Santa Fe Trail Diaries
Katie Bowen traveled the Santa Fe Trail in 1851 with her army officer husband, Captain Isaac Bowen. Harriett Bidwell Shaw and her husband, Milton, a minister, traveled the trail in a wagon train in 1857. These women never met, but their letters and journals reveal many shared experiences.
Bowen kept in touch with her family in Maine through a series of letters. She wrote several times from Fort Leavenworth in the spring of 1851, as weather and other circumstances postponed their trip. Finally, on June 20, Katie wrote her mother that they were on their way and promised to send “a faithful account of everything.”
Harriett Bidwell Shaw kept a journal while on the trail. She noted that she was “the only white woman on the train” and that they began their trip at the Shawnee Mission. Bowen and Shaw wrote about many of the same topics, including mosquitoes, American Indians, and the weather.
… went early to bed but neglected to pin up our muskito net and the consequence was that we slept very little. (Bowen)
While I prepared our bed in the carriage & committing ourselves to the care of our Heavenly Father felt safe & tried to sleep but could not much on account of Musquitoes which annoyed me constantly. (Shaw)
While getting our supplies an Indian came with a very fine looking horse ... His dress consisted of pants and a blanket thrown over his shoulder. His head was mostly shaven only a braid on top like the pictures we have seen. (Shaw)
… a bright scarlet color all over their faces, hair cut over the crown of the head, quite like a cropt mane, feathers stuck in the back of the hair, bodies entirely naked, with the exception of a piece of red flannel or cloth answering the purpose of a fig leaf. (Bowen)
There were differences in the ways the Bowens and the Shaws traveled. Bowen and her husband were in the company of soldiers and had a servant woman to help with chores. They slept in a nine-feet square tent and dined on eggs, waffles, boiled ham, and fresh fruit and cream. Shaw and her husband slept with their belongings in their wagon; Harriett refers to meals consisting of crackers and coffee or tea. Both women were pleased when they came upon buffalo and were able to add it to their diets. Bowen wrote about a failed buffalo hunt:
I watched the chase with delightful visions of smoked tongue and the delicious hump of one of them for dinner ... I saw Isaac turn his horse and with a disgusted pace, return to the carriage. When he got within hailing distance he said, “You man, when next you send me after buffalo, be first assured that it is not a man or two on horseback.”
Bowen’s trip lasted about 60 days. Shaw’s took about a week less. Both grew weary of the journey before it was over.
… when we think of the distance and how easily we might pass over it in a day on some of our railroads at home, it seems awful to be poking along at this rate ... the same routine each day. (Bowen)
Almost impatient at our frequent stoppings ... O when shall we leave this wicked train & find a great resting place. (Shaw)
On August 24, 1851, Katie Bowen wrote her mother from Fort Union, New Mexico, to let her know the journey was over.
At last we are at our destination, safe in every particular, in health, and our goods in as good order as anything could possibly be after the hard journey they have had.
Four and a half months later, Bowen gave birth to a son, the first child born at Fort Union.
You can read excerpts from Katie Bowen’s letters in the Winter 1996-1997 issue of the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains. Harriet Bidwell Shaw’s journal is in the collections of the Kansas Historical Society and can be viewed online at kansasmemory.org.
Entry: Santa Fe Trail Diaries
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: July 2011
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