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Women and war on the Santa Fe Trail

by Nancy Christofferson

Magoffin, Susan Shelby.  1827 - 1855.  Photograph, ca. 1850.  Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections.  N12846.
Magoffin, Susan Shelby. 1827 – 1855. Photograph, ca. 1850. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. N12846.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN SOUTHWEST —    1846 was a pivotal year for the Santa Fe Trail as well as for all those people on each end and those preparing to travel it. It has been termed the “Year of Decision”.

   Some of the travelers had started so late in the season they were still on the plains during winter of 1845-46. At least two parties had started from Santa Fe in late December, and, no surprise, reported “exceedingly severe weather” on the Kansas prairie during January. One had actually crossed the Arkansas River on ice, but, on the other hand, they saw more buffalo “than had ever been seen before by the oldest traders”. The other party had actually begun the trip from Chihuahua, which had been the trail terminus since early days for those engaged in trade with Old Mexico. Even some of those destined for Chihuahua were called Santa Fe traders because they maintained outlets in New Mexico. The Chihuahua caravan returned to Missouri with some $35,000 in coin, sent by Mexican traders to pay the bills they’d run up back in the States.

   The best thing about winter travel, they discovered, turned out to be the lack of warriors along the way looking for food, horses or merchandise.

   Shortly after these wagon trains had departed, Dr. Eugene Leitensdorfer and his wife Soledad, daughter of Santiago Abreu, a former provincial governor of New Mexico, set off from Santa Fe for Bents Fort and points east with three wagons and 100 mules. They completed the journey in less than a month, possibly due to the frozen ground that did not hinder travel. Lt. James W. Abert, still out surveying the prairies surrounding the tributaries of the Arkansas in 1847, wrote that he found a tree on which was carved the names of the party, the date March 11, 1846, and the words “A storm”, which indicated the group had perhaps holed up at the site.

   More caravans pulled into Independence and the new town of Kansas, Missouri, precursor of Kansas City, throughout the spring. The settlement soon became known as Kansas Landing and then Westport.

   In May Francis Parkman, author of magazine articles and a book about the Oregon Trail, left Missouri in May and returned around the first of September. He had traveled as far as Fort Laramie in Wyoming on the Oregon Trail, then proceeded south to around today’s Pueblo and made the trip east by way of the Santa Fe Trail.

   The announcement by President James W. Polk on May 13 of a state of war existing between the United States and Mexico in no way affected travel. In fact, 1846 developed into one of the trail’s busiest years, and commerce totaled some one million dollars worth of goods.

   On May 27, a train of 25 wagons with 43 people, most of them women and children, left Independence. They were called the “Mississippi Saints”, being Mormons from that state. Though they had intended to go to Oregon, after starting they changed their plans and headed for Pueblo to spend the winter. Their camp on the south side of the Arkansas River became known in Pueblo history as Mormon Town.

   The annual spring Bent, St. Vrain and Company caravan left Bents Fort in May bearing buffalo robes and furs. One man was killed in an Indian attack. On his grave the party left a note warning other travelers to beware of the Indians. In eastern Kansas the caravan began meeting wagons of those heading west.

   In June, companies of volunteers to fight Mexico were multiplying at Fort Leavenworth. There, some 500 Mormon men organized the Mormon Battalion. On foot and in wagons, these men set out, some with wives, children and elderly relatives, to march to the war to be waged in New Mexico. Other troops, numbering about 1,300 soldiers, were also on the trail. They were under the command of Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny. One of the companies of light artillery was all German-born whose temporary commander was Woldermar Fischer. He left his mark by the side of the trail when he climbed a mesa and it became known as Fisher’s Peak.

   Also moving west were about 100 wagons bearing supplies and provisions for the troops. These were accompanied by herds of cattle.

   One party left Independence in mid June. They were told to wait in Council Grove for more freight wagons and a military escort. In the party were Samuel Magoffin, 45, and his young wife, Susan, 19.

   Susan called herself a “traveling princess”, ensconced in a private carriage fitted up for her books, sewing notions and sleeping quarters though she also had a tent. She was accompanied by a personal maid, driver and two servant boys.

   Her fellow travelers called her “the first American lady to cross the plains”. She liked the concept so much she perpetuated it, as did many writers after her. As we have seen, she was certainly not the first American lady to travel the Santa Fe Trail.

   Samuel and his brother James owned a mercantile in Chihuahua, and had been trading there for several years. James was married to Maria Gertrudes Valdez, a cousin of Manuel Armijo, then governor of New Mexico.

   The Magoffin party consisted of 14 large, ox-powered wagons, a baggage wagon and a carriage pulled by mules. Besides the two women, there were 20 men. After having to wait for escort at Council Grove, they were ordered by the government to stop again at Pawnee Fork. Already camped there were many other wagons as well as soldiers, all waiting for other caravans and soldiers to catch up to travel on together. After days of waiting, the now enlarged party was told to proceed the 180 miles to Bents Fort to await the arrival of Kearny.

   James would have been in the party, but he had been called to Washington, DC, by Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton, as well as President Polk, was desirous of waging a bloodless war so as not to disrupt the very profitable Santa Fe trade. James received instructions from the senator and headed west, catching up with his wagons at Bents Fort.

   Samuel and Susan had arrived at the fort around July 26. Despite being impressed by the size and amenities of the fort, Susan was stunned to find the presence of a billiard room, and while she admired the size of her and Samuel’s room, she despised having to sprinkle the dirt floor so often. She noted some of the fort’s residents, especially the wife of George Bent, who was treated like a queen by the other women.

   Susan suffered a miscarriage at the fort and commencement of the journey was delayed while she regained her strength. Kearny’s army proceeded south.

   Women had been traveling the Santa Fe Trail since the late 1820s. The six women who were among the New Mexican refugees traveling to Missouri in 1829 may have been the first females on the trail, or Mrs. Leitensdorfer, or it could have been the New Mexican-born wife of Antoine Robidoux. The couple was married in 1824 and she made the trip across the plains several times with her husband. The emigrant wagons full of women and children, and the Mormon caravans, also preceded Susan.

   However, the first American woman taking the route from Missouri to New Mexico was one Mary Donoho in 1833. She, her husband William and their infant daughter not only traveled to Santa Fe, but lived there for four years. They operated the Exchange Hotel, which later became a part of La Fonda. Their son James was born there in 1837, and in 1885, James was dubbed by a local newspaper “The First White Child Born in New Mexico”.

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