Would You Take the Rugged Road Trip This Young Woman Did?

Born into one of the wealthiest families in Kentucky, Susan Shelby Magoffin journaled her trip. She and her new husband followed the Santa Fe Trail from 1846 to 1847. Would you take the rugged road trip this young woman did?

black & white image of Susan Shelby Magoffin in a dress and seated. She is holding something that may be an envelope.
Magoffin, Susan Shelby. 1827 – 1855. Photograph, ca. 1850. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. N12846.

Early Life

Susan Shelby was born on the family plantation near Danville, Kentucky, on July 30, 1827. The granddaughter of Isaac Shelby, a hero of the American Revolutionary War and Kentucky’s first governor, she enjoyed the perks of one of the wealthiest families in Kentucky. She had personal servants, an education, and all the finer things in life.

Samuel Magoffin

The son of an Irish immigrant who had prospered in Kentucky, Samuel Magoffin’s family lived in Kentucky, too. He and his brother, James Wiley Magoffin, had been active in the Santa Fe trade since the 1820s. They traveled widely in the United States and Mexico. They amassed a considerable fortune.

On November 25, 1845, eighteen-year-old Susan Shelby married Samuel Magoffin, 45. 

Like other Anglo-American merchants, the Magoffin’s economic ties spread northeast to New York, where Samuel and Susan honeymooned, and south to Chihuahua.

A Trading Expedition or a Rugged Road Trip

Instead of settling into a home in Kentucky, Susan and Samuel prepared for a trading expedition south to Chihuahua and Saltillo, Mexico. 

Image of a the back of conostoga wagon headed west. One of two horse can be seen pulling the wagon.

According to Wikipedia, their outfit included “fourteen big wagons with six yoke each, one baggage wagon with two yoke, one dearborn with two mules (this concern carries my maid) our own carriage with two more mules, and two men on mules driving the loose stock.” They also traveled with a cook, a coop of live chickens, and Susan’s dog, Ring. 

She had a relatively comfortable traveling life. They had a large tent, a bed with a mattress, a table, chairs, and carpeting.

Her Journal

Susan thought she was the first “American lady” to have made the trip. And according to NewMexicoHistory.org, she was one of the first Anglo-American women to travel the Trail and enter New Mexico.

Susan documented her journey almost every day after she and Samuel left Independence Missouri Her journal is one of very few that documents life on the Santa Fe Trail from a feminine viewpoint. It includes references to the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846 to February 2, 1848).

She must have loved her husband as she called him mi alma throughout her journal.

Snippets from the First 46 Days

Image of the route the Magoffins take from Independence Missouri to Chihuahua, Mexico.

June 10, 1846: The Magoffins leave Independence, Missouri. Susan is excited to begin the trip.

July 4, 1846: Their carriage rolled over.

July 13, 1846 Susan writes, “Passed a great many buffalo, (some thousands) they crossed our road frequently within two or three hundred yards. They are very ugly, ill-shapen things with their long shaggy hair over their heads, and the great hump on their backs, and they look so droll running.”

July 21, 1846: Their tent collapsed in a violent storm.

July 26, 1846: Magoffins arrive at Bent’s Fort, Colorado. Ill, Susan takes to bed on her arrival.

Bent’s Fort, a trading center, was also the launching point of America’s invasion into New Mexico. 

Susan mentions that the soldiers waiting for their orders gambled. They had a real race track and billiards room, and had fighting cocks.

July 30, 1846: Susan’s nineteenth birthday

July 31, 1846: Susan suffers miscarriage.

In a few short months I should have been a happy mother and made the heart of a father glad.


Bent’s Fort to Santa Fe

August 7, 1846: Magoffins leave Bent’s Fort. 

August 15, 1846: Perhaps influenced by Susan’s brother-in-law, Mexican governor Manuel Armijo orders his soldiers not to fight the Americans. General Stephen W. Kearny leads the army into Santa Fe without opposition.

August 25, 1846: Susan and company arrive at the first New Mexican town, “Mora creek and settlement.” 

She describes the houses there as “genteel pigstys in the States.” But she adds,

Within these places of apparent misery there dwells that ‘peace of mind’ and contentment which princes and kings have oft desired but never found!


She’s awakening to an alternative way to think about the non-anglos. 

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.


August 26, 1846: They reach Santa Fe. 

October 7, 1846: Magoffins leave Santa Fe, ten days after the army.

From Santa Fe to El Paso

November 1846: They arrive in San Gabriel. Susan is sick with another fever.

She learns some of the traditional New Mexican ways of “housekeeping” and how to make tortillas. She thinks making tortillas is a lot of work. The same “old lady” who taught her tortilla making shows Susan her knitting techniques. Susan shares her own knitting technique, which she says is “the much easier mode of the U.S.”

January 1847: Magoffins leave San Gabriel.

February 1, 1847: They travel south through the Jornada del Muerto (journey of death), a hostile and waterless stretch of desert. Susan wonders if she would “ever get home again?” 

February 17, 1847: They reach El Paso del Norte and stay at the house of the priest Ramón Ortiz y Miera, a spacious house surrounded by orchards and vineyards.

From El Paso to Chihuahua, Mexico

February 9, 1847: They reach Doña Ana on and then continue to head south to Chihuahua and Saltillo, following the route of the American army under General Doniphan. Susan’s health deteriorates.

September 8, 1847: Her journal ends on September 8, 1847. Shortly after that, she fell ill with yellow fever. Around the same time, she gave birth to a son in Matamoros, Chihuahua, Mexico. The boy did not survive.

By today’s Google map, the trip is 1,551 miles by foot and would take 508 hours. Sixty-three and a half days if you managed an average of 8 hours walking each day. Susan’s journey, while not all travel days, took fifteen months.

The Trip Home

In 1848 The Magoffins left Mexico on a ship to New Orleans, then went north to live in Lexington, Kentucky. 

Susan gave birth to a daughter, Jane, in 1851.

She and her husband settle at Barrett’s Station near Kirkwood, Missouri, in 1852.

Shortly after giving birth to her second daughter, Susan Shelby Magoffin dies on October 26, 1855. She is

Her Legacy

Throughout her trip to Mexico, Susan Shelby Magoffin kept careful records of plants, animals, and people she saw.

Susan recorded the excitement, the routine, and the dangers of her journey. Her entries showed how she grew in intelligence and experience, how she faced disillusion, and coming to terms with herself.

Missouri Historical Society librarian, Stella Drumm, edited and published Susan’s journal. The Trails West: Susan Shelby Magoffin and the Santa Fe Trail video below tells about that.

Visitors to Old Bent’s Fort in Colorodo today can visit a recreation of Susan’s room on the upper level in the Northeast corner of the building.

You can find The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847 on Amazon.

Image of the book cover of The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin shows bold text and a distant conostoga wago traveling over rugged terrain.

Would you take the rugged road trip this young woman did? Would you write your thoughts in a journal? Just think, some future day a future reader might read your journal of your car or airplane trip and think it a rugged road trip.

If you enjoyed reading about Susan, you may like to read My Soul to Keep, the thrilling story of a young woman who breaks the rules of the Fellowship Dystopia in an alternate 1960.

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