Magoffin, Susan Shelby (1827–c. 1855)

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Magoffin, Susan Shelby (1827–c. 1855)

American diarist, best known for her journal Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico . Born Susan Shelby in Arcadia, Kentucky, on July 30, 1827; died in Barrett's Station, Missouri, about 1855; married Samuel Magoffin, in 1845; children: two daughters.

Was the first white woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail; kept a written record of that journey; Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846–1847 published (1926).

Born into a prosperous and prominent Kentucky family on July 30, 1827, in Arcadia, Kentucky, Susan Shelby Magoffin was the granddaughter of the first governor of Kentucky and was raised on an expansive estate. In 1845, she married neighbor Samuel Magoffin, who was 26 years her elder. For several years prior to their marriage, Samuel had been transporting goods between Independence, Missouri, and Mexico with his brother James. Despite her protected and pampered childhood, Susan chose to accompany her husband on his next trip to Mexico and, in 1847, became the first white woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail. She chronicled the daunting journey on the trail, which had first been traveled in 1821, and which linked Independence, Missouri, and Santa Fe (at that time still part of Mexico), in her diary. Published as a book in 1926, the diary remains a valuable source of insight into the rigors of life on the trail.

One of the early entries in Magoffin's journal reflects the protected environment in which she had grown up and her horror at hearing the profanity of mule drivers who were putting together the wagon train in which she would travel: "It is disagreeable to hear so much swearing; the animals are unruly 'tis true and worries the patience of their drivers, but I scarcely think they need be so profane." Later, while the caravan stopped at Pawnee Rock, a landmark on the Santa Fe Trail that served as something of a trail register, Magoffin wrote: "I cut my name among the many hundreds inscribed on the rock and many of whom I knew." Unlike some travelers, her party did not come under attack by hostile tribes, but the journey had its moments of tragedy; pregnant at the start of the trip, she gave birth to a stillborn son en route after catching yellow fever.

In later entries, Magoffin described her surprise at the informal nature of dress of most women in what is now New Mexico. Seeing a woman in Santa Fe hike her skirt to cross a stream was a revelation to Magoffin, since similar behavior back home would have been scandalous. The openness and independence of local women were equally surprising to her. Her diary contrasts the differences between the women she met in Santa Fe and American women: married American women, she noted, had few legal rights, and whatever property they brought into the marriage or later earned belonged to their husbands. Women in New Mexico, in keeping with the customs of early Spanish colonists, were not considered chattel of men and retained their maiden names, property, and wages after marriage.

The Magoffins eventually settled in Barrett's Station, Missouri, and had two daughters. The exact date of Susan Magoffin's death is unknown, but she passed away suddenly at the age of 28.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

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