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Stories from Canyons & Plains

A “Wandering Princess” Travels the Trail

Susan Shelby Magoffin, the 18-year-old wife of merchant Samuel Magoffin, traveled the Santa Fe Trail with her husband in the summer of 1846. Her diary published as “Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-47” gives great insight into life on the trail. She wrote in her diary on June 15th, “It is the life of a wandering princess, mine.”

Pregnant, Susan traveled in a carriage on the bumpy 850-mile ride accompanied by her servant, Jane, and her pet greyhound, Ring. She wrote of swarms of pesky mosquitos and gnats, as well as the “ill-shapen…shaggy” buffalo. Her carriage overturned on the 4th of July; a few weeks later her tent collapsed on her in a storm.

Arriving at Bent’s Old Fort (“the outside exactly fills my idea of an ancient castle”), Susan was feeling ill.   Her 19th birthday took place at the fort. While there, she sadly suffered a miscarriage. Meanwhile she writes of a Native American woman giving birth in a room below her and taking the baby to the river to bathe within a half hour of giving birth.

the outside [of Bent’s Old Fort] exactly fills my idea of an ancient castle

After a stay of 12 days at the fort, Susan’s husband’s caravan moved on toward Santa Fe. They later traveled further south into Mexico as part of Samuel’s business. Returning to the states in 1848, Susan passed away in 1855 and is buried in St. Louis.

Susan’s diary in published form is still in print and available from many booksellers.

Images: Susan Shelby Magoffin (partial ambrotype from collection of Mark Lee Gardner) and Susan’s recreated room in the upstairs corner of the fort “…we have two windows one looking out on the plain…” (NPS photo)

To explore more stories of the Santa Fe Trail, attend the Bicentennial Santa Fe Trail Symposium in La Junta this September. For more information go to www.2021sfts.com.

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