to be parted from the man she called mi alma, my soul.
She would insist on going, too, she thought. After traveling thousands of miles across wild and dangerous terrain and through the lands of unfriendly Native Americans on her prairie honeymoon, she had her courage to herself and her husband. She had survived the hazardous, 1,200-mile journey despite raging storms, wild beasts, hostile tribes, outlaws, and the awful, waterless desert they had traversed a few weeks before.
Only eighteen years old in June 1846, at the start of her journey down the famous Santa Fe Trail, Susan Shelby Magoffin put her life in the hands of her Creator and of the two men she most trusted–her husband and her brother-in-law.
James and Samuel Magoffin were well known as traders in the Southwest. At least once a year they took freight to the Mexican people and brought Mexican goods back to the United States. Two things had converged to make this trading venture different from any before it: the presence of Susan Shelby Magoffin, the first American woman to make the long, dangerous journey to New Mexico, and the secret mission carried out by her brother-in-law meant to take Santa Fe from Mexican hands.
The rebellion of Mexican and American colonists in Texas ten years earlier had gained the Texas Territory for the United States–now the goal was New Mexico. What no one had told the eighteen-year-old bride was that her brother-in-law secretly carried critical information and instructions concerning the conflict directly from the president. Mexico had declared war, and, in May 1846, Congress had authorized President James Polk to call 50,000 volunteers into the field. The wagons piled high with trade goods were perfect cover for the secret mission.
Years later the inside story of the expedition as seen by the innocent new bride was published. “It is the story of an expedition, ostensibly a trading enterprise by two brothers, James and Samuel Magoffin, partners in the overland freighting and merchandise business, one of whom was charged with a secret diplomatic commission of important historic interest,” explained the Kansas City Star upon the publication in 1926 of Susan Shelby Magoffin’s journal.
“President Polk wanted New Mexico brought under the American Flag, but he wanted a bloodless conquest, if possible,” the Star report noted. Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had recommended James Magoffin to Polk as “a man of sound mind, of generous temper, patriotic and rich, who spoke the Spanish language fluently, knew every man in New Mexico, his character and all the localities.” So, with letters in his pocket that could brand him a spy, James set out on his secret mission. Susan was blissfully ignorant of the plan when the caravan left Missouri in June 1846.
“Thursday, 11th. Now the Prairie life begins!” Susan wrote in high excitement as the wagons lurched forward on that first day. She and her husband rode in a comfortable carriage from which she observed the chaotic scene. Raised in an important and politically influential Kentucky family, Susan had never even dreamed of the kind of life she would lead while traveling down the Santa Fe Trail. She carefully recorded impressions in her journal, which clearly show her early excitement:
It is a common circumstance for a mule, while they are hitching him in, to break away with chains and harness all on, and to run for half hour or more with two or three horsemen at his heels endeavoring to stop him, or at least keep him from running among the other stock. I saw a scamper today . . . after a fine race one of his [the mule’s] pursuers succeeded in catching the bridle, when the stubborn animal refused to lead, and in defiance of all the man could do, he walked backward all the way to camp leading his capturer instead of being led.
The young bride traveled in a train of fourteen, large freight wagons, a baggage wagon, another for her maid, the carriage in which Susan and Samuel rode, and the reserve oxen and mules herded by several men. Altogether there were two women, twenty men, 200 oxen, nine mules, a couple of horses, some chickens, and Susan’s dog, Ring.
A few days into the journey, they met a trader going to Independence who related the latest news of the trail, including the fact that Natives near Pawnee Fork were giving a lot of trouble. Despite that ominous warning of danger ahead, Susan was thrilled with the freedom and adventure she’d never known as a gently reared Southern belle.
Ninety-five miles into the 1,200-mile journey, she wrote glowingly of life on the prairie. “There is so much independence, so much free, uncontaminated air, which impregnates the mind, the feelings, nary every thought, with purity. I breathe free without that oppression and uneasiness felt in the gossiping circles of a settled home.”
She had married trader Samuel Magoffin on November 25, 1845, at her home just south of Danville, Kentucky. Susan had older sisters, none of whom had married until well into her twenties. It was, perhaps, a little of her rebellious and adventurous spirit as well as a deep love for forty-four-year-old Samuel Magoffin that had prompted her marriage at eighteen. They’d spent the winter in Philadelphia and New York, waiting for spring and the start of the trading venture down the Santa Fe Trial.
There was also, underneath Susan’s good cheer, a well-concealed fear. At a beautiful spring near Council Grove, she delighted in the scenery and the fine water, but confessed in her journal the anxiety she concealed from her husband. “I could not suppress the fear, or rather the thought of some wily savage or hungry wolf might be lurking in the thick grape vines, ready at the first advantageous moment to pounce upon my shoulders.”
Susan traveled through searing summer heat, thunderstorms that rocked the plains, gale winds, torrential rains that flooded the tents and mired the wagons in mud, lightning storms, waterless camps with no wood for a cook fire, snakes, wolves, bison, and smaller nuisances such as mosquitoes and other insects she found particularly disagreeable.
On July 30, Susan celebrated her nineteenth birthday at Bent’s Fort, the last American outpost on the Arkansas River. She was ill, as she had been off and on during the long trip. A doctor at Bent’s Fort advised Samuel to take her to Europe for her health. Susan wryly pointed out that her prairie honeymoon had been undertaken for that very purpose. “I have concluded that the Plains are not very beneficial to my health so far; for I am thinner by a good many pounds than when I came out…”
One cause may have been yellow fever or malaria; the other, undoubtedly, was pregnancy. One week after the fateful night of her birthday, Susan sadly recorded the details of her travail:
August. 1846. Thursday 6. The mysteries of a new world have been shown to me since last Thursday! In a few short months I should have been a happy mother and made the heart of a father glad, but the ruling hand of a mighty Providence has interposed. After much agony and the severest of pains, which were relieved a little at times by medicine given by Doctor Mesure, all was over. I sunk off into a kind of lethargy into mi alma’s arms. Since that time I have been in my bed till yesterday.
As Susan labored to deliver a stillborn baby boy, she later reported that an Indian woman gave birth to “a fine, healthy baby, about the same time, and in half an hour she went to the River and bathed herself and it, and this she has continued each day since. Never could I have believed such a thing, if I had not been here.”
The army left the fort while she remained in bed. Many soldiers were too ill to travel with the troops. Her own state of mind was revealed in a journal entry. “One must have great faith in their Creator, great reliance on his goodness, not to feel sad and uneasy to see such things passing around them–their fellow creatures snatched off in a moment without warning almost–and they themselves lying on a bed of sickness.”
A few days later they left Bent’s Fort. The wagons and the seventeen men needed to drive them and handle the stock were all the guard they had. “If danger were near, I should be obliged to buckle on my pistols and turn warrior myself, rather a touch above me at Amazonianism,” she wryly confessed.
According to a report in Conquest of California and New Mexico, Susan turned warrior at least once:
She had it not in her nature to know fear. Through all the alarms of the camp, toils of the march, and the privations of the army, this lady was found cheerful. She was the charm of the social circle of the encampment in hours of ease, and in times of danger, brave as the bravest. Nor was her courage untried, for it happened that the carriage, getting off the line of march of the army, with only a small escort which had lagged behind, was suddenly ridden up by a squad of guerillas. Their further proceedings were instantly and timely stopped by the sight of a pair of pistols presented at them by a lovely woman.
Susan and Samuel traveled slowly down the trail behind the army that marched a few miles ahead. Everyone expected a battle at each likely spot. Prepared for a fight at Apache Canyon, where Mexican general Manuel Armijo reportedly waited with 7,000 troops and some artillery, the Americans were informed on the eve of battle that Armijo had fled. Lieutenant William Emory described the incident in his report, Reconnaissance in New Mexico and California. “As we approached the ancient town of Pecos, a large, fat fellow, mounted on a mule, came toward us at full speed, and, extending his hand to the general, congratulated him on the arrival of himself and the army. He said with a roar of laughter, ‘Armijo and his troops have all gone to hell, and the canyon is clear.’ “So General Stephen Kearney, with about 1,700 men, took Santa Fe in mid-August without firing a shot. Susan and Samuel arrived in Santa Fe less than two weeks later.
She had prayed her way across the plains, past the battlegrounds where the fierce Comanche and Kiowa ruled, through the deadly Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains, and into the comparative safety of Santa Fe, which had mysteriously been evacuated by the Mexican forces as General Kearney advanced.
Susan was somewhat reassured by the presence of American soldiers in Santa Fe. Some of the troops from the Army of the West were camped on the common across from her little adobe house. General Kearney’s troopers were eager for a fight, but, down in Chihuahua, 7,000 Mexican soldiers were reportedly under arms. Contradictory stories had been coming up the trail since the wagon train’s departure in July from the last American outpost at Bent’s fort where Susan had lost her first child.
No one knew exactly what to believe, but the presence of Kearney’s troops had provided a degree of comfort. Then in October, the Magoffins and other members of the band of traders departed Santa Fe, heading south after “peace” had been achieved. On the tenth of October, near Albuquerque, they learned that the Apaches were not peacefully inclined. “Report comes that Brother James has been robbed of all his things, carriage, mules, trunk, clothes etc, by the Apache Indians and escaped with his life only–how he escaped is a miracle to us. In robbing they always want the scalps, the principal part of the business.”
As they slowly traveled south toward the Rio Grande, messages came from traders ahead of them on the trail that Mexican troops were advancing: “An express came this evening from all the traders camped below us some thirty miles, with intelligence that a large force from Chihuahua is coming to take us–that they themselves are about corralling together and sinking their wagon wheels to the hubs for a breastwork in case of attack.”
Then her journal entries stop for nearly a month. Susan suffered through fever and pain for three weeks while the war effort ground to a halt. No attack came from Mexican troops, but no advance was possible, either, because the Mexican army held a vital pass. Three days into her illness, Susan’s husband moved her from the tent where they had camped into the town of San Gabriel, and the army doctor treated her with quinine pills, which finally broke the fever.
On November 25, the first anniversary of her marriage, Susan reflected on the year past. “We have not been stationary any time since that event–I cannot remember one [year] as short. And it has been a happy one too. I shall be contented if all we pass together are like it.”
Five days later she learned that her brother-in-law was on trial for his life, and that a large army under the direction of dreaded General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was marching north to retake New Mexico. Susan knew that if all the reports proved true and the scattered American forces lost the battle, she and Samuel would have to retreat. “We will certainly have to retrace our steps to Santa Fe and enter Fort Marcy for safety, for ’twill inspire this fickle people with such confidence as to his [Santa Anna’s] superior and almost immortal skill that en mass they will rise on our heads and murder us without regard.”
Meanwhile, Samuel’s other brother, William, who had followed by a week the departure of the wagon train from Independence, had also contracted malaria and was very ill. Susan rendered what aid she could while concealing the latest news of Santa Anna’s army.
On the eighteenth of December, the fate of James unknown, reports arrived that there were 700 Mexican dragoons in the pass and 3,000 more on the way. Only 900 American troops were nearby. “If this force comes against them, and there is scarcely a doubt of it, what will be the consequences–’tis painful to think of it–they must all be cut to pieces, everything seized, they march on to us here. I shall be torn from the dearest object to me on earth, perhaps both of us murdered, or at best he will be put into prison while I am sent to another without even my bible, or my poor journal to comfort me.”
On the twentieth, they learned that James was still a prisoner, and they rejoiced that he had not been executed for spying. By December 29, they were in the midst of Indian attacks and learned that Mexican troops had battled Americans eighty miles down the trail. Illness struck again, and Susan nursed her family while suffering from fever herself. Then they learned of a revolutionary battle in Santa Fe, where Mexicans had attempted to take the city and execute the American leaders. Fearing to be trapped between Mexican forces, the Magoffins packed up and started north.
By January 28, 1847, they were nearing the town of Bosquecito when another alarming message arrived. “The news is that the Taos people have risen, and murdered every American citizen in Taos including the Governor [Charles Bent]. That all the troops from Albuquerque [the regulars] have been ordered to Santa Fe, leaving this portion of the territory at the mercy of the mob.”
Susan prepared herself to fight. “Within our little tent we have twelve sure rounds, a double barreled shot gun, a pair of holster and one pair of belt pistols, with one Colt six barreled revolver–a formidable core for only two people to muster.” With a band of hostile Indians a few miles below them on the trail and Mexican troops in the field, Susan knew the chances were good that the guns would be necessary to survival. “I wonder if I shall ever get home again? But it is all the same if I do or do not. I must look farther ahead than to earthly things.”
Besides the specter of bloody battle–which luckily never occurred–the journey itself was dangerous. An eighty mile stretch called Journada del Muerto (dead man’s journey) was reached in February. They traveled across the desert at night and worried about attacks from warring Apaches by day. By March they were in El Paso, where, in addition to everything else, a gossiping Mexican woman asked if she were never jealous of her husband, and “was quite particular to explain to me at that moment he might be off with his other Senorita.”
Susan confided this tale to her journal, but refused to doubt her husband and did not tell him of the incident. News of the war was also bad, with rumors that General Zachary Taylor had been defeated at San Luis Potosi, General Wool blockaded in Monterey, a Mexican force of 8,000 capturing Colonel Doniphan’s small army, and Santa Anna preparing to invade Texas. James Magoffin, they were told, had been sent south under close guard to Durango. The only good news was that he had not been executed.
Then, a few days later, while expecting the citizens of El Paso to rise up and murder them, Susan learned that all the stories were false. General Taylor had not been defeated; instead, he had been taken to Chihuahua. More American forces also had arrived at Vera Cruz. Yet, they worried about James because he had been moved, and no one knew where.
For the next five months, Susan and Samuel waited for news of James. They traveled ever southward, staying for some time in Chihuahua while the Mexican army continued its fight to preserve its territory. While staying at Saltillo, Mexico, on July 26, they heard from an Englishman just back from Chihuahua that James had been murdered in his own bedroom at dawn. On August 15, they received a letter noting that a man named Aull had been murdered, but nothing was said of James–which raised hopes he was alive. On August 20, as they were getting ready to leave Saltillo, they learned James was safe. He had spent nine months as a prisoner, expecting execution almost daily as the tide of war ebbed and flowed.
Later they learned that James escaped execution only because of his popularity with Mexican officials and officers. Some details of the incident leading to his arrest were revealed by Captain Phillip Cooke in a letter written in 1849 supporting Magoffin’s efforts after the war to be paid for his services and reimbursed for expenses.
“His life was long in danger,” Cook wrote, “but I am happy to record that he dissolved all charges, prosecutions and enmities in three thousand three hundred and ninety-two bottles of Champagne wine.”
Samuel and Susan returned to Kentucky late in 1847. She gave birth to another son in Lexington, who died in childhood; a daughter, Jane, was born in 1851. Susan died in October 1855, Samuel in 1888. James, who had spent nine months imprisoned in Mexico while carrying out the orders of President Polk, later was reluctantly paid by the government only about half the money that had been appropriated for the mission.
The journal of Susan Shelby Magoffin and accounts of her presence by others during that fateful year provide a level of detail and a perspective unique to early annals of western expansion. It was a journey few women would have attempted. For Susan, it was an adventure of love and a journey of understanding and insight into the people of the West.