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Susan Shelby Magoffin

One of the first women to travel the Santa Fe Trail and author of a detailed diary of the trip.  1827-1855

Only 18 years old when she traveled the Santa Fe Trail in 1846, Susan Shelby Magoffin was one of the first American women to travel the trail and she also kept one of the most detailed journals of daily experience on the trail. Magoffin was born near Danville, Kentucky, on July 30, 1827. She descended from a long line of explorers and pioneers, but spent a sheltered childhood at her family’s plantation. At age 18 she met with Samuel Magoffin, a fellow Kentuckian and experienced Santa Fe Trail trader, 27 years her senior. They were married on November 25, 1845, and soon after set off on their honeymoon, beginning her journey down the Santa Fe Trail. 

Magoffin was excited to start her journey and early entries often reflect her exuberance. She kept careful record of plants, animals, and peoples she met as she crossed the vast prairie. She took interest in the Kansas buffalo, stating, “Passed a great many buffalo (some thousands).” She described the creatures as “very ugly, ill-shapen things with their long shaggy hair over their heads and the great hump on their backs...,”

Though living those first months with her husband on the trail, Magoffin still lived in some luxury. She had her own carriage to ride, and the Magoffin’s slept in a grand tent that afforded all the comforts of a regular bedroom. She writes, " . . . It is the life of a wandering princess, mine. When I do not wish to get out [of the carriage] myself to pick flowers the Mexican servants riding on mules pick them for me. . . ."

As Magoffin and her husband continued down the trail they began to meet with hardship. A carriage accident at Ash Creek caused Magoffin to miscarry her first child. When they reached Mexico she contracted yellow fever. The rest of Susan’s journey was plagued with sickness and unhappiness. Finally the Magoffins retired to St. Louis, Missouri. There she gave birth to two daughters. Shortly after the birth of her second daughter, in 1855, she died.

Magoffin is remarkable both for traveling the difficult journey and for the journal she kept. Her journal is a valuable resource for information along the trail. Unlike many male accounts, she takes note of domestic issues and offers insight as to what women’s lives were like during the expansion period. Her journal gives a detailed account of the war in Mexico, and offers insight into how it affected traders like her husband. Magoffin’s reports of the prairie and its creatures offer information about Kansas prior to white settlement.

Susan Magoffin wrote:

Oh, this is a life I would not exchange for a good deal? There is such independence, so much free uncontaminated air, which impregnates the mind, the feelings, nay every thought, with purity. I breathe free without that oppression and uneasiness felt in the gossiping groups of a settled home.

Entry: Magoffin, Susan Shelby

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: May 2009

Date Modified: December 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.