Roads, Trails, and Journeys


"Down the Santa Fe Trail with Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846-1847"

from American Realities: Historical Episodes from Reconstruction to the Present (Volume I, Fifth Edition, 2000)

by J. William T. Youngs


During the 1840s American expansionists dreamed of occupying the continent from sea to sea. The Southwest belonged to Mexico and the Northwest was jointly controlled by England and the United States, but supporters of "manifest destiny" argued that God had ordained these lands for exclusive use by the American people as a showcase for liberty and democracy. Through diplomatic negotiations in 1846 the United States was able to gain the Oregon Territory, then a wilderness. The Southwest, however, had been settled for more than two centuries by immigrants from Mexico and could not be won by peaceful negotiation. In 1845 the United States annexed Texas, which had fought for its independence from Mexico in 1837, and in the next year the United States went to war with Mexico. By 1848 the United States had gained a million square miles of territory, all carved out of Mexico. The moral problem inherent in spreading democracy by the sword was evident in the experience of a trader's wife, Susan Shelby Magoffin, and other American civilians and soldiers who entered New Mexico in 1846 with Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West.


As the sun sank low over the Kansas plains on the evening of June 12, 1846, Susan Shelby Magoffin, a young bride, busied herself gathering wildflowers. The prairie blossoms were so abundant that she repeatedly filled her arms with flowers, discarded them, and filled her arms again. At last she grew tired of her grasslands ramble and returned home to feed the chickens. As twilight fell over the prairie, she heard the barnyard sounds of dogs, cows, and mules, mingling with men's voices. She finished her work and stepped inside for supper.

These events suggest moments in the ordinary routine of nineteenth-century rural life, linking Susan Magoffin with thousands of other farm wives in the United States. But nothing else in Susan's life on that night in 1846 was the least bit conventional. Her "house" was a tent; her neighbors slept in freight wagons; and the men outside were Mexicans as well as Americans. Susan Magoffin was beginning a trip that no other American woman had made. Her husband, Samuel, was a merchant who made his living by carrying goods overland from Missouri to northern Mexico along the Santa Fe Trail. The trade was twenty-five years old, but Samuel was the first trader ever to bring an American wife along on the rugged journey. That night in the tent Susan revealed the spirit of adventure underlying her journey when she wrote in a notebook: "My journal tells a story tonight different from what it has ever done before. From the city of New York to the plains of Mexico is a stride that I myself can scarcely realize."

Susan Magoffin's journey would have been extraordinary at any time, but in 1846 political events would add to her adventures. In 1844 James Polk had been elected to the presidency on a platform promising to expand America's boundaries westward. He capitalized on a national mood of "manifest destiny" - a belief that American institutions were so inherently righteous that the United States would, with God's blessing, occupy the continent from sea to sea. In 1845 Polk annexed Texas, which had recently won its independence from Mexico. He then opened negotiations with the Mexicans, hoping to persuade them to sell the remainder of the Southwest to the United States. But Mexico was unwilling to give up half its territory, so Polk used a border skirmish as a pretext for war, which was declared on May 13, 1846. During the next two years American armies would knife into Mexico through Santa Fe, Matamoros, and Vera Cruz. The nationalist dream of 1844 would be a reality in 1848: American flags would flutter over scores of Mexican villages from Texas to California.

What was it like to be in Mexico in the presence of a conquering army? How did the Mexicans feel about the American conquest? Susan Magoffin's experience suggests that during the era when the United States absorbed a large portion of Mexico, Americans were also absorbed by Mexico, acquiring Mexican habits of speech, thought, dress, and diet. Her journal reveals the American capacity for both openness and ethnocentrism.


By the 1840s several hundred men set out each year by wagon and horseback from Missouri carrying merchandise to Santa Fe. Two of the foremost traders were Samuel Magoffin and his brother James. James entered the trade in 1825, the year the United States sent a party to mark the Santa Fe Trail, and three years later Samuel joined him. James traveled as far south as Mexico City, and the brothers established stores in Chihuahua and Saltillo, hundreds of miles south of Santa Fe. They liked the Mexican people. In 1830 James married a wellborn woman from Chihuahua, Doña Maria Gertrudes Valdez. Her brother Gabriel Valdez was also a trader, and her cousin Manuel Armijo was a merchant from Albuquerque who would become governor of New Mexico.

The Magoffin brothers exemplify the close relations that American merchants were able to establish with the Mexicans. James was at various times consul to Saltillo and American commercial agent in Chihuahua and Durango. Samuel was trusted to carry the payroll for the Santa Fe garrison. The people of northern Mexico welcomed the goods from the United States, which included books, clothing, drugs, and a printing press. They in turn exported silver and furs to America. The famous "Missouri mule" was really an import from Mexico, and in parts of Missouri the Mexican peso circulated as freely as the American dollar.

In 1846 Susan and Samuel Magoffin were in Independence, Missouri, making their final preparations for the overland journey. Independence, a town of trim wood-frame houses, stood at the threshold of the American wilderness. Steamboats arrived from St. Louis loaded with traders, gamblers, speculators, Oregon-bound immigrants, Native Americans, fur trappers, and slaves. At Independence the travelers saw Mexicans in sombreros and French-Canadian mountain men in buckskin. The clang, clang of hammer on iron filled the air as a dozen blacksmiths shoed horses and repaired wagons.

Samuel and Susan left Independence in a carriage, protected from the elements. Their party included Susan's servant Jane, who went in another carriage, and a number of Mexican servants and teamsters, who drove the freight wagons with Samuel's merchandise. Little in Susan Magoffin's background suggests that she would undertake such an arduous trip. Her parents were wealthy Kentuckians, and her grandfather, Isaac Shelby, was the first governor of the state. A photo taken in 1845, when Susan was eighteen, shows her wearing an elegant brocade dress. Long black hair and dark eyebrows accentuate a pretty oval face, and a look of quiet contentment brightens her eyes. The photo may have been taken for her fiancé, Samuel Magoffin, whose portrait was painted on an ivory medallion at roughly the same time. He is forty-five years old, twenty-seven years older than his wife, and looks like a respectable judge. A roll of fat above his bow tie gives him a second chin, sideburns curl from his ears almost to his lips, and a receding hairline accentuates his thoughtful forehead. He looks pleased and self-assured: a hardworking man whose life is about to be crowned with marriage to an attractive and wellborn young lady.

The Magoffins were married in Kentucky on November 25, 1845, and went to New York for their honeymoon. In the ordinary course of life, Susan would then have settled down in Kentucky or Missouri while Samuel set off alone to attend to his business interests in Mexico. Susan does not explain why she decided to accompany her husband, but several reasons are evident. She had been interested in that remote region since her schooldays, when she learned about the "table plains" of the Southwest - we call them mesas. She hoped the prairie air would be good for her health. And she and Samuel cherished each other's company. Susan's journal begins with almost fifty pages of love poems. Her first words of Spanish in the account are mi alma (my soul), her nickname for her husband.


On the first night out the Magoffins stayed in a house ten miles from Independence. The next day they left the settlements behind. "Now the prairie life begins!" wrote Susan. Morning brought the noise of teamsters cracking whips and "whooping and hallowing" over the mules and oxen. Their fourteen wagons of trade goods were pulled by twelve oxen each; a baggage wagon was pulled by four oxen; and the Magoffins' and the maid's carriages were pulled by two mules each. Two men on mules drove the "loose stock" - another nineteen oxen. The men were Mexican and American teamsters.

In 1846 the Santa Fe Trail was busier than usual, for the merchants shared the road with fifteen hundred soldiers belonging to the U.S. Army and to various volunteer companies, all on their way to the Mexican War. One of the soldiers, John Taylor Hughes of the First Regiment of Missouri Cavalry, poetically described the army's line of march: "As far as the vision could penetrate the long files of cavalry, the gay fluttering banners, and the canvas-covered wagons of the merchant teams, glistening like banks of snow in the distance, might be seen winding their tortuous way over the undulating surface of the prairie."

No paved highway led to Santa Fe, but only a vague route across 750 miles of dirt, sand, rocks, and mud. Wagons bogged down in the mud, and oxen had to be hitched in double or triple teams to move them at all. One of the Magoffin wagons got stuck so badly that twenty-two oxen were hitched to it, and even they were unable to move it. Finally the teamsters "whipped out" the wagon by beating the oxen with their whip handles, "yelling all the time," wrote Susan, "till one is almost induced to believe their throats will split."

At the creeks and rivers the party found no bridges, only fords through shallow water. The wagons made their way down slippery banks and plunged into the streams, hurrying sometimes to get across before a rainstorm could swell the river. On a good day they covered twenty or twenty-five miles. Often they made only ten, traveling one mile an hour or slower.

During the night the Magoffins stopped at customary resting places. No hotels or shops or taverns graced these spots; only the convenient supply of wood and water distinguished them from the rest of the prairie. They were usually named for a geographic feature or local event. "The Lone Elm" was, naturally, a place with one elm tree. "Council Grove" was the scene of a meeting between Indian and white leaders in 1825. "Big John's Spring" was named for an early pioneer who liked to carve his name on trees with a tomahawk.

Susan traveled comfortably in her carriage, protected from the elements. On cold, rainy days she wrapped herself in a buffalo robe and looked out at the countryside. When the sky cleared, she got out to walk, easily keeping up with the slow-moving wagons. She picked prairie flowers, which she pressed in her diary, and she gathered gooseberries to eat. At night Susan and Samuel slept in their army tent. A table was fastened to the center pole, and above it was a stand holding their mirror and combs. The rug was made of sailcloth, and their chairs were portable stools with seats of carpet. Outside lay their dog, a greyhound named Ring, whom Susan called "a nice watch for our tent door."

When days of heavy rain stalled the wagons, Susan stayed in the tent and knitted, read books, and wrote letters. One rainy afternoon she and her husband sat comfortably in bed as a stream flowed through the tent. Samuel rested his head in Susan's lap and "dozed a little and talked a little." Her contentment shines through the early pages of the journal. "Oh, this is a life I would not exchange for a good deal!" she wrote, "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 circles of a settled home." Camped one evening in a bed of wild roses - with rosebushes at the door and inside the tent - she wrote, "It is the life of a wandering princess mine."

Day after day the Magoffins worked their way westward, sometimes alone, sometimes in company with other merchants or soldiers. Parties would split up as one segment fell behind to repair wagons; a few days later the lagging traders might pass their former comrades, now repairing their own wagons. Susan faithfully recorded the changes along the trail. On the Kansas plains the wagons moved through grass so tall "as to conceal a man's waist." One evening Susan walked out on the prairie at sunset. To the west all that she could see was "a waving sea of tall grass." She had never seen "a more imposing sight."

Along the way they came to "tourist attractions." No billboards advertised these sites, and no merchants ran souvenir stands nearby, but word of mouth and descriptions in Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies, the classic account of the Santa Fe trade, told travelers what to expect. Susan particularly enjoyed "Dog City," a community of prairie dog burrows near the Arkansas River. As the wagons passed, "the little folks like people ran to their doors to see the passing crowd. They could be seen all around with their heads poked out, and expressing their opinions I supposed from the loud barking I heard." It was, she thought, "a curiosity well worth seeing." At Pawnee Rock, another "curiosity," Susan celebrated Independence Day and literally made her mark on the trail by carving her name in stone. The rock already bore the names of hundreds of other travelers.

The Santa Fe Trail passed through stunning vistas and amusing curiosities, but it also brought peculiar hardships. The heat was the first and most persistent obstacle. Between the watering places even muddy water collected from gullies in the tall grass could seem to Susan "a luxurious draught." The oxen staggered under their burdens, and when released from the yoke some "absolutely crept under the wagons for shade." Sunsets brought some relief, but in the hot tent Susan slept uncomfortably in her slip. "Even that would have been sent off without regret," she wrote, "had not modesty forbid me."

Fear was a constant companion on the prairie. A week out of Independence the Magoffins first encountered wolves. Just as Susan was falling asleep in the tent "The delightful music began. It was a mixture of cat, dog, sheep, wolf, and the dear [Lord] knows what else." Ring, the greyhound, rushed out barking fiercely at the wolves, scaring them off. They came back later, however, and Susan wished Samuel, who was accustomed to wolves and slept peacefully at her side, was not "so well engaged."

Indians, too, inspired fear. During the past two decades a dozen men had been killed on the trail by the natives - not a large number out of the hundreds who had made the trip, but enough to breed caution. When Susan carved her name in Pawnee Rock, Samuel had watched carefully for signs of hostile Indians - and Susan worked quickly.

Neither wolves nor Indians attacked the Magoffins, but they did suffer other mishaps. One day as their carriage was descending a riverbank, it flipped over, crushing the sides and top. Bruised, Samuel carried his stunned wife to the shade of a tree, rubbed her face and hands, and poured whiskey into her mouth. Slowly she regained consciousness. The wagon was a mess: books, bottles, baskets, and pistols were spilled onto the ground, but neither of the Magoffins was seriously injured.

Even the mosquitoes posed a threat. They were a common annoyance, something to be endured. But one evening they were a positive menace. Susan knew something was wrong when the mules pulling her carriage became restless and ran past the wagons, shaking their tails, desperate to rid themselves of the pests. The Mexican driver struggled to hold them in. "Holà, los animales!" he shouted, "Como estande bravos!" (Ho, animals! How wild you are!) When they stopped for the night at ten o'clock the mules were "perfectly frantic" to escape their tormenters. Unable to hold them, the driver let them free to "shift for themselves" for the night. Samuel covered his face and neck with pocket handkerchiefs and directed the men setting up the tent. Meanwhile Susan hid in the carriage with her face smothered in a shawl and "listened to the din without." "Millions" of mosquitoes swarmed against the sides of the wagon. It "reminded me of a hard rain. It was equal to any of the plagues of Egypt. I lay almost in a perfect stupor, the heat and stings made me perfectly sick."

The mosquito attack and the carriage wreck were the most dramatic episodes in Susan's "rite of passage" into the wilderness. In such ways she experienced the great distance between the settled parts of the United States and the new lands in the West. Now she was realizing facts that before had been only images, lessons in school, reports from her husband.

For hundreds of miles the Magoffins saw no hotels, no habitations of any sort. Then in southeastern Colorado a building appeared in the distance that looked like an ancient castle. It was Bent's Fort, a private trading post that carried supplies for mountain men and Santa Fe traders and served as a depot for American soldiers. Constructed in 1833, it was a massive structure, 135 by 180 feet, with walls four feet thick and fifteen feet high. At diagonal corners stood two round watch towers, and over the gateway was a room with windows on all sides and a telescope mounted on a pivot, with which sentries could scan the countryside for hostile Indians. The fort was built in the Mexican style of adobe bricks, made of sun-dried mud and straw. An interior well provided crystal-clear water. Around the courtyard were two dozen rooms - kitchen, dining room, blacksmith shop, barber shop, and billiard room. There was also an ice house that received, according to Susan, "perhaps more customers than any other." Soldiers, trappers, Indians, and traders mingled in the courtyard. After the quiet of the prairie the noise seemed incessant; chickens cackling, mules braying, blacksmiths hammering, children crying, men shouting.

Samuel arranged for lodging, and soon the Magoffins were installed in a large room on the second floor, furnished simply with bed, chairs, washbasin, and table. They could look out at the courtyard on one side, the prairie on the other. The ceiling was of timber, but the floor was dirt, and Susan had to throw water on it several times a day to keep down the dust.

The Magoffins stayed in Bent's Fort for two weeks. Samuel was eager to press on, but the traders could not move until the army was ready. Finally Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny arrived with his soldiers. "It seems the whole world was coming with him," wrote Susan. James Magoffin, Samuel's brother, also arrived at Bent's Fort on his way to a conference with the governor of Santa Fe.

Within a few days the Magoffins set out again on the Santa Fe Trail. Soon they crossed the Arkansas River, which they regarded as the southern border of the United States. No signs or border guards, however, separated the United States and Mexico. Nor were there towns on either side of the border to distinguish the people and cultures of the two regions. Ahead lay more wilderness. The wagons moved through a dry land of sand hills and mirages - the first Susan had seen. At first they traveled quickly, covering eighteen miles in a day. From the plains they worked their way into stony hills, then up into mountains. They passed piñon trees and wild cherry blossoms. One night they found themselves among "stupendous mountains, forming an entire breastwork to our little camp." Susan spotted a snowcapped peak in the distance; she was hardly able to believe she had seen snow in August.

In the mountains they feasted on wild turkeys, prairie chickens, and rabbits. The nights were so cold that they needed to cover themselves with two blankets and a thick quilt. The Raton Pass, which they were now crossing, was the roughest part of the Santa Fe Trail. The men worked the wagons down the pass by locking the brakes and standing six on a side to steady each wagon over the worst places. Inevitably, wheels were broken, and sometimes so many were being repaired at once that the trail seemed "like a regular shipyard."

A rider approached the train from the south and told them that James Magoffin had arrived in Santa Fe and was negotiating with the governor of New Mexico. If James was successful, the Mexicans would allow the American army to enter Santa Fe. If not, an army of four thousand Mexicans might, at this moment, be preparing to fight Kearny's force of fifteen hundred.

But for the moment the Magoffins continued south toward Santa Fe. Just beyond Raton Pass they were approached by three rancheros, selling cheese, bread, and aguardiente, a native brandy. These were the first Mexicans they had met since crossing the border, and Susan did not like them. To her they seemed like "huckster-women after a steamboat." Nor did she like their food. The bread was hard, and the cheese was "very tough, mean looking, and to me unpalatable."

In fact, Susan seemed to like nothing at all about the first Mexicans they met. She described the casa grande, the biggest house in the village of Mora, as "a little hovel, a fit match for some of the genteel pig sties in the states." The people seemed even stranger than their dwellings. They swarmed around Susan "like bees," and she felt like the prize exhibit in a "monkey show."

Susan felt disdain as she looked from behind her veil at this new world. The children were in "a perfect state of nudity," and their mothers were poorly clad, wearing only petticoats, chemises, and buckskin moccasins. "The women slap about with their arms and necks bare," wrote Susan. Their dresses were too short, barely covering their calves, and worse still, when the women crossed a creek, they would pull the hems "up above their knees and paddle through the water like ducks, sloshing and splattering everything about them."

The Magoffins stopped for a midday meal at Las Vegas, New Mexico. The usual crowd gathered, and much to Susan's disgust they followed her into a dining room, seating themselves on chairs and the floor, enchanted at the presence of this light-skinned American lady. Susan, however, was less than enchanted with her first meal in New Mexico. The men and women chattered and smoked "little cigarritas" - tobacco wrapped in corn husks. Mothers held their babies under their shawls - "I shan't say at what business," reported an embarrassed Susan. Someone brought out a tablecloth, "black with dirt and grease," followed by a half dozen tortillas wrapped in a dirty napkin along with a bowl of meat, green peppers, and onions. No cutlery arrived, and Susan was appalled to learn that she was supposed to dip the tortillas into the meat and eat with her hands. "My heart sickened, to say nothing of my stomach."

Back in the carriage she watched with relief as the village with its motley collection of "men, women, children, and dogs" disappeared around a curve. "Joy beat in my heart," she recalled, "to think that once more I was at liberty to breath the pure air of the prairie, and to sit alone in my little tent, unmolested by the constant stare of those wild looking strangers!"


When Susan Magoffin entered New Mexico in 1846 the United States was on the verge of a new kind of cultural contact. In the past the United States had occupied lands that were previously home to non-Europeans. In many of these the tribes were nomadic or lived in simple bark shelters. They could easily be moved from one section of the country to another ahead of the white settlers. But the Mexicans were different. Many lived in substantial houses of brick and timber and worshiped in large, well-built Catholic churches. The invading Americans could not easily move them, out of sight or out of mind. But would the invaders recognize the Mexicans for who they were: men and women with distinctive customs and beliefs, as aware of their own heritage as the Americans were of theirs? Was manifest destiny a doctrine of conquest merely, or could American expansion accommodate the distinctive qualities of native peoples?

Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, was established by Spain in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and just three years after the English established Jamestown. The Spaniards laid out the new town on a plateau on the north bank of a fast-running stream that flowed from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. As their seat of government, they built the Governor's Palace, an adobe structure on a public square; today it is the oldest public building in the United States. The governor, legislature, and court met at the palace to develop and administer policies for a territory that eventually included Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

The Spanish conquerors collected annual tribute of corn and blankets from the local Indian pueblos, or villages. During the seventeenth century, however, their hold on the region was tenuous; in 1680 the Pueblo Indians rebelled and drove the colonizers out of New Mexico. For a dozen years Indians inhabited the Governor's Palace, leaving traces of their occupation - such as holes in the floor where they stored their corn - that can still be seen today. The Spaniards reconquered New Mexico in 1692, but Indian wars continued on the frontier for almost two centuries.

By 1800 the population of Santa Fe had grown to about 2,500, and it doubled to 5,000 by 1846. Half of the male inhabitants were farmers; the remainder were adobemakers, carpenters, blacksmiths, barrelmakers, lumbermen, muleskinners, shoemakers, weavers, tailors, and hunters. In the central plaza - a surface of sunbaked mud - Indians camped and traders left their wagons. As in many American towns at the time, the streets of Santa Fe were made filthy by stagnant pools of water and piles of garbage thrown from houses. The dwellings were built of adobe bricks, with pine beams supporting the flat roofs. Sheets of mica served as window panes, and door hinges were made of leather. Men wore buckskin pants and homespun shirts, and women wore full skirts and low-necked blouses and covered their heads and shoulders with shawls called rebosos.

In 1810 the Mexicans began a decade-long struggle for independence from Spain. News that an independent government had been established in Mexico City reached Santa Fe in the fall of 1821. The Santa Feans, who were remote from events in the capital, waited several months to confirm the news of the nation's independence; then in January 1822 they celebrated with speeches, processions, music, masses, patriotic dramas, musket fire, and fandangos, or balls.

In the year of Mexican independence, the borders were opened to trade with the United States. Long before General Kearny and his troops arrived at the border, Santa Fe had come under the influence of the United States. During the trading season, American merchants rented adobe houses on the south side of the plaza and sold cloth, mirrors, furniture, tools, medicines, and other American products. Manuel Armijo, governor of New Mexico in 1846, lined the wall of his office in the palace with dinner plates manufactured in the United States.

More than a thousand miles away in Mexico City, a long period of civil disorder followed independence. Between 1833 and 1855 the presidency changed hands thirty-five times. Ambitious Mexican generals kept their armies close to the capital, hoping for advancement during periods of turmoil. As a result they left the frontiers unguarded, and Indian raids on the scattered settlements of New Mexico became increasingly common. "We are surrounded on all sides by heartless barbarians," a settler complained, "and our brothers, instead of helping us, are at each other's throats in their festering civil wars."

In the meantime, New Mexico was being drawn into an American orbit; along with economic ties came social ties. American traders and trappers made friends with the settlers and married into Mexican families. Some became citizens, served in municipal offices, and fought in the Indian wars. In California, where a similar process was underway, a worried official of the Mexican government noted that the local inhabitants were beginning to regard Americans as "brothers." The same could be said of New Mexico, where Americans had married local women, and Mexicans had prospered in the American trade. Additionally, the Hispanic residents were impressed by the wealth and the political stability of the people they called Norte Americanos. In the 1830s a Santa Fe newspaper predicted that the American influence would grow because of American "industry [and] their ideas of liberty and independence." A decade earlier a paper in Mexico City had warned that citizens who lived near the northern border "cannot remain unaware of the fortune enjoyed by citizens of the United States."

Given these facts, a modern historian has noted that the American annexation of northern Mexico was the "culmination of a process" that was underway long before 1846. As General Kearny and the Magoffins approached Santa Fe, however, no one could predict whether their invasion would culminate in a bloody conquest or in the peaceful commingling of two peoples.

At the very moment when Susan was entering northern New Mexico, her brother-in-law James was in Santa Fe, negotiating with Governor Manuel Armijo. Although the Mexicans greatly outnumbered the Americans, Magoffin persuaded Armijo to disband his army and retire from New Mexico. We cannot be certain why Armijo gave up without a fight. He may have been awed by stories of American military valor; he may have been bribed. But James was able to persuade Armijo to leave. On the trail into Santa Fe he had joked with another trader, a Mexican named Gonzales, about "the thousand advantages to being conquered" by the United States - not the least, he said, were "liberty and equality." James had a gift for mixing humor and persuasion. It was fortunate also for the Americans that James was, through his Mexican wife, a cousin of the New Mexican governor. At any rate, his negotiations with Armijo cleared the way for the American army to enter Santa Fe without bloodshed.

A few days later General Kearny reached the first Mexican settlements. At the village of Las Vegas he organized a ceremony that he would repeat again and again in other villages: he called together the religious and civil leaders of the town, explained that New Mexico was now American territory, and administered an oath of allegiance. In Las Vegas he stood on one of the flat-roofed adobe buildings with two Mexican army captains and the alcalde, or mayor, and addressed a crowd of 150 villagers. He had come by order of the United States to take possession of New Mexico, he told them. He had a strong force with him, and another American army would soon join the first. The people were absolved of allegiance to Governor Armijo and Mexico and now must give their allegiance to the United States. Kearny emphasized the advantages they would gain with American citizenship. The United States would protect them from Indian raids, which were common throughout New Mexico, and would guarantee their personal and religious liberties. The American government, he declared, would "protect the poor man as well as the rich man." The alcalde and the two captains then swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. Kearny shook their hands and turned to the crowd. "I shake hands with all of you through your alcalde," he said, "and hail you as good citizens of the United States."

Several soldiers in the Army of the West wrote accounts of the public reaction to the ceremony. One said that the people appeared "perfectly friendly," another that they raised "a general shout," and a third said they raised a "faint shout." But several observers observed some hesitation on the part of the Mexicans. One soldier noted in his journal that the oath was clearly taken under compulsion. "These poor creatures," he wrote, "were evidently compelled to take it for fear of giving offense to our army." Another soldier recorded with irony that "the great boon of American citizenship," was thrust "by the mailed hand" upon the Mexicans.

But Kearny and many of his men regarded themselves as emancipators rather than conquerors. The general was confident that as American citizens the people of New Mexico would enjoy more freedom than under Mexican rule, and he demanded that his men treat the Mexicans as fellow citizens. He issued an order declaring that "humanity as well as policy requires that we should conciliate the inhabitants by kind and courteous treatment." He assured the Mexicans that not even "an onion or a pepper would be taken from them without a full equivalent in cash." When the army camped at Las Vegas he told the men that if any soldier so much as let his horse wander unattended into a Mexican cornfield, that soldier would walk the next day.

Word of Kearny's behavior preceded the army, and as he approached Santa Fe, each village seemed friendlier than the last. The people embraced one another "in token of their joy at the change of government," one soldier reported. An alcalde told Kearny that "God ruled the destinies of men," and because he "had come with a strong army among them to change their form of government, it must be right."

On the afternoon of August 18, 1846, the Army of the West reached the adobe city of Santa Fe. They marched four abreast down the hill to a plaza at the center of town. The streets were cluttered with dogs, but many of the people had fled. One soldier recalled that on side streets, "men, with surly countenances and downcast looks, regarded us with watchfulness, if not terror; and black eyes looked through latticed windows at our column of cavaliers, some gleaming with pleasure, and others filled with tears." Despite Kearny's earlier professions of friendship, the residents of Santa Fe, many of whom had close ties to the government, feared that the soldiers had come to pillage their city. The Mexican men had been told they would be branded on the cheek by the Americans with the letters "U.S."

At the plaza the soldiers stood around a hastily erected flagpole, a bugle sounded, and as the sun dropped behind the mountains, the Americans raised their flag above Santa Fe. Cannons on the hilltop boomed a thirteen-gun salute. Over the din of men and horses the soldiers could hear a "wail of grief" from the houses as "the pent-up emotions of many of the women could be suppressed no longer."


Susan and Samuel Magoffin heard the news from Santa Fe as their wagon train worked its way through little villages beyond Las Vegas. That night they camped alone in a pine forest at the foot of a mountain. The next day Susan's attitude toward the Mexicans suddenly seemed to change from disdain to respect. Perhaps the knowledge that they could pass safely into the capital made this strange land seem less hostile. Perhaps the villages were less squalid as they drew closer to Santa Fe. Perhaps the shift was internal: after a few days in the unfamiliar culture its strangeness had worn off, and Susan was ready to accommodate herself to the new land.

She seems to laugh at herself as she describes her change in attitude. The carriage tongue broke by a little creek outside the village of San Miguel, forcing the Magoffins to halt while two army carpenters worked on it. The usual assembly of Mexicans soon crowded around. "I did think the Mexicans were as void of refinement, judgment, etc., as the dumb animals till I heard one of them say 'bonita muchachita' (pretty girl)." This compliment caught Susan's attention, and one can almost see the twinkle in her eye as she writes: "Now I have reason and certainly a good one for changing my opinion; they are certainly a very quick and intelligent people!"

Suddenly the whole business of meeting the Mexicans took a new tone. Many of the mujeres (women) came to the carriage to shake hands and talk with Susan. One brought her some tortillas, goat's milk, and stewed goat meat with onions. And Susan actually liked it. "They are decidedly polite, easy in their manners, perfectly free." Suddenly she was viewing the people in a different way - dropping her guard, letting herself experience the Mexican culture.

A few days later the Magoffins came to the top of a hill, and there below them were streets, churches, and houses - the first real city they had seen in almost two months of travel. Night had fallen, and so Susan could not see Santa Fe clearly, but she felt the significance of the moment. "I have entered the city in a year that will always be remembered by my countrymen, and under the 'Star-Spangled Banner' too."

Santa Fe was a city of six thousand people, the largest in New Mexico. The roadways were crooked and narrow. Along the main street were flat-roofed adobe houses, one story high. Some blocks were devoted to cornfields - "fine ornament to a city, that," wrote Susan. A mountain stream ran through Santa Fe; irrigation canals carried water from its banks past the houses and into the fields, gardens, and orchards. People washed their clothes in the irrigation ditches in front of their own houses. The markets sold fresh fruits and vegetables, including fine ripe grapes brought in from local vineyards in wicker baskets carried by burros. The main plaza was a large open square fronted by the government palace, a cathedral, houses, and shops. Roofs hung over the sidewalks. "It makes a fine walk," Susan noted. "And in rainy weather there is no use for an umbrella."

The Magoffins moved into a Mexican house opposite a church. Susan described nuestra casa (our house), as "quite a nice little place." The main room was long with a dirt floor, plank ceiling, and whitewashed adobe walls. Cushioned benches of adobe along the wall provided seating, and a screen behind protected backs from whitewash. One side of the room was carpeted and served as a parlor, where the Magoffins received their many guests. The other side was bare earth with a table - the dining room. Nearby was la cocina (the kitchen). The bedroom was "a nice cool little room" with two windows. It could be darkened at midday, enabling Susan and Samuel to indulge in one of the most agreeable local customs: "I must say it is truly pleasant to follow after the Mexican style, which is after dinner to close the shutters and take a short siesta."

Susan soon settled into the role of housewife. She began her days by "superintending the general business of housekeepers, such as sweeping, dusting, arranging and re-arranging of furniture, making of beds, ordering dinner." She went shopping, worked on a dress, and taught the servants their jobs. "Mine is a quiet little household," she wrote. "The servants are all doing their duty, the great bugbear to most house-keepers; and if I can do my duty so well as to gain one bright smile and sweet kiss from my good, kind husband on his return, my joy will be complete."

In such moments Susan might almost have been in her native Kentucky, but many reminders told that she was in a foreign land and that in 1846 Santa Fe was an occupied city. The church bells, which seemed to be chiming day and night, mingled with the "everlasting noise" of the army. Soldiers were camped near the Magoffin casa. "From early dawn till late at night they are blowing their trumpets, whooping like Indians, or making some unheard of sounds, quite shocking to my delicate nerves."

The army, however, furnished one of Susan's pleasantest diversions, the society of other Americans. The officers regularly called on the Magoffins, the only American couple in Santa Fe. Their agreeable society was a reminder to Susan of the difference between the Mexican community and the Americans. Their company, she said, was "quite desirable to be sought after in this foreign land where there are so few of our countrymen and so few manners and customs similar to ours, or in short anything to correspond with our national feelings and fireside friendships."

General Kearny's chief activity during the early months of the American occupation of New Mexico was to secure his position by tact and force. Upon entering Santa Fe he promised the people that he would not change their customs or threaten their religion. He then toured the region, bearing the news of American conquest. One evening after returning from his diplomatic mission, he stopped by to visit the Magoffins and gave them a "graphic account" of his reception in the Mexican towns. On his diplomatic mission he had attended feasts, balls, and Indian "sham battles." In one village he and his officers followed a train of priests, carrying candles "lighting the train of the Virgin Mary." He told Susan he felt as if he was "making a fool of himself." But by this gesture and others he indicated that Americans would respect Mexican customs and beliefs.

The United States hoped to pacify New Mexico through gestures of good will, but General Kearny did not take it for granted that parades and banquets alone would enable him to control the prize that had fallen so easily into American hands. This was apparent one morning when Kearny, riding "a splendid bay charger," came by to take Susan on a tour of the city's defenses. She mounted her horse, and they rode off through the "clogged streets" of Santa Fe. He showed her his artillery, arranged in two rows on the outskirts of town, and guided her past Armijo's army barracks, now occupied by Americans. Then they climbed a steep hill. At the summit men were building a fort out of massive adobe blocks. Susan stood at the edge and looked at the city and the plains and mountains beyond. The fort stood one hundred feet above Santa Fe and only six hundred yards from its center. Its presence guaranteed that Santa Fe would remain in American hands. Susan reported that from the hilltop "every house in the city can be torn by the artillery to atoms."

The Americans did not want to appear as conquerors in New Mexico. They preferred to regard themselves as offering an attractive alternative to government by the distant and sometimes corrupt regimes in Mexico City. But tensions were created by the behavior of American soldiers. Kearny instructed them to treat the Mexicans well, but liquor, prejudice, and the fact of occupation made some of the men misbehave. Susan saw some of this in her own house. One day an officer wandered into the parlor uninvited and tried to treat Susan like an old friend. He "staggered to a seat where he sat and ran on with foolishness and impudence." Fortunately, Samuel was home and took him off her hands. Another drunken officer "went off into ecstasies about the war." He was "all eagerness for a fight," wrote Susan, "and says he has done all things in his power to provoke one."

Most of the soldiers could communicate with the Mexicans only with simple gestures and a few Spanish words. The awkwardness of the language barrier was apparent when soldiers were billeted with a Mexican family. "My Spanish friends are very courteous," writes William Richardson, a Missouri volunteer, "but there is little to relieve the monotony of our intercourse, as from my ignorance of the language I am unable to converse with them." The frustrated soldiers often changed Spanish words to English for the sake of convenience, finding similar-sounding American words as substitutes. Frijoles (beans) became "free-holders," the Rio Purgatoire (Purgatory River) became the "Picket Wire," and aguardiente, the Mexican brandy, became "the ingrediente."

The Mexican reaction to the Americans took many forms, but naturally they were as unsettled as the soldiers by the foreign army suddenly intruding into their midst. New Mexico had traditionally maintained a degree of independence from Mexico City. Only a few years before, in 1837, the people had risen against an appointed governor, Albino Perez, who tried to change the laws, collect taxes, and appoint new government officials. Governor Perez and sixteen of his assistants died in the rebellion. But the American presence inevitably disrupted life in Santa Fe. Rumors flew that Armijo would soon return with an army of five thousand and retake the capital. These tales frightened his former followers, some of whom fled the city fearing a triumphant Armijo would persecute them as traitors. Other Mexicans, remaining in Santa Fe, lamented that they might never again see their departed friends. Hostility to Mexico City did not guarantee enthusiasm for American government, especially when it was not yet clear what sort of government that would be. Kearny's aide-de-camp, Abraham Johnston, recalled a Mexican soldier's remark on seeing the American army marching toward Santa Fe. "My God!" he said, "What is to become of our republic!" Another soldier thought that some Mexicans welcomed the American presence but said that they were "far from receiving us generally as deliverers."

Within a few weeks of Kearny's occupation of Santa Fe another two thousand American soldiers arrived, Missouri volunteers and members of a Mormon battalion recruited from immigrants on their way to Utah. Gibson reported that with all the soldiers in Santa Fe, "the grogshops do a thriving business." The Americans made noise, got drunk, and chased after Mexican women. In theory, they were the agents of liberation and progress. In practice, the soldiers were often obtrusive and insensitive. A huge cannon was fired off in the center of Santa Fe to welcome newly arrived soldiers. The blast shattered the few precious panes of real glass in the city.

The Americans probably did more damage and made more enemies through carelessness than hostility. One morning Pvt. William Richardson was camped near a Mexican village. Suddenly a group of villagers came into camp "in a great rage about something." It turned out that the captain had broken the bank of the local millpond the night before to ensure that it would not overflow and dampen his tent floor. Richardson reports, "The water of course rushed out with great force, tearing the embankment down, and washing the earth away for a considerable distance, stopping their mill, and leaving many families destitute of water." Richardson was disgusted with the captain's behavior, which he says, "met with little favor from his men, to their honor be it spoken." But when a lieutenant sought volunteers the next day to repair the damage, the men were unwilling to stand in the cold water and work without compensation.

A few months later an English adventurer, George Frederick Ruxton, traveled through New Mexico and found "that the most bitter feeling and most determined hostility existed against the Americans, who certainly in Santa Fe and elsewhere have not been very anxious to conciliate the people, but by their bullying and overbearing demeanor towards them, have in a great measure been the cause of this hatred." He spent one evening on the way to Taos with a Native American family. His hostess fixed him a meal, but seemed reserved until she discovered he was an Englishman.

"Gracias a Dios (Thanks to God)," she exclaimed, "a Christian will sleep with us tonight and not an American!"

Such instances of provocation and hostility were not, however, universal in New Mexico. Among both Americans and Mexicans were many types of people. In the United States there were outspoken war opponents as well as enthusiastic expansionists. Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln, among others, questioned whether the United States belonged in Mexico. Even among the soldiers there were dissenters. One of the armies sent into Mexico included many Irish Catholics who were so disgusted with camp life that they were persuaded by their fellow Catholics in Mexico to desert and serve in the Mexican army in the "San Patricio Brigade."

Among the Mexicans, too, were many varieties of opinion. Some Mexicans had enjoyed their contacts with the American merchants during the twenty-five years of the Santa Fe trade and believed that the United States would govern justly. One soldier visited a priest's house, where he saw curtains decorated with pictures of American presidents. The Mexicans were impressed too by Kearny's respect for the Catholic Church and his reappointment of Mexican civil officials in the new government. When Kearny toured northern New Mexico to administer the oath of allegiance, eighty Mexican horsemen rode with him as a sign of support. Along the way hundreds of villagers fell in with the line of march.

In meeting the Mexicans Susan Magoffin had an advantage over most of the soldiers. Ever since leaving Independence, Missouri, she had been in daily contact with Mexicans, and she was soon learning Spanish. In Santa Fe, Spanish words and expressions grew frequent in her diary: la niña (the little girl), muchacha (girl), una señora (a lady), bastante (enough), duraznos (peaches), El Señor Vicaro (the priest). Along with the American traders and soldiers who found their way to the Magoffin parlor, Susan and Samuel welcomed many Mexicans to the house. Some were old friends of Samuel's; others were new acquaintances. Shortly after they arrived Doña Juliana called. "She is a woman poor in the goods of this world," wrote Susan, but "a great friend to the Americans and especially to the Magoffins whom she calls a muy buena familia (very good family)." Susan was proud that she had carried on a conversation in Spanish for half an hour with Doña Juliana. "Whether correct or not, she insists that I am a good scholar."

Many of Susan's encounters with the people of Santa Fe reflect eagerness on both sides to befriend the other. The Mexicans wanted to know about her "madre, padre, hermanos, hermanas (mother, father, brothers, and sisters)." They examined her knitting and sewing, and Susan reported, "in an instant they can tell me how it is done, though perhaps 'tis the first of the kind they have ever seen. What an inquisitive, quick people they are!"

Susan and Samuel mingled with the people on public occasions. They went to a dress ball given by General Kearny as a gesture of friendship toward the Mexicans. The room was decorated with American flags, and the people were brightly dressed in "the seven rainbow colors." The women wore dresses of silk and satin, fine rebozos (shawls), and "showy ornaments, such as huge necklaces, countless rings, combs, [and] bows." A guitar and violin furnished lively music. Men and women circled the floor in a "mazy dance." Others sat along the wall, puffing cigarettes and filling the room with a cloud of smoke. A plump, short priest was there, dressed in bright robes. He was "a man rather short of stature, but that is made up in width." And "Doña Tula" was there, a wealthy and independent woman who ran the most prosperous card rooms in Santa Fe. One of the soldiers jokingly held out a handful of corn husks and a horn of tobacco for Susan to roll a cigarette. The Mexican women were smoking, but Susan's acculturation did not include the seemingly unladylike practice of puffing a cigarette, and she politely refused. Susan's friends from the army danced with the Mexican women and drank aguardiente. On the wall was a portrait of General Kearny, draped with an American flag that flew during the day from a hundred-foot flagpole in the city plaza. The picture showed Kearny handing a constitution to the Mexican people. Below it was a single word: Liberdad - Liberty.

On such occasions the Mexicans and Americans seemed more like cousins at a large family reunion than the peoples of two warring nations. This easy mingling was apparent to Susan a few days later at their first Mexican dinner. She and Samuel were invited to dinner by the Leitendorfers, an American trader and his Mexican wife, along with General Kearny and other guests. During the meal General Kearny offered an interesting toast. Raising his glass he declared, "The U.S. and Mexico - They are now united; may no one ever think of separating." These words suggest an attraction between two peoples rather than the triumph of a conquering nation. Forgotten for the moment were the guns of Fort Marcy or the American soldiers camped nearby. Kearny expected that with a little encouragement, such as he had shown in carrying candles in a Mexican procession, the people would be delighted to become Americans. To Kearny and other expansionists of 1846 America was not an aggressive nation imposing its culture on other peoples; it was rather a liberal system of government that made room for men and women of many nations and religions.

On December 15, 1846, President Polk expressed a similar idea when he declared that America was in Mexico due to "a patriotic desire to give the inhabitants the privileges and immunities cherished by the people of our own country." Like Kearny he could think of Mexico as "now united" to a larger America that was still growing, still making its way westward. Kearny and Polk, living in the age of manifest destiny, assumed that other peoples would appreciate being absorbed by the United States. And about some people, like the guests at the Leitendorfer dinner party, they were correct. The Mexicans at the table were not resentful or lukewarm at Kearny's toast. Instead they greeted his words with enthusiastic shouts of viva! viva! ("long live" or "hurrah").

But not every Mexican was as eager for union as were these friendly guests. To the south American and Mexican armies were maneuvering, preparing for battles in a war that was far from over. And in the villages around Santa Fe Mexican patriots were at this moment trying to arouse the populace to rebel against the Yankee invaders. Susan Magoffin's until-now peaceful sojourn in New Mexico would soon be filled with anxiety and with the threat of imprisonment or death.


At the end of September in 1846 the markets in Santa Fe were selling fresh vegetables and "the most delightful" peaches, grapes, and melons. But Susan knew the growing season would soon end, for she could see snow on the mountains nearby. General Kearny saw the snow, and it may have encouraged him to quicken his departure for California. On September 25, just a month after he had entered Santa Fe, he divided his army, leaving some men in New Mexico and taking the rest on a difficult march toward Los Angeles. Another force, under Col. Alexander William Doniphan, would soon march south to El Paso and Chihuahua.

Assured of protection by Doniphan's army, the American merchants resumed their journey into the interior of Mexico, where they would continue their trading. Susan reported in her diary, "Lo, we are camping again!" She had enjoyed her "casa" in Santa Fe, but she relished being back in the one "house" that was her own. "It is quite cool and our little tent is comfortable enough. It is a fine thing." The oxen struggled along the sandy road, which followed the Rio Grande. In the distance Susan could see the flat mountains that she called "the table-plains of Mexico."

The people along the road south of Santa Fe were as eager as their northern cousins to study the Magoffins. The Pueblo Indians, whose villages lined the road, crowded around "as thick as some flocks of sheep and goats" and peered under the tent, calling it la casa bonita (the pretty house). "They are certainly the most inquiring, prying, searching people I ever saw." At times Susan was annoyed by the persistent curiosity of the natives, but more often she was wonderfully open to new people. An old woman came by one day just after the Magoffins had set up their tent. She and Susan sat together for a half hour and talked about "all family concerns from the children down to the dogs." The woman asked about Susan's parents. "I ran off from them just for a husband," she replied. "Pues, es mejor no?" (Well, is it not better?) The old woman laughed heartily.

"El marido es todo del mundo a las mujeres," Susan added. (The husband is the whole world to a woman.)

The old woman laughed again in agreement. "She thinks though I am young, I am old enough," wrote the nineteen-year-old Susan.

Ordinarily Samuel would have led his wagon train straight through El Paso into Chihuahua, about five hundred miles south of Santa Fe. But these were not ordinary times. Word came from the army that the traders should wait until Doniphan could clear the way into El Paso. The Magoffins decided to rent a house in San Gabriel, a tiny village along the trail. Expecting to spend the winter there, Susan planned to familiarize herself with local customs. "I must learn a good many of the New Mexican ways of living, manufacturing serapes, rebozos, [and] making tortillas, chili peppers, and chocolate."

While they were in San Gabriel, Samuel served as the local doctor. The medicines he carried cured some illnesses, and soon he was regarded as a "skillful médico." Samuel charged little or nothing for his work, though some patients gave him gifts of food in return. "It shows a feeling of pure gratitude," Susan remarked, "which I constantly see manifested among these people for any little kindnesses done them." On Saint Gabriel's feast day, the Magoffins' landlord came by the door, telling them to prepare no dinner. Later he brought chili with carne de carnero (mutton), stewed chicken with onions, and a dessert made of bread and grapes. The people of the village, Susan observed, had been preparing their dishes for a week. They apparently enjoyed sharing their creations. "The home folks would think me a great favorite if they could see how the good people of the village are sending me tortillas, quesos (cheeses), dulces (sweets), and the like."

In such encounters the American entry into New Mexico was a meeting of cultures rather than one people subjugating another. But even as the Magoffins lived peacefully in San Gabriel, tensions underlying the American occupation were working their way to the surface. First came news that James was robbed by Apaches who occupied the wild countryside flanking the thin ribbon of Mexican settlement along the Rio Grande. He lost his carriage, mules, clothes, and trade goods.

Then came rumors from the south that a large Mexican army was on the march toward Santa Fe. The main body of traders, stopped thirty miles beyond San Gabriel, were said to have circled their wagons and sunk the wheels to the hubs as a breastwork against the enemy. One trader decided to give up, selling his goods for what he could get and returning to Santa Fe. Others were "crazy to get on" and make a profit on their merchandise, whatever the risk.

A few weeks later news arrived that James, now in Chihuahua, had been arrested by the Mexicans as a spy. Then came rumors that an army under General Santa Ana had been formed to reconquer New Mexico. Santa Ana was a devoted patriot and seasoned commander who had led the Mexican army during the fighting in Texas in the 1830s. In a battle with French invaders at Vera Cruz in 1838 he lost his left leg below the knee; he sent the leg to Mexico City with a patriotic greeting as a sign of his devotion to the cause. Santa Ana would not be easily defeated.

Susan worried that if Santa Ana beat the American forces in the south, she and Samuel would have to flee to Santa Fe and safety at Fort Marcy. His victory would "inspire this fickle people with such confidence as to his superior and almost immortal skill that en masse they will rise on our heads and murder us." Suddenly the Mexicans were "fickle people." This is not the Susan Magoffin who had come to know and like individual Mexicans. For a moment, she is a member of a conquering nation, who is shocked that a defeated people might still be loyal to their native land.

The Magoffins were elated to hear a few days later that Doniphan had defeated the Mexicans at Brazito, outside of El Paso. The victory opened the way to El Paso, and Americans seemed in complete control of New Mexico. Soon, however, conditions changed once more. The Magoffins learned that a general uprising had been planned in the north by the Mexicans, with the intent of retaking Santa Fe and killing or expelling all Americans. Charles Bent, who had been appointed governor of New Mexico by General Kearny, learned of the planned uprising from friendly Mexicans. Governor Bent was able to thwart the rebellion by arresting seven of its leaders, but tensions remained.

On January 17, 1847, Governor Bent was in Taos, fifty miles from Santa Fe, visiting his family. Bent was one of the brothers who had built Bent's Fort; he had moved to New Mexico in 1829 and settled in Taos, marrying a Mexican, Marie Ignacia Jaramillo. Long a resident of New Mexico, he knew the country and its people well, but he was unprepared for the events now surrounding him. Early in the morning a crowd of Indians marched through Taos demanding the release of two men who had been arrested for robbery. The American sheriff refused, and the Mexican prefect called the Indians all thieves. Soon the sheriff and prefect were dead.

Meanwhile, Charles Bent was at home with his wife, their three children, his wife's sister (who was married to frontier scout Kit Carson), and two other women. Warned that the crowd was after him, Bent dressed quickly and armed himself. He then tried to quell the rioters by reminding them of his friendship with them over the years. But they would not listen. They attacked the house and tried to dig in through the roof. Bent's wife and children begged him to defend himself, but he hesitated to fire, perhaps fearing he would only make matters worse.

A French-Canadian neighbor and his Mexican wife had dug a hole through a wall dividing his house from Bent's. The governor's family escaped through the hole, but Bent hesitated and was shot by a Pueblo Indian. Badly wounded, crawled through the hole, and in his last moments he tried to write a note for his weeping family. Bent's attackers swarmed after him, filling him with arrows and shooting him with his own pistols. They then scalped the dead governor and paraded their trophy around the village.

Susan and Samuel Magoffin were horrified by the news from Taos. "My knowledge of these people has been extended very much in one day," wrote Susan. She conceded that there were "some good people" among the Mexicans but feared that most would "murder without distinction every American in the country if the least thing should turn in their favor." The Magoffins prepared hastily to leave San Gabriel. During their last hours in the village Susan looked at everyone with suspicion.

The Magoffins, their wagoneers, and another trader played a dangerous game of bluff, trying to demonstrate to the townspeople their confidence without provoking a confrontation. Samuel stood on the rooftop surveying the countryside; other men scouted the town; they all examined and fired their guns. At last they were ready to leave San Gabriel. "In truth we are flying before them," wrote Susan. That night the men remained on guard. In the Magoffin tent Samuel laid out a double-barreled shotgun and several pistols, including "one of Colt's six barreled revolvers." If they were attacked by Mexicans or Indians, Susan would stand beside her husband, gun in hand.

For the next few days, however, their greatest enemy was the land rather than its people. Deep sand clutched the wagon wheels. The winter nights were cold enough to freeze a cup of water in the Magoffin tent. Then came the Jornada, an eighty-mile stretch of arid land where mountains forced the wagon trail away from the Rio Grande. Most of all they worried about the Apaches, who made no distinction between Mexicans and Americans. They had attacked James's party and even raided Doniphan's livestock. Samuel warned Susan that she should not even venture two hundred yards from the wagons.

The Magoffins spent one night at Doña Ana, the one Mexican village between the Jornada and the town of El Paso. The danger from Indians had been so acute that the village, though Mexican, seemed a haven. It had been attacked recently by the Apaches, and as a sign of common cause against a shared enemy, Doniphan had given the people a cannon. Unfortunately, this gesture of friendship was wrecked by some wagoneers, who got drunk and stole the cannon and brought it into camp, claiming it was "unfit for Mexicans." The alcalde sent off a protest to El Paso, and Samuel took his side, insisting that the cannon be returned. Resentful, the thieves drove a spike into the cannon's touch-hole so that it would not fire. Samuel apologized to the mayor, and took the names of the bigoted men who had ruined Doniphan's friendly gesture.

Farther along the trail the Magoffins passed through the battleground of Brasito, where Mexicans and Americans had fought only a few weeks before. Riding over the flat plain Susan discovered two cartridges, one Mexican, one American. Despite this sign of conflict, however, the Magoffins did not anticipate hostility as they entered El Paso. Samuel's friends in the city sent word that he should "come on without fear" and "that they have always been friendly to him and they still are." They moved in with the family of a local priest.

The trader's wife was again at home among the Mexican people. But the war and the danger of American defeat could not be forgotten. Rumors reached El Paso that Santa Ana had assembled a great army to attack Doniphan and to recapture Texas. Susan and Samuel worried that they might be robbed, imprisoned, murdered. But living with a Mexican family, they did not see threats everywhere as they had in San Gabriel. In fact, they shared a unique bond with the curate's family. Samuel's brother James was a prisoner of the Mexicans - and the curate himself was a hostage of Doniphan, carried off with several other leading citizens to ensure the good behavior of the Mexicans in El Paso. "Our situations are truly similar," wrote Susan, "I shall regret deeply when we have to leave them; twould be injustice to say that I like one more than another, for I love them all."

On the morning of March 5, 1847, Don Ygnacio Roquia, a wealthy friend of Samuel's, came to the curate's house with news of the war. Don Ygnacio was one of the men Susan most admired in El Paso. She had visited his fine casa and saw his garden, where he raised oranges, figs, apricots, and almonds. His wife was "a lady easy in her own house," whose well-behaved children were studying English and French. Don Ygnacio was a dignified-looking man, who reminded Susan in appearance of George Washington. But on the morning of his visit to the curate's house he stepped through the door "with his hair somewhat on ends and his features ghastly." He took Samuel by the hand and led him from the room. Then with tears in his eyes he told his American friend that "he was a Mexican, and it pained him to the heart to know that the American army had gained the battle and taken possession of Chihuahua."

Visions of imprisonment and death faded from Susan's imagination, and she confided to her diary, "I am delighted with the news." But although she was relieved, she was not triumphant. A few days before, her Mexican friends had offered her consolation when it appeared that Doniphan would lose. Now she wrote in her diary, "I would not for the world exult or say one word to hurt the feelings of this family."


Both families were soon reunited with their imprisoned kinfolk. With Chihuahua in his possession Doniphan released his hostages, and soon El Señor Cura, the curate, was home. In the meantime James had gained his release from the Mexicans by cleverly using his affable tongue - and by judiciously distributing some two thousand bottles of champagne. Following Doniphan's victory Susan and Samuel made their way to Chihuahua and then the Mexican coast, and from there by ship back to the United States. Doniphan joined forces with Gen. Zachary Taylor and defeated Santa Ana at the Battle of Buena Vista. General Kearny marched his army across Arizona to California and fought two small battles, consolidating American control of California. In New Mexico the Taos rebels were defeated in battle, and the leading conspirators were hanged.

The war came to an end in September 1847, when Gen. Winfield Scott, after winning several battles in the environs of Mexico City, led the triumphant American army into the capital. In 1848 the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico ceded the Southwest to the United States and received in exchange a payment for $15 million.

Few Americans questioned the justice of the Mexican War. Although some opposed annexation of northern Mexico, most, including the Magoffins, assumed that everyone would benefit from the new arrangement. But one day while she was still in El Paso Susan had been confronted frankly with the moral problem of America's invasion of Mexico. Don Ygnacio, the man who had brought the news of Chihuahua, told Susan he was an admirer of George Washington, "whose name is ever dear to the hearts of the American." This statement was pleasant enough, but then her Mexican friend said something disturbing that Susan carefully recorded: "He says the course Mr. Polk is pursuing in regard to this war is entirely against the principles of Washington, which were to remain at home, encourage all home improvements, to defend our rights there against the encroachments of others, and never to invade the territory of another nation."

She could find no satisfactory rebuttal to this argument, now that the invasion of Mexico was an accomplished fact. But the effects of the invasion were yet to be determined. Whether, as the United States claimed, its institutions could embrace and encourage men and women in all walks of life would depend on American willingness to be tolerant of people with different cultures. Susan Magoffin's experience showed the possibilities for both prejudice and accommodation. In El Paso Susan seemed to grow more tolerant, more understanding of all elements in Mexican culture. During her days of travel she had been unhappy that she could not attend church and carry out other traditional Sabbath observances as in her Protestant home in Kentucky. She read the Bible quietly in tent or room, and tried to think about her soul and God. But religious observances were difficult without institutional support. On the trail the wagoneers seemed to swear less on Sunday, but no religious services were held. In Mexico on the Sabbath church services were held, but otherwise it was business as usual. When Samuel himself sold goods on Sunday, Susan remarked, "It hurts me more than I can tell."

Finally on January 21, 1847, after more than half a year without attending a religious service, Susan began going to the Catholic church in El Paso. In her diary she struggled to explain why she had done something so unusual for a Protestant in an unecumenical age. She should not judge the Mexicans, she wrote, for "I am told to 'judge no man but to bear the burden of my brother.'" She must first purify herself before trying to reform someone else. At the least, she said, "they are sincere in what they do." And so she went to church and stood among a foreign people and listened to a foreign service. But it was all right. "This morning I have been to mass not led by idle curiosity, not by a blind faith, a belief in the creed there practiced, but because 'tis the house of God."

Susan could never have written those words a year before, could never have found this common bond between American Protestant and Mexican Catholic, but exposure to a new culture changed and broadened her. It was a small thing in the whole history of the Mexican War, but it was an example of the personal growth and flexibility that could provide the only possible justification for manifest destiny. President Polk and General Kearny might speak glowingly about the amalgamation of the Mexican and American peoples, but without growth in understanding and toleration between the two peoples, their words were hollow promises.

One of Samuel's best friends in El Paso, a dignified old man named Don Agapita, described Susan's experience well when he told her that on her journey she was "learning a lesson that no one could have taught but experience, the ways of the world." She thought about the words of this "philosophical" old man. "'Tis true all he says," she wrote, "I have seen and read of Kentucky till I know it all by heart, but who could by telling me, make me sensible of what I have seen and felt since I left home to travel."



BIEBER, RALPH P., EDITOR. Journal of a Soldier Under Kearny and Doniphan, 1846­1847 (1935). Soldier's account of army life in northern Mexico during the war.

BRACK, GENE M. Mexico Views Manifest Destiny (1975). Mexican thoughts about American expansionism, 1821­46.

CATHER, WILLA. Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927 and later editions). Hauntingly beautiful novel based on the life of the first American archbishop of New Mexico.

CHALFANT, WILLIAM Y. Dangerous Passage: The Santa Fe Trail and the Mexican War (1994). Narrative history of the trail with an emphasis on Indian conflicts.

DRUMM, STELLA M., EDITOR. Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico (1926, 1962). Susan Shelby Magoffin's colorful description of life on the Santa Fe Trail and in northern Mexico in 1846 and 1847.

GARDNER, MARK L., AND MARC SIMMONS, EDITORS. The Mexican War Correspondence of Richard Smith Elliott (1997). A collection of newspaper articles published by Elliott, a lieutenant in Kearny's army.

MOORHEAD, MAX L. New Mexico's Royal Road (1958). Standard account of early trade on the Santa Fe and Chihuahua Trails.

SINGLETARY, OTIS A. The Mexican War (1960). Brief history of the political, military, and diplomatic aspects of the war.

SMITH, GEORGE WINSTON, AND CHARLES JUDAH, EDITORS. Chronicles of the Gringos (1968). Documentary history of the Mexican War based on eyewitness reports.

WEINBERG, ALBERT K. Manifest Destiny (1935). Classic account of the philosophy and practice of manifest destiny.

WINDERS, RICHARD BRUCE. Mr. Polk's Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War (1997). Explores the American army in the framework of contemporary American society ­ an example of the new military history.